Phantoms in the Brain – Review

By V.S. Ramachandran, M.D., PH.D. and Sandra Blakeslee


Copyright 1998


HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 10 East 53rd St, NY,NY 1002


reviewed by:  Lynard Barnes


On page 56 of PHANTOMS IN THE BRAIN, Ramachandran gives us this refreshing gem:

Popularized by artificial intelligence researchers, the idea that the brain behaves like a computer, with each module performing a highly specialized job and sending its output to the next module, is widely believed.”

Nearly every topic discussed in PHANTOMS IN THE BRAIN demolishes the “widely believed” assumption that the brain functions like a computer. It is a cumulative argument rather than a straight-out demolition. Dr. Ramachandran explores the science of the brain and adds a healthy and very refreshing dose of speculation. In sum, the book presents the strongest case possible against the human brain obeying the logical constructs of even the most complex computer algorithm. A more recent book by New York Times columnist David Brooks, THE SOCIAL ANIMAL, (published by Random House, 2011) appears to take negation of the “widely believed” assumption to its logical extreme and examines the consequences. (TGBR will review THE SOCIAL ANIMAL at a later date. A review by Times reviewer Thomas Nagel is available.

Debunking the “brain as a computer” stuff is the good part of PHANTOMS IN THE BRAIN. The bad part is when Ramachandran takes one speculative step beyond necessary to examine how “the activity of neurons give rise of perceptual experience”. To his credit, he speculates rather than pontificates. But his speculation is based on what seems a faulty premise which we will return to in a moment.

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