Search This Blog

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Brain culture -Interview in 2005 Indian Express chennai Dr Vilayanur S Ramachandran

Brain culture -Interview in 2005 Indian Express chennai
Monday September 19 2005 11:49 IST

Dr Vilayanur S Ramachandran

One of the most efficient scientists in the world today, Dr Vilayanur S Ramachandran is Director, Center for Brain and Cognition, and professor of Neurosciences at the University of California. He had received many honours, including a Fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford, the Ramon Y Cajal award from the International Neuropsychiatry Society, the Presidential Lecture Award from the American Academy of Neurology, and two honorary doctors. Newsweek named him a member of the Century Club, one of 100 most prominent people to watch in the 21st century. En route to London, where he will be awarded the 2005 Sir Hendry Dale prize and a life Fellowship by the Royal Institute, Dr Ramachandran spoke to The New Sunday Express in Chennai.

Who would you name in particular as your scientific heroes?

Michael Faraday and Thomas Huxley. Faraday moved a magnet to and fro within a coil of wire and linked two entire fields of physics; electricity and magnetism. I learnt that there’s no correlation between the sophistication of methodology or technology and the importance of the result. Maybe this is what has given me my perverse streak. I like doing experiments which make my colleagues go: ‘‘Why didn’t I think of that?’’ I also admire Huxley - for his overall approach, for his wit and pugnacity, and for bringing science to ‘‘the common people’’ ( his phrase) without dumbing it down.

Also the unknown Indian genius in the first millennium BC who combined the use of place value, base 10 (which was more practical than the Sumerian 60) and, most importantly, zero as an independent number and place holder. This marks the dawn of mathematics.

Any modern scientific heroes?

Norm Geschwind and Francis Crick, both of whom have had more sheer FUN doing science than anyone else I know.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever got for doing research?

All from Francis Crick. First, sheer intellectual daring - chutzpah. It is better to tackle 10 fundamental problems and solve one than tackle 10 trivial ones and solve all. Fundamental problems are not NECESSARILY more difficult, inherently, than trivial ones. Nature isn’t conspiring against us to make fundamental problems more difficult.

Second, don’t become trapped in small cul-de-sacs of specialization because you feel comfortable or your immediate peers reward you for it. Strive not for pats on the back from the majority of colleagues but only for the respect and admiration of those few exceptional people at the top of your field whom you genuinely hold in high esteem.

Do you enjoy writing about science?

Yes, and I feel I am reviving a venerable tradition. In Victorian times, it was not merely acceptable but fashionable to make science accessible to the common people. Lay audiences flocked to listen to Humphrey Davy, Huxley and Faraday lecturing at the Royal Institution. Inevitably one runs the risk of inadvertently oversimplifying some of the concepts and offending some experts.

Which of your own scientific achievements are you especially proud of?

It’s hard to name a favourite. I have pursued two parallel careers - one in visual perception and the other in neurology. In vision, I have always tried to link psychology to biology, especially to known anatomy and physiology and to evolution. I discovered several new visual illusions which have excited the interest of physiologists and researchers and resulted in a renaissance of interest in perceptual illusions - a neo-gestalt revolution in vision.

But in the last 12 years, my work has mainly been in behavioral neurology or cognitive neuroscience. Our overall strategy has been to bring old clinical ‘‘curiosities’’ from the clinic to the lab and show that they can provide fundamental insights into normal brain function. For example, our work on phantom limbs has shown that a massive reorganization of sensory pathways occurs after amputation, and we were able to correlate phenomenology with brain imaging data.

More recently, we studied synesthesia, a condition in which people get their senses muddled up. They ‘‘see sounds’’. We showed that it was a genuine sensory effect, discovered the brain regions involved, and pointed out its relevance to understanding metaphor and creativity. Indeed, one can go from synesthesia genes to brain anatomy to perceptual phenomenology all the way to metaphor and Shakespeare in a single ‘‘preparation’’.

And what honours or awards are you especially proud of?

I’d have to say the BBC Reith Lecturership. Many previous

Reith Lectures have been turning points in Western civilization and were given by my boyhood heroes - Bertrand Russel, Peter Medawar, Robert Oppenheimer and Arnold Toynbee.

What would you say are the key problems in your field?

Well, first, what is the basis of abstract thinking? How did it evolve? I mean, how do we use neurons to sequentially juggle ideas in our heads? As when you say A is bigger than B, B is bigger than C, therefore A must be bigger than C. Is that transitivity, a deduction, learned through induction and empirical observation? If so, is this acquired through learning or hardwired through natural selection?

The second big question is consciousness. Crick and Koch galvanized the scientific community by daring to suggest (correctly, I believe) that it is a tractable scientific question.

But I disagree with their specific view that there are ‘‘consciousness neurons’’. I think consciousness arises not from individual neurons or from the entire brain but from small specialized circuits unique to (or very highly developed in) humans. This allows the brain to create an explicit metarepresentation of earlier sensory representations that we share with lower primates. This is accompanied by a sense of agency and self and especially to that uniquely human feature - knowing that you know or that you see, or knowing that you don’t know. These abilities are all closely interdependent in a way that we don’t yet clearly understand.

What are the major ethical issues raised by biology today?

Well, there are the usual ones, but there’s no need to go into them in any detail. There’s the fear of cloning , but that's absurd, because clones already exist - they are called identical twins! There’s also the fear that recent advances in molecular biology might lead to ‘‘genetic engineering’’ but that too is absurd. Because, as pointed out by Medawar, we have already had the resources and capacity to do this for centuries, using the far simpler technique of selective breeding. We haven't done it on humans because of ethical reasons, and the same ethical reasons will prevail when we consider chemically induced genetic engineering in the future.

Few people realize that the Nazi movement - the desire to create an albino, blue-eyed master race - didn't begin in Germany. It began in Cold Spring Harbor in America two decades earlier and was later adopted by Hitler. The eugenics movement, spearheaded by Charles Davenport, resulted in the mass sterilization of thousands of ‘‘imbeciles, prostitutes, criminals, homosexuals and epileptics’’, especially in Virginia. Even alcoholics were sterlilized. If such a law were in place today, it would involve the sterilization of 8 per cent of Americans, the incidence of alcoholism in the US, and that includes the president!

The ‘‘research’’ that all this eugenics was based on was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. The Goddard commission also administered IQ tests to immigrants in the 1920s and 1930s and forbade the immigration of thousands of Jews on the grounds that they were ‘‘feeble minded’’.

It's a bit ironic that, since that time, the ratio of Jewish vs. non-Jewish Nobel prize-winners has been about 10 to 1. Combine this with the fact that Jews constitute only 5 per cent of the US population, and you will see that if you are Jewish, you have 200 times greater chance of winning a Nobel than if you are a WASP or indeed any other ethnic strain!

Davenport and Goddard would have had a far more positive impact on the US had they measured nose sizes instead of IQ and only admitted people with large noses. Their enterprise wasn’t all that different, if you think about it, than Mengele’s attempt to make Jews more intelligent by injecting blue dye into their irisis. Yet Mengele was considered a monster to be hunted down, whereas Davenport and Goddard have been conveniently erased from the American conscience. Even though the Holocaust began with them and not with Hitler. Nor are other countries immune to such crimes. Equally heinous acts are committed in India in the name of ethnic origin, caste and other misguided views on intrinsic superiority. There is simply no excuse for the way ‘‘mainstream’’ Indians treated ‘‘tribals’’ - Adivasis - in the past.

So what is the difference, then, since it is not genetic?

I think the difference is cultural. After all, Jews and Arabs are genetically almost identical, so if there are very few Arab Nobelists, it is almost certainly a temporary historical phenomenon. They had their heyday between the 5th and 12th centuries, when they were vastly superior to Europeans. Baghdad was the most civilized city in the world - a great center for culture and learning. Al Quarizmi (who translated Aryabhatta’s mathematics texts into Arabic and from whose name the word ‘‘algorithm’’ is derived) coined the word ‘‘algebra’’. Omar Khayam, the poet who wrote the Rubaiyat, also discovered the famous binomial theorem. A single quatrain from the Rubiyat is sufficient evidence for the glory of the Persian civilization.

My reason for bringing up nose size was to parody unidimensional measures of human ability such as IQ tests. My goal is to undermine WASP ideas on racial inequality on their own terms, using their own arguments. My point is that extraordinary achievement correlates much more highly with ‘‘nose size genes’’ than with albinism genes!

But isn't that kind of racism a thing of the past? And aren’t universities such as those you represent insulated from it?

No, it is in fact quite widespread. Even now and even in the hallowed halls of academia. While most of our faculty (within the University of California) are enlightened, there are many failed academics and bigots who get themselves into administrative positions and committees on campus and become a real nuisance, denying opportunities to younger colleagues. As Sherlock Holmes told Dr Watson: ‘‘Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself. It requires talent to recognize genius’’.

Are there any special circuits that are unique to humans?

My point is that the human brain is primarily an organ of cultural sophistication and diversity. It is this trait above all that makes us absolutely unique in the animal kingdom. Let us not forget that war, imperialism, racism and neocolonialism are also examples of neuropsychiatric ailments. The best way to cure them is not through political intervention alone but by treating them as brain disorders - something that can only be achieved through a deeper understanding of the brain.

I have been reading a biography of Gen. Dyer, who was celebrated as a national hero by the British for having massacred 700 innocent people, including women and children, during a peaceful meeting in Amritsar. Judging from his symptoms, Dyer, in my humble medical opinion, probably had a form of sociopathic behavior caused by frontal dysfunction. For example, biographers say he was shy, had great difficulty making eye contact, had a perpetual blank stare and a volatile temper - all characteristic of frontal dysfunction. He may have had a genetic deficit, or he may have been born with congenital neuro-syphilis from his mother if she had slept with her pankha waala! (Although I have examined photos of Dyer, and there is no depressed nasal bridge caused by erosion of cartilage by spirochetes, one of the cardinal signs of congenital syphillis )

Are there any other bioethical issues that might emerge more directly from brain research?

More directly relevant to neuroscience is a second ethical dilemma that will emerge 300-500 yrs from now, when we completely understand the brain. Imagine a neuroscientist can transplant your brain into a vat - a culture medium - and artificially create patterns of activity which will make you feel like you are living the lives of Francis Crick, Bill Gates, Hugh Hefner, Mark Spitz and a dash of Mohandas Gandhi, while at the same time retaining your identity.

Given a choice would you rather pick this scenario or just be the real you? Ironically most people I know, even scientists who are not religious, pick the latter on the grounds that it is real. Yet there is absolutely no rational justification for this choice, because in a sense you already are a ‘‘brain in a vat’’ - a vat called the cranial vault, nurtured by cerebrospinal fluid and bombarded by photons. All I’m asking you is: ‘‘Which vat do you want?’’ and you pick the crummy one!

There is a sense in which this is the ultimate ethical dilemma. I confess I would myself pick the ‘‘real’’ me, perhaps because of a foolish sentimental attachment to my present reality or because I secretly believe there is something more, after all.

I gave the Alfred Deakin lectures in Melbourne this year; the other lecturers were E O Wilson and Sir Gustaff Nossal. Wilson gave an eloquent lecture. The gist of it was that we have spent three billion dollars on the Human Genome Project and should therefore allocate at least the same amount to identify, catalog and classify all the species on the planet - as a prelude to preserving the diversity of the gene pool for posterity.

I disagree. Or let me rephrase; I think Wilson’s goal is worthwhile but a bit skewed. I find it ironic that there is so much time, effort and money spent on protecting obscure species in the interest of genetic diversity, in stark contrast to what’s spent to protect cultural diversity on the planet.

Everywhere in the West I hear talk of resurrecting the mammoth or the recently extinct Tasmanian tiger. Cloning the latter from dead tissue sample might cost a few million. Sure, it would be fun to revive the Tasmanian tiger, but what about the Tasmanians themselves? I mean the humans! The last one was paraded as an ethnological curiosity in London in Victorian times. We know nothing of their culture - evolved over thousands of years - of their poems, their Gods, their religion, their customs, their art or their language. And we never will. My point is not that the Tasmanians were the proud bearers of a sophisticated culture; I don't know if they were. My point is that we will never know.

In America hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on protecting the bald eagle, but not even a fraction of that on the Cherokees or Apaches. Not to pick, again, on Wilson - he is a distinguished scientist and well-meaning gentleman. But I would wager that while he has cried his heart out for the ivory-billed woodpecker, he has shed not a single tear for the proud Apaches.

India has hundreds of such tribes, all of which will become extinct - like the Tasmanians - or assimilated and homogenized by ‘‘mainstream’’ Western lifestyles. I am not saying this to be politically correct; I have no interest in politics. I am saying it because cultural diversity is arguably the single most important trait that makes us human. Through it we have become Lamarckian rather than Darwinian creatures. We are actually hardwired to acquire culture.

The brain has become symbiotic with culture. Such is the power of cultural innovation and transmission that a single idea such as using zero in computation and as a place marker combined with the notion of place value can represent a turning point in human civilization. (The average Roman scholar or Englishman, an Ostrogoth or Visigoth during the 2nd century AD, would have required an entire wall and about half an hour, using Roman numbers, to multiply 329 by 219; an Indian peasant could have done it in 20 seconds.)

A child would become barely human if it is raised by wolves in a cave or in a culture-free environment like Texas. To be human is to be cultured, and nothing takes priority over that. It is not for moral reasons, but in the interest of our species that we need to preserve and celebrate the cultural diversity of humans.

It’s a sad thing that every Indian child learns of Shakespeare in school, yet not a single schoolboy at Eton or Winchester has even heard of Kalidasa’s Shakuntala, let alone read it in the Sanskrit original! (It may be recalled that Justice William Jones, the founder of linguistics and one of the few truly enlightened Englishmen, pointed out that Latin and Greek are effete offshoots of Sanskrit)

Consider what has happened to American Indians since cowboys took over their land. Many thousands died, but even worse, they were stripped of their culture, their identity, the very meaning of their existence. Corralled into reservations and stripped of their dignity, many became alcoholic - their lives had no meaning anymore. All this has nothing to do with their intellectual ability; they are of Mongoloid stock whose IQ is, if anything, 10 points higher than that of cowboys! The progressive erosion of their lifestyle and taking to drink was a direct consequence of marauding cowboy hordes with guns, yet many an American has had the gall to suggest to me - based on the flimsiest evidence - that they have ‘‘alcoholism genes’’..

My deepest fear is that there will come a time when the whole world succumbs to the inevitable onslaught of corporate homogenization - the modern equivalent of cowboys driving Indians close to extinction. We need a new word for cultural genocide - the word doesn't exist yet, but the phenomenon itself is extremely widespread. Everyone will be wearing Nike, playing Pokemon and consuming hamburgers.

What we now call ‘‘cultures’’ or even ‘‘countries’’ or ‘‘civilizations’’ will shrink progressively into little theme parks and museums for our children to gawk at. When I first came to the US, I was surprised that American Indians were kept in ‘‘reservations’’ and fed alcohol. (‘‘By their own choice,’’ one well-meaning American lady told me!) I thought reservations were for animals! I have yet to see a real live American Indian outside a reservation, although I have seen plenty of wooden statues of them in antique shops.

If you want to know what this brave new corporate world culture will be like 50 years from now, just look at Las Vegas today. It's a microcosm of America - the ultimate monument to corporate greed, vanity and sterility of the imagination. (Compare it, if you will, with Ellora or the Taj in India, or Venice in Europe.) They have a mock-up Disneyland version of Egypt and even one of Venice - and I am told there’s one on the Taj in progress. (And remember, these are for adult Americans, not children!) There is more beauty, more poetry and intrinsic value in a single Chola bronze or a Carnatic music concert than all the hotels of Las Vegas.

This complete lack of cultural sophistication was even more true of the British in Colonial India. While the small number of ‘‘first wave’’ of Englishmen were truly enlightened, most of those who came later were barely educated lower-crust tradesmen and aspiring ‘‘white nabobs’’ who looted India’s fabulous treasures and exploited her natural resources. They rationalized to themselves that they were ‘‘civilizing’’ the natives by building railway lines and bridges.

The much-admired Victorian statesman and orator Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay is said to have remarked that the goal of colonial expansion should be to ‘‘convert every Indian to an Englishman’’. Little did he realize that if Aryabhatta or Kalidasa had visited England in the early first millennium AD, they would have said the same thing about Macaulay’s ancestors, little realizing that the descendants of these very same albino savages would one day give birth to Shakespeare and Newton.

Actually, India did have a civilizing influence - on the whole of South-East Asia, Thailand, Burma and even China, starting from the time of Ashoka. Buddhism and Hinduism spread to all these countries and resulted in the ‘‘Indianization’’ of their artistic and cultural values. But all this was achieved through peaceful means by blending Indian and Far Eastern cultures. The result was the harmonious, many-splendoured, multi-cultural ethos that we now see in Indonesia, Thailand and Burma - not a homogenization or Disneyfication.

Are you saying that the West -- especially the US - has contributed nothing to civilization?

No, I’m not saying that. America had its halcyon days -. the golden age of Edison, Franklin and Tesla, when Yankee innovation was the envy of the world. Later, in the 1950s and 1960s, American universities were the best in the world, with more Nobel laureates per capita than any other country except the UK. (The master of my college in Cambridge often pointed out that Trinity alone has had more Nobels than the whole of France!) My institution has had 11, Berkeley 15.

But those days are long gone, no more a part of the present reality of America thanthe Gupta period is of India. So in a sense my remarks should be seen as a clarion call to young Americans and Indians to revive the Golden Age. It is still entirely within their reach, so long as they escape the clutches of corporate interests which now govern the media.

My comments are also intended to set the record straight and put things in perspective in order to neutralize the Eurocentric bias of Western historians. Contrary to what American schoolchildren learn, curry, holy men, yoga and snake charmers are not the the only thing India gave the world.

In singing the glory of India, however, I have no desire to provide ammunition to ultra right-wing Hindutvas. Yes, to India we owe linguistics as a science, chess, and much of mathematics - including the number system , trigonometry and algebra. But they didn't invent everything. Geometry, for example, was mainly Greek. Even though the Indians ‘‘knew’’ the Pythagoras Theorem a millennium before Pythagoras, they did not bother to prove it. To Euclid, and Euclid alone, we owe the concept of proof - of deducing a whole edifice from a set of simple axioms.

Even more amazingly, neither Indians nor Greeks understood the concept of an experiment. We had to wait for an Italian, Galileo, for that. Until he came along, people simply didn’t understand that the only way to unravel Nature’s secrets is to vary only one thing at a time, keeping everything else constant. Both Indians and Greeks were arrogant; they considered themselves too smart to get their hands dirty. Why do experiments when you can figure it all out in your head?

Aristotle relied on ‘‘common sense’’ to claim that heavy objects fall faster to the ground than light ones. People accepted his view for two millennia even though anyone - even a schoolboy - could have disproved it in 10 minutes by dropping a heavy stone and a pea simultaneously from the top of a building. Yet no one, until Galileo, tried the experiment.

Indeed the very notion of an experiment is alien to the human mind, whether Greek, Indian, English or Chinese, and for that reason, Galileo is rightly regarded as one of the supreme geniuses of the human race. I realize that the ‘‘great man’’ theory of history is unfashionable among left-wing social scientists and historians, but I can assure them that without the likes of Euclid, Panini, Aryabhatta and Galileo, there would be no modern science. If Kanaka’s ship -which carried Aryabhatta’s treatise on board and sailed to Baghdad from India in the 6th century - had capsized in a storm, what would the world be like today?

No comments: