Book Review: Phantoms in the Brain
A revolutionary new way of looking at how we think.
Scott H. Young has a very long blog post about the enigma of reason in which Scott talks about how reasoning is a skill that our brain has to produce reasons (or explanations) of certain decisions and that we can make decisions without using this particular centre at all.
It is the same kind of thought that Thinking, Fast and Slow introduces. That the fast, intuitive thinking and slow “thoughtful” thinking are different.
Phantoms in the Brain is a solid, neuroscience led inner look at how that can be. V. S. Ramachandran introduces to us patients with odd (and often rare) neurological disorders and gives us a picture of the brain that no neuroimaging techniques can produce.
Every story makes us question who we are, wonder how we would behave if only our brain was even slightly different, and appreciate our cognitive blindspots in a new light.
This book was suggested to me as a good read in relation to pragmatism. It helps lay the foundaiton for pragmatist thinking by introducing a sense of humility about our ways of thinking. Like Pale Blue Dot, it makes us think about the fragility of our existence. And it gives us a practical approach of looking at human behaviour, much like one that would be taken up by an anthropologist.
A policeman sees a drunk man searching for something under a streetlight and asks what the drunk has lost. He says he lost his keys and they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes the policeman asks if he is sure he lost them here, and the drunk replies, no, and that he lost them in the park. The policeman asks why he is searching here, and the drunk replies, “this is where the light is”.
This is the streetlight effect or the drunkard’s search principle. Neuroscience is sometimes like this because people either study individual neurons or use neuroimaging to study the whole brain at once. While this might reveal a lot, this is also similar to looking where the light is bright. Phantoms in the Brain constantly questions this approach and wants us to think about the brain from a theory-experiment perspective focused on counter-examples. That could be used in many other fields as well.
Further, Phantoms in the Brain is a strong argument in the direction of looking at the experience of consciousness in a rational way. Daniel Dennett’s “brain in the jar” experiments are directly related to this. I had read Dennett when I was in 11th, and watched Matrix around the same time. I have lived my entire adult life looking at brain exactly this way. But for a lot of people, it might be a new way of looking at our thoughts. So, I recommend this book whole-brainedly.