Coffee with Dr.Ramachandran

Posted: March 25, 2010 in Published Articles, Uncategorized
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(Vilayanur.S. Ramachandran is Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition and Professor with the Psychology Department and Neurosciences Program at the University of California, San Diego, and Adjunct Professor of Biology at the Salk Institute. Ramachandran initially trained as a doctor and subsequently obtained a Ph.D. from Trinity College at the University of Cambridge. Ramachandran’s early work was on visual perception but he is best known for his experiments in behavioral neurology which, despite their apparent simplicity, have had a profound impact on the way we think about the brain. He has been called “The Marco Polo of neuroscience” by Richard Dawkins and “The modern Paul Broca” by Eric Kandel.  

 Most recently the President of India conferred on him the second highest civilian award and honorific title in India, the Padma Bhushan. )

I drove over to UCSD unable to suppress my excitement about the impending interview I had with Dr. Ramachandran. Having watched several of his TED talks and after reading up extensively about his research I must confess I was excited with the prospect of meeting him.

I was pleasantly surprised and amused to see Prof Ramachandran with a nice cap  and a long black overcoat, reminding me Sherlock Holmes and I mentioned it to him. He laughed and said that his son thought he looked like a hobo in New York City, who plays the violin on the streets to make money. That broke the ice and I knew instantly here is a man with amazing grace and very candid about everything; qualities I admire a lot in people.

 Little did I know that the conversation would carry itself through, on its own, considering that Prof. Ramachandran has an interesting opinion about everything.

A brief excerpt from the Interview on a few topics:

 Q: You have done pioneer research in the phenomenon of ‘Phantom Limb’. How has that research progressed and benefited the world?

Prof: We started this research in 1993. Now they have sent out hundreds of the Mirror boxes to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti & Thailand along with lectures and demonstration materials. I have not patented it and hence not made any royalty from it. The Walter Reid medical Institute uses it to treat patients coming back from Iraq, with a controlled placebo and have shown substantial improvement in Phantom Pain, Stroke Pain and CRP.

Q: The same treatment can be used in stroke patients with paralysis?

Prof: We are using vision to revive the damage in stroke patients. Some are permanently damaged while others are partially damaged. We can revive those surrounding areas by inputs from visual stimulus. Complex region pain affects 10% of stroke patients. Painful conditions and inflamed or immobilized limbs can be cured by the mirror treatment and it has helped people with these conditions

Q: How will this be effective in treating Autism?

Prof: Mirror neurons are involved in imitating and empathizing which are messed up in Autistic individuals. We have pinned it down to a specific part of the brain. Reactivating them and exploring the possibility that we can bring about subtle changes is part of our research. There is a genetic basis for this too. Reduction of Prolactin (affiliation hormone) and Oxytocin is a key to understanding the mechanism. Since they are involved in picking up smell and sending it to the brain and are involved in social interactions. When the olfactory bulb is damaged then the transmitter involved are messed up. So we are looking into this aspect for further studies.

Q: Are there conflicting discussions among people regarding spirituality and scientific theories when they meet you?

Prof: No such conflicts. It is like Shiva and his cosmic dance. There is something beyond all the turbulence and chaos in the cosmos; something that cannot be defined.

Q: How effective is initial exposure to music in children?

Prof: Learning music/ Poetry is good and improves creativity with a temporary increase in the IQ immediately after listening to the music. Repeated exposure is good. There might be different kinds of intelligence different from the IQ, something that enriches the mind or creativity. Nobody has studied it in depth. Poetry involves making links. I used to write terrible poetry but the more I wrote I could see the links in the poems. All great art requires these links. So teaching child poetry at an earlier age might have beneficial effect on their learning areas.

Q: Some people are left handed, some right handed any studies you have worked on related to the brain?

Prof: We have not worked on that but left-handed people may be better at judging emotions. 5-6% is left handed and the geneticists might have a better explanation for it. In India they try hard to make them right handed which is totally unnecessary.

Q: What kind of images do blind people see in their dreams if they do?

Prof:  Vision does not exist in their world. Something like sonar in bats that rely on sound. They dream in sounds. It has not been extensively studied so I cannot say exactly how it all functions..

Q: Regarding ‘Synesthesia’ and your research on it?

Prof: One out of 30-40 people have it and 8 times more. It does not hurt them in any way. Colored numbers and faces having halos are the common aberrations they see. We first figured it must be something going on in a particular part of the brain where the color area is. Different functions like seeing depth, motions, and colors are taking place in different areas of the brain. They see numbers as colors. The questions we are studying is why such a cross wiring happens and studying the genetics and the mutation of the gene involved in modulation of these signals. The Fusiform Gyrus is involved in it. In creative people 1 out of 20 people have Synesthesia or it is eight times more common in creative people. The gene gets expressed in a quirky manner- so metaphorical expressions and analogies are more common in such creative people; who can make such links in their brain, which only a few people can do.Q: How often do Freudian concepts apply to these studies or theories?

Prof: Deep inside human nature there are certain suppressed characteristics and a cauldron of emotions done with an unconscious mind which might manifest as Freudian slips. Some of his ideas are valid. The manner in which these interactions occur is not explained. Freud also wrote a lot of nonsense regarding ‘Oedipus complex’ but we do not want to throw the baby out with the bath water and will accept some of his theories even if there aren’t enough evidences to prove them. I personally do not subscribe to all his theories.

Q: Psychotherapy vs evidence based research; which might give better results considering so much importance given to Freudian concepts etc?

Prof: Psychotherapy is not necessarily Freudian. It is a mixture of cognitive therapy, empathetic therapy by existential re-alignment of the mind, not necessarily very scientific but it helps a lot of people with philosophical approaches. Each patient is different and the therapy has to be tuned with effective medication and sustained therapy brings a radical internal change in reasoning. Both are needed for effective treatments

Q: Why does  negativity occur in society. Is it nurture vs nature…?

Prof: There are transmitters in the brain responsible for several issues related to the brain. We are highly social people since we try not to isolate ourselves, accepting every stage of life as it comes and dealing with aging too. By the time people reach 50 they think it is the end of their life and wait for it. It is a push-pull of observations, analysis in the brain is balanced and an even keel is maintained without over-reacting or being anxious about surroundings. When balance is lost negativity sets in and there is also a genetic pre-disposition to some of it.

Q: Regarding India and its changing, thinking and evolution; what are your thoughts?

Prof: India is a global economy now and corporate sectors are playing a major role in their lives. The middle class are the biggest movers and shakers of society and make an impact with their life-style. But I find that the continuity in our culture is ever present but it appears that the intellectual class is on a decline and the politicians seem to be running the show in the country; diluting everything else.  Somehow it all survives and moves on.

Q: You are Speaker at the Indian dance and Music Festival. What are your thoughts on the musical scene in India?

Prof: I am not a musician but I have been raised around music and understand and appreciate it. I feel that the essence of music is lost currently in India with more and more people leaning towards westernization our cultural heritage is slowly being lost. Even the current artists seem very different in their execution of music. We miss that originality and sincerity as in the singers of yesteryears. There are fewer people going to our concerts and youngsters are more into western music than Indian classical music. I hope we don’t completely sidetrack our legacy but give it its due respect and place in society.

Q: You have two books to your credit. ‘Phantoms in the Brain’ and ‘A brief tour of Human Consciousness’. Are you planning on your next one?

Prof: Yes my new book will be out in December called the ‘Tell-Tale Brain’. It will be a comparison and evolution of the human brain from chimpanzees and the special attributes that our brain has such as creativity, Synesthesia and language.

We sat there along with Dr. Shekar Vishwanathan an Engineering professor and Sri Venkatachalam a music maestro; who regaled us with stories about his Guru Chembai Vaidyanatha Baghavathar and old musical folklore. I was transported to another world and immensely enjoyed the conversations as we sat around drinking coffee. His opinions on issues from deteriorating appreciation of Indian classical music ; to freedom of expression in art, were as interesting as his scientific talks. He repeatedly told me it was off the record and I must respect his request. So I won’t quote his opinions on M.F.Hussein or freedom of expression in art, or religion or the Slumdog movie…

I just had a blast listening to him…


(Edited article in Indian Express– west coast edition…)

His TED Talk:  A must watch to understand concepts of Phantom limb, Synesthesia etc…

  1. Meera San says:

    Hey, Goodie :-)) It was great to read this one. I love the “Q: How often do Freudian concepts apply to these studies or theories?” “Q: Why does negativity occur in society. Is it nurture vs nature…?” and Q: Regarding ‘Synesthesia’ and your research on it?

    And of course answers :-)

    Thank you dearie. Wishing you to interview lot more interesting people :)


  2. Solilo says:

    Suja, Awesome interview and apt questions. Thanks for letting me know.

    I’m curious to know about his views on M.F.Husain, FoP, religion and SDM. :D

    Was this piece published in Indian Express?

  3. Thanks Meera for stopping by and reading. He is such an interesting person to talk to..I am sure you would have enjoyed listening to him too..His opinions regarding different topics are fascinating. He launched into a big discussion on Hanuman and how he is perceived in Thailand and about Islam and the ancestry of Hindustani music and how the science of brain works etc…
    Thanks for the wishes :)

  4. Thanks Solilo (sorry don’t know ur real name) for stopping by …
    You can guess what his opinions on them might have been…very similar to what we think about it but he is wary that the press will tear him apart about it-
    so he refrains from publicizing it though he has very strong opinions about everything :)

    I write for IE -(North american) for their West coast supplement…it’s not out yet…

  5. PSS NAIR says:

    yourinterview and detailed report ofthe conversation was eally informative but i wonder howmany will have the time & patience to read assimilate the contents, Congrats

  6. So happy to see you here finally Daddy. :)

    I agree it’s too big and technical..not many may have the patience to read it…although the contents are interesting…