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It’s a matter of neurons

SUGANTHY KRISHNAMACHARI

From autism to appreciation of art, the neurons play a key role, says Dr. Vilayanur Ramachandran.

The loss of mirror neurons in autistic children may explain why they can’t empathise.

Photo: K. V. Srinivasan

Researcher: Neurologist Vilayanur Ramachandran,

Dr. Vilayanur Ramachandran, neurologist, is on his annual visit to Chennai. Dr. Ramachandran, an alumnus of Stanley Medical College, has a Ph.D from Trinity College, Cambridge. A grandson of the brilliant lawyer Alladi Krishnaswami Iyer, he is curren tly Director of the Centre for Brain and Cognition at UCSD, California.

Well known for his research on ‘phantom limbs’ and ‘synaesthesia,’ he is a man with a wide range of interests, and is trustee of the San Diego Museum of Art. This writer catches up with him at the Madras Club.

Dr. Ramachandran and his colleagues at UCSD have also studied the connection between mirror neurons and autism. Mirror neurons were first discovered by Iaccomo Rizzolati, and Dr. Ramachandran feels that this discovery is as important for psychology as the discovery of DNA for biology.

What exactly are mirror neurons? The guru explains: “It is the mirror neurons that make us feel empathy when we see someone being hurt. I call them the ‘Gandhi’ neurons. The loss of mirror neurons in autistic children may explain why they can’t empathise. Even monkeys have mirror neurons. A mirror neuron fires in the brain of a monkey when it sees another monkey reach for a peanut,” says Dr. Ramachandran.

“Mirror neurons make possible learning by imitation. Reading another person’s mind and predicting his behaviour is a useful survival mechanism, after all. But a bonus came to humans when they could turn the mirror inward, and ‘see’ themselves, or ‘introspect,’ as we say.”

Monkeys have mirror neurons too. So why don’t they introspect? “The mirror neurons would have to reach a level of sophistication and get linked to other brain circuits, to enable introspection. That did not happen in the case of monkeys,” clarifies Dr. Ramachandran.

Language

Mirror neurons had a major part to play in the evolution of language. Our ancestors must have communicated using gestures. Then came vocal imitations of these gestures, and then language. So symbolic mimicry could have led to language, so goes Dr. Ramachandran’s theroy.

Dr. Ramachandran proposes ten universal laws that explain the neural basis for the appreciation of art. One of the laws is the peak shift principle. Dr. Ramachandran explains: “Why do we like a Chola bronze of a woman? Take the typical female form. Subtract from it the typical male form. What is left? Big breasts, narrow waist and flared hips. Exaggerate these, and the result is the Chola bronze. When you see it, you don’t protest that it is anatomically impossible for a woman to look like this. You only say, “It is beautiful.” I call this exaggeration the peak shift principle. From the typical female posture, the typical male posture is subtracted, and the difference amplified, to get the Tribhanga posture of the female bronze. Or take a caricature, where some features are exaggerated, and yet you like the caricature. Again peak shift principle.”

Bacon’s words

As he explains, one is reminded of the words of Bacon — “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.”

“I think Indian art is a very evolved form of art. Long before Picasso and the Cubists, our Indian sculptors knew intuitively, what is pleasing in art,” says Dr. Ramachandran.

Can his laws of art be tested? “Sure,” says he.

What is his take on mystical experiences?

Those with temporal lobe seizures report having mystical experiences, according to the expert. “In an experiment at UCSD, we studied the response of those with temporal lobe seizures to different words projected on a screen, and compared it with the response of normal people. We measured the galvanic skin response. In normal people, when the word ‘sex’ was flashed, the skin response was high. It was even higher for epileptic patients, for whom the words had a religious connotation.”

So is it possible then, to manipulate the brain to make someone have mystical experiences? “Yes, theoretically it is possible,” says Dr. Ramachandran.

Free Will

Libet and more recently, Dr. Haynes of the Max Planck Institute have shown that the subconscious kicks in before the conscious becomes active. So is there such a thing as free will at all?

“There is a free ‘won’t will.’ Now suppose I want to pick up that stick, and you guess that’s what I want to do. You say, ‘I think you are going to pick up that stick.’ Just to prove you wrong, I decide not to pick up the stick. That’s an example of free ‘won’t will,” says Dr. Ramachandran.

Being an ancient concept, how did the ancestors tackle the Upanishads ? “There are two world views – an individual’s subjective view, and the objective one of physics. See how our ancestors dealt with this dichotomy. Look at the intellectual sophistication of ancient India, where they asked themselves these questions. Maybe there is some validity in the Upanishadic idea that a separate ‘I’ or ’you’ is an illusion,” he says.

Dr. Ramachandran loves Indian art and Carnatic music. He even likes old Tamil film songs. Any favourites? “All the songs in Maya Bazaar. My sons love ‘Kalyana samayal saadam’ song and I do too!” he chuckles.

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