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Being Human : Are You Sure ‽ — VS Ramanchandran's Eye-Opening Research


SAN FRANCISCO — We were offered a glimpse of our common humanity in the convergence of Easter, Passover, Qing Ming, and Buddha's birthday, all in one week. Meanwhile last month's Being Human symposium at the Palace of Fine Arts remains a cornucopia of vital topics and themes — all of practical application. So we intend to continue coverage on through spring. 

After Beau Lotto kicked it off, he was followed by Prof VS Ramachandran, Director of Center for Brain and Cognition in San Diego. These two equally vital figures in contemporary neuroscience made a strlking balance. Beau presents the wholly empirical theory of perception with impeccable lucidity and rock-star charisma.  Ram, on the other hand, might seem cut and dry at first.  A few minutes in, however, we realized that beneath his straightforward delivery glows an intense humility.

Ram is humble at what the discoveries of neuroscience can tall us about the human condition. (Bear in mind — this field was only begun as recently as 1995.)  Moreover, his work is bringing healing to many people whose ailments would often otherwise remain  uncurable. This includes rehablitation for people with all kinds of chronic pain (such as temporal mandibular radiculpathy, which may sound abstract, but as my Dad had it, I know it's not), as well as anorexia,  osteoarthritis, and childhood autism.

Ram's discoveries are thus driven by patients coming him with abnormalities. In this, he is similar to famous neurologist Oliver Sacks, author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and other titles — who plays detective into real-life mysteries both within as without. One difference between them is how Ram sets up very elegant experiments, as he outlined in his talk.  

Discoveries in this field can have important implications for all of us. Of the diverse instances he discussed in his brief presentation, the most universal is "mirror neurons." How is it I feel an emotion I see portrayed by an actor, even though it's not happening to me directly? While some cells of our nervous system (neurons) are specialized for movement (motor neurons),  others are specialized for empathy. In their revolutionary capacity to overcome ignorance through empathy, Ram dubs them "Gandhi neurons."  

We think of ourselves as skin-encapsulated egos, but we find ourselves very much interconnected in the ground of our awareness, beyond our epithelial boundaries. Mirror neurons enabled us, as newborn infants to learn about the world, through emotions we observed, and internalized, in our parents. And the process continues throughout life: our consciousness is "multi-skull," if you will, not wholly separate.

Neuroscience is less than two decades old. Yet already we can see it holds great lessons for humanity, thanks to such trailblazers as VS Ramachandran.  

In our next installment, we'll explore further how discoveries in perception and sensation shed light on how we make choices. This shall include a new field of science you won't want to neglect  (ready?) : neuro-economics! We'll also discover what happens when we try to "look under the hood" of our consciousness.  Stay tuned.


Books by Prof VS Ramachandran: A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness, Phantom in the Brain, and The Tell-Tale Brain. If you wish to order online from your nearest independent bookseller, check out IndieBound

View VS Ramachancdran's presentation streaming at Fora.TV. His Center for Brain and Cognition has links to his interviews and talks.

The conference has a lively, on-going Facebook page. On Twitter, @beinghuman ; follow the hashtag #beinghuman2012.

Upcoming in our exclusive BEING HUMAN series:

  • Mental + Self Representations & Decision-Maklng
  • Poetry • Cinema
  • Individual + Society • Morals + Culture
  • Conscious Experience
  • Reflections


Gary Gach is author of The Complete Idiot's to Buddhism, third edition (Nautilus Book Award), and editor of What Book!? ~ Buddha Poems from Beat to Hiphop (American Book Award). His work has also appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, including The Atlantic, BuddhaDharmaHarvard Divinity ReviewLanguage for a New CenturyThe New YorkerTechnicians of the SacredTricycle, and Yoga Journal. He teaches mindfulness and creativity in San Francisco (Tuesday mornings at Aquatic Park Community Center, and Tuesday evenings at Dragon's Leap zendo). Public personal homepage : http://word.to.

Copyright © 2012, Gary Gach

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