Any ape can reach for a banana, only humans can reach for the stars.
- Dr VS Ramachandran in The Tell-tale Brain
Dr VS Ramachandran's quest is a very Indian one.
Who are we? What makes us special? These are questions that Indian philosophers have been grappling with down the ages. The difference is that this 'latter-day Marco Polo' has, to quote Richard Dawkins, chosen to 'journey the silk road of science' - neuroscience to be specific - to uncover the answers.
It has been a journey undertaken using methods that Dr Ramachandran terms unapologetically old-school, and which have been influenced by his boyhood romance with Victorian science.
For instance, his pioneering research on phantom limbs initially required only Q-tips, glasses of warm and cold water, and ordinary mirrors.
Then again, like he asserts, 'small science', as Galileo showed with two rocks, Newton with two prisms and he with phantom limbs, can provide big answers.
The director of the world-renowned Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego has now distilled the essence of his work, much of it path-breaking, in his latest book, The Tell-tale Brain: Unlocking the mystery of human nature.
Coming after the hugely popular Phantoms in the Brain and A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness, it is a tour de force that explains in a lucid, conversational and gripping manner, the essential understanding of 'the organ of destiny' gleaned till now, while also advancing some boldly 'speculative' ideas.
Passionate, profoundly knowledgeable, a tad impish and thoroughly gentlemanly (another throwback to an older, more genteel era), Dr Ramachandran, a Padma Bhushan awardee, is a delightfully engaging speaker too.
In an interview with R Rajesh Kumar, he discusses his new book and talks about the importance of imitation (stop frowning on 'aping' now, will ya?), autism, the illusory nature of free will, art, auras, belief and a lot more...
Your latest book is called the The Tell-tale Brain. Any particular reason for settling upon this title?
It was chosen by my (American) publisher.
My original title was From Apes to Angels: The question of what makes our brains unique and different from that of the Great Apes.
But the publisher thought that this was more reader-friendly, because, in America, every child reads Edgar Allan Poe. One of his short stories, a murder mystery, is called the Tell-tale heart. The title was an allusion to that.