Saturday, February 14, 2009


A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness : From Imposter Poodles to Purple Numbers. by V.S. Ramachandran

This book held me captivated for 4 hours straight, start to finish. Despite discussing some pretty complex stuff that goes on (or potentially goes on) in our brain, V.S.R. is so darn logical and precise, you can't help but "get it".

Some of the things that made me stop, reread and contemplate were:

His (possible) explanation for laughter originating to serve as a "false alarm" signal, i.e. communicating to those around you that some potential danger being detected is nothing to worry about. Essentially, pain is experienced in two phases - the raw sensory data and then our emotional reaction to it. if you get the raw sensory data (see/hear/feel/taste something that makes you uncomfortable) but it's not followed up with an emotional response, the sound of laughter may have started as a means of communicating that.

You can "unconsciously" drive while having an animated conversation, but you can't unconsciously have an animated conversation while you're driving. how does language relate to consciousness?

Your right and left brain deal differently with discrepancies in incoming data. The left hemisphere smooths over conflicting info (denial), while the right side recognizes and is very sensitive to it. (Patients with right brain damage resulting in paralysis of their left side will deny that paralysis). Makes me wonder if I should view all things I'm skeptical of on my right side, forcing my left brain to smooth over anything I don't want to see:)

The role of mirror neurons in the transmission of human culture and the social awkwardness of autistic children.

How art taps into our neural perception functioning in ways that don't obviously make sense to us.

The chapter on synesthesia is, I think, why the book originally made it on my "to read" list. That many people can see numbers as colors and so on is fascinating in itself. But the implications of that for our abstraction and metaphoric abilities is amazing! Basically, he's proposing that it's due to cross-wiring in the brain, the same sort of thing that accounts for phantom limbs in amputees.

That chapter ends with his thoughts on the evolution of language, which I think will pose some lively discussion between J and me. He (J) is a big Steven Pinker fan, who believes that language evolved step by step for communication purposes. Whereas V.S.R. is proposing that a few things were going on in the brain for different regions that ended up reinforcing one another with the result of spoken language. I'm not going to even try and go further than that.

The coolest parts of the final chapter are when (1) in discussing the "self" (which has numerous components, each of which can be viewed separately in the actions of patients with damage to various parts of the brain) he hints that the Hindu philosophical view of no difference between the self and others may parallel some of the findings of neuroscience and (2) the research that shows your intention to move your finger is preceded by seconds with a firing in your brain and the implications of that on "free will".

While being around 150 pages long, including *lots* of endnotes, this book is densely packed with radical yet simple and logical food for thought.

A Very Un-Vegan Book Review

Twinkie, Deconstructed: My Journey to Discover How the Ingredients Found in Processed Foods Are Grown, Mined (Yes, Mined), and Manipulated Into What America Eats

Michael Pollen, this guy is not! He spends an awful lot of time describing the containers and plant layouts of the places he visits. I guess he's trying to paint me a picture, but I'm less than interested in "Rooftop pipes, insulated and jacketed with sheet metal..."

It's interesting (and telling) to me how often this guy writes something off as a process or source about which he couldn't find info. My first reaction was, jeez man, if you couldn't research the book, you shouldn't have written it. But as I thought about it, it makes total sense. So much of what he's looking into concerns huge, multi-national chemical companies and highly manufactured ingredients. lots of industry secrets to hide.

I feel like i got more "random" knowledge from this book than anything. Like "can"ola oil comes from Canada and vanilla beans are really the seeds of a rare(ish) tropical orchid.

I found his closing anticlimactic, oversimplified and much too forgiving. Basically, you can break most anything down into it's chemical components (like an apple), so "foods" built of chemicals are really no different. "Food" is defined by the eat-er and so the overabundance of processed crap in our society these days really isn't a bad thing. I wholeheartedly disagree, Mr. Ettlinger.