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The Mind Bender

Fellow scientist Richard Dawkins called Vilayanur S Ramachandran 'a latter day Marco Polo, journeying the Silk Road of science to strange and exotic Cathays of the mind.' Here's a more dry way of putting that: Ramachandran was listed by Newsweek as one of the 'Hundred Most Prominent People to Watch in the Next Century.'

A university professor and researcher who has
in his words
'I think neuroscience, especially cognitive neuroscience, is at the Faraday stage -- which is the most exciting stage in the history of any science.'
Photo: Murali Kumar K Bangalore Digital Image
Courtesy The Hindu
managed to reach out to millions across the globe, he has -- through a series of widely reported experiments -- convinced patients with absent limbs that ache, that their problems are imaginary.

Ramachandran's scientific work can be broken into two phases -- from 1972 until the late 1980s, he focused almost exclusively on visual perception, using methods of psychophysics, which permit clear inferences about what someone is seeing based on what they report. He then turned towards cognitive neurology, in particular towards a number of little studied neurological syndromes.

He has, over the course of his scientific career, published over 120 peer reviewed articles, many of which have appeared in prestigious journals like Nature, Science, Nature Neuroscience, Perception and Vision Research. His worldwide bestseller, Phantoms in the Brain, discusses among other things how he developed the mirror box -- asking patients to place their good limb and amputated limb, and imagine making mirror symmetric movements. Due to the visual feedback, he wrote, patients felt their limbs were moving, alleviating phantom limb pain in the process. The process may a bit tricky to understand, of course, but that this man has managed to ease the suffering of many is easily understood. It also justifies the high regard in which he is held by many.

Describing his work, Booklist wrote: 'Ramachandran believes being a medical scientist is not much different from being a detective. His explanations are clear and often helped by humor, and his experiments (often conducted with inexpensive household materials) are masterpieces of both scientific logic and amazing inventiveness.'

Editor-in-Chief of the Encyclopedia of Human Behavior, Ramachandran is also Director, Center for Brain and Cognition, and professor with the psychology department and neurosciences program, University of California, San Diego. It is all a far cry from his early training as a physician, followed by an MD from the Stanley Medical College in Chennai, and subsequent PhD from Trinity College, University of Cambridge.

Four years ago, Ramachandran was invited by the BBC to give the Reith lectures, becoming the first physician/experimental psychologist to be given the honour since the series was begun by Bertrand Russell in 1949.

Why do people want to listen to him? What does he have to say that is so important? How does he manage to draw parallels between amputees who feel phantom limbs and avant-garde artists? These and other questions can be answered by the thousands who stop speaking the minute Ramachandran begins.