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A review of ‘A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness‘, by V.S. Ramachandran.  Ramachandran’s summary and unfocused work is a curious exercise in self-aggrandizement that I could well have left unread. This review was originally posted here.

I had not heard of Ramachandran before spotting this book on a shelf at the local library, and after reading the commendations on the blurb I figured him a sort of lesser-Oliver Sacks. This, without having read a single work by either author, nor one solitary work of popular psychology. Nevertheless, I can feel safe in the thought that my initial understanding was correct.

Why do I feel confidently able to deride the work of an eminent neuroscientist as “lesser”?

First, the title’s novelty is rudely exaggerated. An impostor poodle is mentioned only once, and once only in passing. I smell the fetid smear of disingenuous marketing. Trivial concerns aside, the author’s attempt to straddle the worlds of strange science and popular readerships often, at least in the book’s first half, fails. Though I was delighted by the incredible simplicity of his language, by his way of addressing the reader in a leisurely way, with colloquialisms and a complete absence of the pretentious downspeak that too often clutters works of those in specialist fields who communicate to popular audiences, –despite this wonderful trait of his, the author would often, at the sake of clarity, resort to terminological explanations which were utterly confusing and which stood in stark contrast to his normally simple language. This habit is most visible in the book’s first half, which is riddled with diagrams and partite, strange-name-filled explanations.

My second quibble with this work is traceable more to my understanding of virtue ethics than to Ramachandran’s virtues as a writer or thinker. Admittedly, the solutions V.S.R. provides to the book’s curious phenomena are ingenious and many. They are also deceptively simple. It is really amazing to see him again and again suggest an uncomplicated solution to a problem that can seem inscrutable in its complexity and strangeness. Such no-nonsense solutions as tapping a finger to discern whether a schizophrenic lacks belief in personal volition, or suggesting a dearth of mirror neurons to explain the interpersonal aloofness of those with Aspergers syndrome, are very cool to see being supposed. But my excitement at this prodigious show began to dwindle and wane precisely when the volume of these self-referential solutions began to increase and grow.

Being humble has long been associated with virtue. Saints are famous for their monopoly on this trait, many artists and politicians for their dearth of it. I feel that this work is used by the author as a platform on which to advertise his own opinions. This is unnecessary, as he doubtless has published his thoughts in many scientific journals. His references to self in this work are thus redundant and entirely self-serving. Perhaps if he had reserved such notices for the footnotes he would seem less arrogant; but as he does not I cannot but call him out for this tendency to self-reference.

But, now, back to what is really important. I’m going to take an axon out of Alain de Botton’s spotted mind (https://twitter.com/alaindebotton/sta…) and tell you if this book is boring. I think it is. Earlier I said that “I could well have left [this book] unread.” This is because, though interesting, it gets bogged down in explanations that his target market has no interest in reading. The explanation of blindsight, yes, was very enlightening–but only because of its implications (“we can see without sight!”). Other details, such as almost the entirety of the fifth chapter, “Neuroscience: The New Philosophy,” would have flown over the heads of most readers. Sometimes even Ramachandran loses his footing in his pedantic quagmire, and slips into contradiction, such as when he argues that determinism destroys freewill and says free will is an illusion that urges us to act, or, in other words, that free will stimulates our free will (p. 110).

I finished this book with a feeling of loss settled deep within my expectant stomach. I wanted to learn from this man and to converse with him, but for the whole span of our adventure he seemed to talk only to himself. It’s difficult to appreciate the efforts of a man who condescends to please us, but not to please himself. I sense insincerity everywhere. What I read in this book was sometimes interesting, sometimes awesome, sometimes irritating, and sometimes downright alienating drudgery. I didn’t have the strength to read right through the notes. While reading, my spirit left me. Three stars for novelty and (inconsistently) crystal-clear communication.

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