Think neuroscience is boring? Think again, says V.S Ramachandran, director of San Diego State’s Center for Brain and Cognition. In the coming years, Ramachandran says, neuroscience promises to revolutionize the way “we view ourselves and our place in the cosmos.” (BBC Reith Lecture 1) If he sounds less like a neurologist than a new-age prophet, don’t let that surprise you. Ramachandran–one of the few scientists just as likely to quote the Upanishads as he is to cite the research of Richard Dawkins–is on a mission to tear down the walls that separate science and philosophy.
According to Ramachandran, human history has been punctuated by three evolutionary leaps in understanding–three distinct paradigm shifts, which required a complete reinterpretation of what it meant to be human.
First there was the Copernican Revolution, when man realized he wasn’t the center of the universe. (Clearly some New York City subway patrons are still struggling with this notion.) Next came the Darwinian Revolution, which “culminated in the view that we are not angels but merely hairless apes.” (BBC Reith Lecture 1) And then came Freud, who taught us that we’re all slaves to the unconscious.
Ramachandran believes we’re on the cusp of yet another paradigm shift thanks to neuroscience; a shift that will make Freud’s discoveries appear utterly quotidian:
. . .[We] are poised for the greatest revolution of all–understanding the human brain. This will surely be a turning point in the history of the human species for, unlike those earlier revolutions in science, this one is not about the outside world, not about cosmology or biology or physics, but about ourselves, about the very organ that made those earlier revolutions possible . . .
According to “Rama,” understanding the byzantine circuitry of the human brain will eventually enable us to answer the existential questions that have plagued philosophers for centuries:
* What is the meaning of my existence?
* Why do I laugh?
* Why do I dream?
* Why do I enjoy art, music and poetry?
* What is the scope of free will?
Rama may sound like he’s suffering from a profound case of hubris, but the neuroscience community seems well on their way to answering some of these questions. For instance, based on his research, Rama believes he’s knows why we laugh.
In the next entry, we’ll delve into Ramachandran’s findings about laughter. Are they credible? Is Rama really the harbinger of the next great evolutionary leap in scientific understanding? Or is he more mad scientist than cultural luminary?