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Discussion 10 to Meditation 537
Ramachandran's work

by: George Rush

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I'll address Ramachandran's work, but first a digression.

I'm in the uncomfortable position of proving a negative. To prove that "science has made no discoveries about consciousness (a.k.a. awareness, or experientiality) itself" I have to examine every discovery ever made and demonstrate it's not about awareness. Unfortunately, that's an impossible task. There are thousands of researchers associated with Consciousness Studies, and they're constantly churning out papers. I'd be hard put even to find them all, much less read them. When I first began defending this position, in 1978, it was much easier. There were only a few people claiming to study consciousness, like Prigogine and Chomsky. Plus, I was young, with unlimited energy: I could read and respond to a thick book in a day. Today, however, I have absolutely no interest in reading the latest Nova celebrity's work; the chance that there's something new in it is very close to zero. Instead, what little time spare time I have is spent reading ancient Hindu texts. Ramachandran's ancestors understood consciousness better than he ever will.

Anyway, let's take a look at his work. Wikipedia says "From 1972 until the late 1980s, Ramachandran's work focused almost exclusively on visual perception, using the methods of psychophysics, which permit clear inferences about what someone is seeing, based on what they report. In the second half of his career, Ramachandran turned his attention towards cognitive neurology, and in particular towards a number of little studied neurological syndromes."

"Psychophysics", of course, doesn't address awareness. Scientists present a subject with a stimulus and record the reported impressions. For example, the subject is presented with pitches of higher and higher frequencies, until at some threshold she won't be able to hear it any more. The psychophysical experimenter then notes this as the upper threshold. They test thousands of subjects, then write a report correlating upper threshold with age, race, and so forth. This is useful, but has nothing to do with the question of how awareness occurs. How is it that the subject hears the sound presented? Psychophysics merely takes it for granted.

The rest of his work in cognitive neurology is really just more of the same. Consider three areas:

Phantom limbs: Dr. Ramachandran invented the useful and interesting "mirror box" which helps amputees deal with phantom limb pain. In this research, he presents various stimuli to amputees, and they report how they feel. As in psychophysics, the basic "hard problem" - how does the feeling occur to the subject in the first place? - is ignored.

Synesthesia: this is a condition in which viewing black and white letters or numbers on a page evokes the experience of seeing colors. Again, Ramachandran presents a page to a subject and asks whether they're seeing colors; how they are able to "see" anything at all - why perception and sensation occur to living, conscious beings - is not addressed.

Capgras delusion: a delusion in which family members and other loved ones are thought to be replaced by impostors, which can occur after brain trauma. The only way Ramachandran knows how the family member feels is to ask them. Why humans perceive faces, and have thoughts about them - why we perceive, and have thoughts, at all - is not addressed.

In sum, Ramachandran adds nothing new to the debate.

Lee: ... Vilayanur S. Ramachandran has done a great deal to advance our knowledge of how the brain works including how awareness, and more importantly self-awareness, can arise. But as I've shown, he has absolutely nothing to say about awareness. Self-awareness is another story entirely; he does address that a bit. And you're right; in a way it is more interesting. But it has nothing to do with my claim.

Admittedly, the distinction between "basic awareness" and all other attributes of consciousness, such as self-awareness and perception, may not be clear to you. If so, let's try to clarify it. Otherwise - now that you see the distinction, and see that Ramachandran doesn't address awareness - if you know any other consciousness researcher who does address it, please let me know.