Astute critic or just a philistine caricature?

April 2, 2004

Vilayanur Ramachandran, renowned for his work on cognition and the brain, drew flak for using neuroscience to draft 'universal laws' of art.

Anthony Freeman asked him if he had any regrets.

One colleague to another: two leading lights from letters and science take on an expert in their field and delve into the origins of our love of the arts.

After chasing round three hotels I finally track down Vilayanur Ramachandran at the one next door to Broadcasting House - the obvious place for someone promoting the book of his 2003 BBC Reith Lectures. He is in the lobby, trying to release his laptop from the left-luggage office despite having lost his receipt and forgotten his room number. It is reassuring that even a world expert on the brain can be let down by his own.

Although we have met only once before, Rama (the abbreviation is ubiquitous - Sue Lawley even let it slip when introducing his lectures on air) greets me like a long lost brother. His elusiveness was obviously not personal.

Abandoning his belongings to the porter, he sweeps me up to the lounge, where we can talk in comparative peace and admire the London roofscape.

Ramachandran is based at the University of California, San Diego, where he directs the Center for Brain and Cognition. He also holds an adjunct professorship at the nearby Salk Institute, where veteran scientist Francis Crick oversees the assault on the biological basis of consciousness.

Ramachandran went to UCSD in the early 1980s, following a scholarship at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he gained a PhD in neurophysiology, and junior appointments at Oxford University and the California Institute of Technology. During that period, southern California had no particular reputation for neuroscience, but it offered a job at a time when 200 applicants might chase a single vacancy. Subsequently, the combined presence of Crick, fellow Nobel prizewinner Gerald Edelman, and Ramachandran himself, has led to the area being dubbed "neuron valley".

Though a long-time resident in the US, India is still home to Ramachandran.

He prizes his cultural links with the subcontinent and returns twice a year to his native Madras, where he is visiting professor at the Institute of Neurology. This heritage explains why, unlike colleagues such as Crick and Richard Dawkins, he eschews the label "atheist". He has no problem with divinity in the broad Spinozan sense, and as a scientist Ramachandran is agnostic.

His consuming interest in science was prepubescent. When his father, an engineer working for the United Nations, returned from a trip to Frankfurt with a microscope, the young Rama was hooked. Playful home experiments in biology (the dietary preferences of ants and of Venus flytraps) and chemistry (mixing chemicals "just to see what would happen") laid the foundations for an enviable research career. He was lead author of a paper in Nature while still a student. In all this he drew inspiration from past heroes such as scientists Michael Faraday and Thomas Henry Huxley, and more contemporary figures such as Bertrand Russell and Peter Medawar, the Nobel prizewinning immunologist.

Three strands contribute to Ramachandran's work: theoretical research, clinical neurology and the promotion of science. For some, there might be tension between the three, but Ramachandran believes they complement each other. Clinical practice alone lacks intellectual challenge, while detached research can become disengaged. "Clinical work gives you a pragmatic slant, a low tolerance for bull****," he says. He sees himself primarily as a researcher, but one who stands in the tradition of 19th-century science when all researchers were communicators: "If you're genuinely excited about something, you have the urge to share it."

The Reith lectures reflect all three aspects of Ramachandran's work. In the first, he describes some of the weird and distressing clinical conditions he has studied that throw light on the workings of the brain. For instance, the phantom limb effect, where an amputee feels pain in a lost limb. Rama suspected the lack of visual feedback from the missing limb contributed to the problem, and his ingenuity in faking such feedback by the use of mirrors both proved his theory and offered practical relief to patients. A much rarer disorder is the mysterious Capgras syndrome, where a brain-damaged patient can recognise a relative or close friend but insists the person is a look-alike impostor. Rama guessed the cause might be a failure of the emotional recognition that would normally accompany visual recognition of a loved one. Using galvanic skin response (GSR) as a measure of emotional response, he and his colleagues demonstrated this was so.

GSR also featured in Ramachandran's most notorious work, covered in his third lecture, "The artful brain". Best known for its use in so-called lie detectors, GSR measures small changes in the skin's electrical conductivity that result from sweating. Since sweating is an automatic correlate of emotional arousal, over which we have no conscious control, GSR is arguably more reliable than verbal report as an indicator of someone's emotional state. The success of the method in Capgras victims encouraged Ramachandran to apply it to art appreciation. He found that irrespective of which they said they preferred, people in fact responded more strongly to caricatures, for example, of politicians or nude women, than to full-tone photographs of the same subjects. He used this evidence in drawing up his suggested "ten universal laws of art", in which he sought to show that aesthetic pleasure can be explained in terms of basic and evolutionarily explicable functions of the visual system.

Critics were appalled at what they saw as scientistic reductionism.

Feminists in particular were outraged and accused him of equating art and pornography. Others said he had no feeling for art. "That's rubbish," Ramachandran retorts. He admits he used to be "your typical philistine scientist, interested in art but not moved by it", but that changed when he went on a course by art historian Julia Kindy on his own campus.

Speculation on the neuroscience of art followed.

At first it was "just for fun", but his colleague Bill Hirstein persuaded him to write it up for publication in the Journal of Consciousness Studies .

"And then the project took on a life of its own. Perhaps because I sat down and there was a stream of consciousness, it has a slightly arrogant feel, but that wasn't intentional. We have barely scratched the surface, and certainly don't claim to have understood the whole of art."

But do attacks on his theory hurt him? No. For Ramachandran, the one criticism that every experimental scientist dreads is someone finding a flaw in his experiments. And in 25 years that has never happened to him.

People may not all have accepted his particular interpretations, but that is less important and, by and large, his ideas have held up. The art criticism does not bother him because his speculations are meant to be playful and to invite disagreement. Anyway, he says, the artists are the ones you would expect to be annoyed, "but they lap it up, they love the stuff. And the scientists like it, too, for the most part. It's some of the art historians who get a bit riled up."

He volunteers Angel of the North sculptor Antony Gormley as an example of a supportive artist, and here the sceptical bells start ringing. Gormley and Ramachandran have things in common: they are the same age and both were at Trinity. They appeared on a panel together at this year's Winchester Festival, where Rama was keynote speaker. And making up the panel was Rama's old mentor Richard Gregory, pioneer of the neuroscience of vision.

All very cosy.

For another view, I check out artist Robin Stanbridge, who is familiar with Ramachandran's work and not impressed. "Ramachandran is treading on ground requiring much deeper thought and much greater care, especially for the development of his own field. He's jumping very prematurely into describing laws for 'art' when he has not properly set the parameters for the set of things recognised as legitimate 'art' by the 'professionals' of that field.

I don't think the 'art' of which he speaks is easily defensible; he's shooting at decoys."

Rama responds that his theoretical framework relates to aesthetics rather than art, and he thinks "laws of aesthetics" would be a better term: "Art can mean almost anything these days, and that's not a place where a scientist can start." But the jury is still out.

In his final Reith lecture, Ramachandran discusses neuroscience as the "new philosophy". Compared with the rest of the book, this feels more speculative, and might be regarded as amateurish by some philosophers.

Ramachandran is no professional philosopher. He accepts that his position on the mind-brain relation has not been thought through, just taken off the shelf as a pragmatic working model. The fascinating thing is his choice of model. Not the functionalism or physicalism normally associated with reductionist science, but Russell's "neutral monism", another link from Rama to Spinoza. Equally surprising is Ramachandran's insistence on a huge gap between humans and other animals, even the lower primates. The big jump in evolution is, he says, the capacity for abstract thought. There was no grand plan, but there must have been a fortuitous synergy between independent developments to produce language and consciousness.

He acknowledges that these ideas are speculative, but claims that his proven empirical research has earned him the right to exercise his imagination. "People are more forgiving if you have paid your dues," he says. Maybe. Or maybe the cobbler should stick to his last.

Anthony Freeman is managing editor of the Journal of Consciousness Studies.

Vilayanur Ramachandran's book The Emerging Mind: The BBC Reith Lectures 2003 is published by Profile Books, £6.99. He will speak at the Cheltenham Festival of Science in June. For more information:

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