Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, M.D., Ph.D., spoke to more than 400 students, faculty and staff about cognition, psychophysics and phantom limb pain in the Rose and Alfred Miniaci Performing Arts Center on March 24.
Ramachandran’s lecture was part of the Farquhar College of Arts and Sciences’ Distinguished Speakers Series. The series features a different theme each year and hosts several speakers to discuss issues relating to it. This year’s theme is Identity.
Don Rosenblum, Ph.D., dean of the Farquhar College of Arts and Sciences, said Ramachandran was recommended as a speaker by faculty in the college.
“Dr. Ramachandran is recog-nized as a leader in research on the brain and its role in cognition and identity. His work is relevant in many domains including psychology, biology, medicine, the arts and humanities,” said Rosenblum.
Ramachandran is renowned for his work with phantom limb pain, which happens when an individual feels pain in an amputated limb.
He talked about using his mirror box, which creates an optical illusion by reflecting the existing limb to trick the mind into thinking the amputated limb can still be manipulated. Ramachandran also said that women can experience phantom pain from surgically removed breasts and uteri, even experiencing phantom menstrual cramps long after the uteri are removed. Men experience a similar sensation when their penis is surgically removed.
Neurons in the brain connected to the penis are located next to those of the feet. In one experiment, Ramachandran’s patient noted that, by stimulating his foot, he felt phantom sensations in the area where his penis was. This was because of the interconnection made by the neurons. The neurologist jokingly said his patient wanted to start learning tap dancing.
His work in synesthesia, in which people will see music or smell colors, made him famous. The neurologist said 1 in 50 people are affected by the disorder.
Artists, poets and writers are among the most afflicted with synesthesia. He hypothesized that this is because such people are better at using metaphors, which involves linking two items that have seemingly no connection. Although synesthesia is common, Ramachandran explained there is an evolutionary reason everyone does not have it.
“You need people, other than artists, in a population. You don’t want your doctor getting ‘artsy’ [while he’s operating],” he said. Ramachandran said it was hard to predict the future of neuroscience because the science was in its infancy. He likened modern neurology to early 20th century physics, saying that the puzzle pieces are there, but neurologists must find out how they fit together.
Jamie Tartar, Ph.D., associate professor in the Farquhar College of Arts and Sciences, said, “Every time I see my students starting to get bored, I start to talk about Dr. Ramachandran,” she said.
Rachana Tallapalli, freshman biology major, said Ramachandran was very engaging.
“I thought that his lecture was mind-blowing and enlightening,” she said.
Newsweek named Ramachan-dran one of the 100 most prominent people to watch in the 21st century. He was awarded the honorary life fellowship by the Royal Institution of Great Britain as well as the Henry Dale Medal in 2005.