The Tell-Tale Brain: Unlocking the Mystery of Human Nature by V S Ramachandran - review by John Cornwell

John Cornwell

Between Experience & the ‘Wet Stuff’

The Tell-Tale Brain: Unlocking the Mystery of Human Nature


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Cognitive neuroscience, a broad field of mind–brain research, took off in the 1980s after languishing in the doldrums for decades. An important catalyst of this advance was the invention of noninvasive scanners for scrutinising the grey stuff. The CT (computed tomography) machine could peer into a living brain without destroying what it probed. Scanners have been extraordinarily helpful in the diagnosis of lesions and tumours, as well as in assisting attempts to find correlations between specific brain locations and a host of mental activities. 

The late 1980s and 1990s (dubbed the Decade of the Brain in the United States) saw rapid advances in psychopharmacology, boosted by designer molecules, improved computer modelling of neurones, and the diversion of government funding into neuroscience after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The pharmaceutical industry, which had much to gain from the proposition, had already noted that some 350 billion dollars were being lost by the US economy every year because of mental illnesses, especially depression. The hypothesis that depression was caused by lowered levels of a natural biochemical called serotonin in the synapses of the brain led to a slew of antidotes – among them Prozac, which quickly became a

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