Brain Science

Phantoms in the Brain

I spent my 8th grade in India, and one of my favorite haunts was a bookstore near my home. The store curated the books and sold only some of the best books for a curious reader. It is there that I picked up this book called Phantoms in the Brain that provided me with an entirely new and beautiful look at the brain. It was written by Dr. V. S. Ramachandran, an esteemed neuroscientist at UCSD who is renowned for his intriguing theories on behavioral neurobiology. By evaluating the bizarre circumstances of his patients, Dr. Ramachandran was able to shed some new light on the functionality and infrastructure of the brain. Through this book, he really shows us how much the brain can operate on its own accord. The book vividly described various case studies regarding phantom limbs (amputated limbs that still feel present or cause pain), and I was also able to take much more out of it. I was exposed to the life of a neurosurgeon and neuroscientist, two fascinating careers that help people with problems in their brain. This book opened me up to different methods of making progress towards unwrapping the human brain, whether it was through looking at it from a molecular biology perspective or performing surgery on hundreds of patients to help fix their problems.

An interesting example in the book is that of James Thurber, who was blinded in one eye at the age of six years old. Dr. Ramachandran describes the fascinating case of visual imagination or hallucination, in which Thurber’s blindness was filled with magnificent scenes, such as “a cat roll[ing] across a street in a small striped barrel”. Dr. Ramachandran stated that Thurber had what is known as Charles Bonnet Syndrome, in which although he was completely blind, his visual pathways allowed him to see random images in his mind. This is just one instance of an exquisite way that the book connects a patient to a unique disorder.

These beautifully crafted stories inspired me to better understand the life of a neurosurgeon, and the complicated situations they must deal with on a day-to-day basis. I wanted to further explore the concept of interacting with patients with these peculiar brain conditions, so I decided to shadow a Children’s Rehabilitation Medicine specialist at Rady Children’s Hospital. The best part about the visit was the fact that the patients on that day had phantom limbs, so I could see what I had read about! Without delving into the specifics of each kid that I saw, it was a great experience to listen to each patient’s story of how their amputated arm or leg still felt present, and how they thought they could pick something up or kick a ball with a limb that was not actually there. These reminded me of different case studies from Phantoms in the Brain such as that of Mirabelle Kumar, who kept insisting that her phantom hands were gesturing as she talked, and how they stayed by her side when she walked around. I valued every moment of this opportunity and I felt that by observing people with a certain brain condition, I was able to remember the syndrome by associating it with an actual person, something that doctors do across all fields.

Phantoms in the Brain kindled my curiosity to know more about others’ journey to becoming a doctor and what their experiences looked like. So, I picked up books like Do No Harm and How Doctors Think.  These books described the medical school and residency life of two people trying to become neurosurgeons. Something that really stuck with me was the fact that while colleges can teach you which part of the spine to put screws in or what type of surgery is required for a certain patient, they cannot teach you

how to be a human when it comes to dealing with patients. This will stick with me forever, as I strive to incorporate the humanitarian part of me with a knowledgeable side to help treat others in my community.

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