The Future of Brain Research

Vilayanur S. Ramachandran. PhD

Pontificating about humankind's future is a hazardous enterprise. There is a logical contradiction inherent in any attempt to predict the future of any scientific discipline. If I make a vague prediction such as "we will discover a cure for cancer in the next 100 years" or "We will understand the brain" then the prediction is banal and nearly useless. It is a prediction that nearly ANYONE can make without fear of contradiction. But if I make a specific and highly detailed prediction (e.g. "the cure for cancer will be found by March 2010.. by using the following three principles and techniques etc etc.".. then the implication is that I already know how to do it and if so, I would simply DO IT instead of standing on the pulpit and making the prediction!

Negative predictions (Such as "Science will never etc etc etc") are even more notoriously prone to being proved wrong. A few years before the Wright brothers first flight, Lord Kelvin, one of the greatest scientists of the late 19th century confidently proclaimed "No man made machine will ever be built to fly passengers"-or something to that effect. He also held that Darwin's theory of evolution was flawed because sun simply could not have had enough fuel to have sustained life on earth for the long periods of geological time that would be required for natural selection. (This was because he did not know about nuclear fission and radioactivity and could not possibly have anticipated its discovery)

For the same reason I am highly suspicious of the claim made by some philosophers like David Chalmers that "consciousness can NEVER be understood by Science". Or the claim that consciousness cannot have a CAUSAL role in the functions of the brain because, after all, we can IMAGINE a robot or zombie with a brain-like entity that has all the right wiring, doing everything that you and I are capable of WITHOUT being conscious. Since there doesn't seem to be anything LOGICALLY impossible about this scenario, the argument goes, consciousness must be redundant.

But as I have argued elsewhere this argument embodies a logical fallacy. Consider an analogous argument "After all we can IMAGINE an object traveling faster than light. There seems to be nothing LOGICALLY impossible about this" Yet we all know from Einstein's theory that in the physical universe that we know nothing can travel faster than light. Thus the fact that we can IMAGINE something to be true logically doesn't guarantee that its true PHYSICALLY.. i.e. that its realizable in the known universe. Likewise it may be that even though we can IMAGINE zombies or Robots that are completely unconscious, there may be a deep physical reason why such beings cannot exist. (Ramachandran and Blakeslee, 1998, Phantoms in the brain, Harper Collins New York)

But despite these caveats about the futility of exact predictions, I will nevertheless attempt one or two in this essay-just for fun.

Human evolution is remarkable in that it was punctuated by several major CULTURAL upheavals. E.g. the invention of fire, of shelter, tool use, and especially, language. (Which required a combination of genetic and cultural changes) With the full emergence of conscious awareness-including a sense of a self and a sense of continuity with the past and future-humans began to look over their own shoulders to ask disquieting questions about their own origins. Who am I? Where do I come from?

The next great cultural innovation was the birth of the scientific and industrial revolution that had an even deeper impact on our ideas about our place in the cosmic scheme. Copernicus demolished the geocentric theory of the solar system and it soon became obvious that "mother earth" is nothing but a speck of cosmic dust whirling through the immensity of space and time. After that came the Darwinian revolution with its merciless implication that Man is nothing more than a hairless, neotenous descendent of an ape-like ancestor.

And lastly, at the dawn of this millennium, we have come to accept an even more disturbing idea.. that our minds have their origin exclusively in the activity of little wisps of protoplasm in our brains and that there is really no such thing as a non- material soul. This is shocking news indeed for it implies that I am a part of the causal flow of events in the physical universe and nothing more,. If so in what sense do I really have free will? What happens after I die? And what about religion , soul , immortality , and God?


The scientific revolution has completely changed our view of the universe and of our place in it-but the best ( or worst!) is yet to come. It is ironic that we have such detailed knowledge of almost everything in the universe on every conceivable scale, the solar system, distant galaxies, black holes, atoms, molecules, string theory, DNA, heredity, the mechanisms of life etc but know almost nothing about the organ that made all these discoveries .

Indeed our knowledge of the functions of the brain remains as primitive as our knowledge of the rest of the human body was a century or two ago. ( e.g. the liver of spleen or pancreas) A century ago we had vague notions about the liver having ": something to do with digestion"-now we know it has over thirty metabolic functions-each of which is understood in intricate detail.

Yet, despite the accumulation of vast amounts of factual knowledge about the brain (about 10 ,000 papers are presented every year at the Society for Neuroscience meetings) even the most BASIC questions about our minds remain unanswered. What is the will? What is the " self"? Why do I have the sense of a single person who endures through time and space ? What is consciousness? Why do we laugh-make rhythmic head movements and vocalizations in certain situations? Why do we cry ? ( Why the salty liquid flowing down my cheeks?) Why do we dance? What is the meaning of art? Why music? Why do we dream? Why do we even sleep?

But I will venture the prediction that all this will change in the next hundred years. By asking the right kinds of questions and doing the right kinds of experiments we can begin to answer these lofty questions which have until now remained the preoccupation of philosophers.

And there is a sense in which this will be the greatest upheaval of all with far greater implications than the Copernican or Darwinian revolution. For once we understand human nature- once we understand OURSELVES- there is really no limit to what human beings can achieve.

Lest this sounds like a vague promissory note let me conclude with a concrete example.

A certain proportion of " retarded" autistic children display astonishing abilities in certain domains such as arithmetic and visual art. .. the so-called " Idiot savant syndrome". This raises a fascinating question. If a RETARDED person can generate astonishingly beautiful drawings ( like Nadia's horses which were even better than those of Da Vinci) then do we ALL have such latent abilities or is it only true for retarded autists? If so can we tap into these abilities if we are NOT retarded?

The fact that we cannot yet confidently answer YES or NO to this question shows how little we know about the brain. One clue comes from Lorna Selfes monograph on the autistic child Nadia. Nadia produced exceptionally life like animated renderings of horses until she was about eight. But once she became an adolescent she completely lost the ability. Selfe has argued that once Nadia became more "conceptually" sophisticated , the price she had to pay was a loss of her spontaneous artistic skills (I can vouch from personal experience that my drawings from childhood were much better than they are now!) Alan Snyder has made the ingenious proposal that an absence of higher level "conceptual" thinking (e.g. about horses) allows savants like Nadia to more readily and directly access "earlier" brain modules concerned with less "conceptual"-but more visually compelling- representations.

If so, could it be that higher brain centers in normal people actually INHIBIT the outputs of the early modules? There is one recent unpublished report from Australia ( Inspired by Snyder's speculations) that temporarily "silencing" the frontal lobes using TMS (Transcranial magnetic stimulation) cause even NORMAL adults to suddenly produce beautiful drawings during the stimulation! This observation is so astonishing that it requires independent confirmation. Although I wont hold my breath, I have known of stranger things being true (e.g. molecules dictating resemblance between parents and offspring or prions multiplying by directly changing protein configuration rather than through DNA!) We know so little about the brain that we must keep an open mind and be prepared for surprises.

I have sometimes encountered patients who had no poetic or artistic talent until they were well into their sixties and suddenly had a stroke or began having epileptic seizures and this seemed to suddenly "liberate" their artistic skills! One gentleman had no interest in (or talent for) poetry whatsoever until the onset of temporal lobe seizures .. and after that he began to produce large volumes of good (but not outstanding) poetry (Ramachandran and Blakeslee,1998). Another practicing artist in California had a stroke that caused a sudden IMPROVEMENT in her artistic style.. it became more free flowing, abstract and imaginative. Research at UCLA has shown that some patients with progressive fronto-parietal dementia suddenly start painting beautiful pictures - whereas they never could before the onset of dementia.

I have previously suggested that in some of these people (especially savants) there may be damage to some areas that actually causes an enlargement or hyperfunctioning of the islands of brain tissue that are spared in them. For example people who have outstanding mathematical skills may have an actual enlargement of the angular gyrus (especially on the left) an area known to be important for calculation. (Ramachandran and Blakeslee, 1998) Remarkably , this prediction has now been confirmed on Einstein's brain-it had enlarged parietal lobes!

In stroke patients and in TLE there is unlikely to be an actual hypertrophy of areas devoted to math or art. More likely there is an increase in ALLOCATION OF ATTENTIONAL RESOURCES to the surviving brain modules in a manner similar to what was suggested by Selfe and Snyder for Savant syndrome.

The implications of all this, if confirmed, are staggering. For these patients provide us an existence proof that there is a sense in which we are ALL artistic (or mathematical or musical) geniuses-but we have "repressed" these skills and are "in denial"! If so do we have to wait for seizures or strokes to unleash this potential? Or can it be achieved through some less drastic means?

To Know More

Phantoms in the Brain : Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind
by V. S. Ramachandran

Encyclopedia of the Human Brain
by V. S. Ramachandran

Reith Lectures 2003: The Emerging Mind (BBC)
by V. S. Ramachandran

The Author
V.S. Ramachandran is Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition and professor with the Psychology Department and the Neurosciences Program at the University of California, San Diego, and Adjunct Professor of Biology at the Salk Institute. Ramachandran trained as a Physician and obtained an MD from Stanley Medical College and subsequently a PhD from Trinity College at the University of Cambridge, where he was elected a senior Rouse Ball Scholar. Ramachandran's early research was on visual perception but he is best known for his work in Neurology.

He has received many honours and awards including a fellowship from All Souls College, Oxford, an honorary doctorate from Connecticut College, a Gold medal from the Australian National University, the Ariens Kappers Medal from the Royal Nederlands Academy of Sciences, for landmark contributions in neuroscience and the presidential lecture award from the American Academy of Neurology. He is also a fellow of the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla and a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Behavioral Sciences at Stanford. 

Copyright 2003 V.S. Ramachandran
All rights reserved. Reproduction in all forms is forbidden
Brain & Mind Magazine 17 (May-August 2003)
An initiative:
Center for Biomedical Informatics
State University of Campinas, Brazil
First Published 25.May.2003