IT’S the end of a long day of talks, and a gaggle of people are jostling around one of the final speakers. Everyone seems to have a question for V. S. Ramachandran, who is as close to a celebrity as a neuroscientist can get. Most want to know more about the curious brain conditions he has been discussing, but one woman has a more personal interest. Listening to his talk, she came to suspect that she has a very unusual brain.
Ramachandran has built a career on studying people with strange brains, and working out what they can tell us about what it means to be human. Perhaps his most famous work is on phantom limb syndrome – the sensation some people have that their missing limb is still present – but he has also studied synaesthesia, autistic savants and bizarre conditions like Cotard syndrome, in which people believe they are dead.
Today he has been talking about calendar synaesthesia, one of the most striking examples he has seen of how the body and brain interact to shape our minds. When most people think about what they plan to do in November, say, they have a hazy concept of the months ahead. But people with calendar synaesthesia can actually see a calendar in front of them, often in a strange formation – a hula hoop that touches them in the centre of their chest, for instance.
He suspects this hints at the way our brains cope with the non-intuitive concept of months. “The brain didn’t have time in evolution for creating the representation of time – it’s too abstract. What evolution often does is take pre-existing hardware and re-tool it.” We did develop tools for conceptualising our surroundings. “So you take a spatial map, map time onto space, and you get a calendar.” For synaesthetes, that calendar seems to be visible in space.
Answering questions from his fans, Rama (as everyone knows him) is sparkly eyed and fun. But when Dorian tells him she thinks she has calendar synaesthesia, his demeanour changes. Leaning in, he quizzes her about her experiences. How does she see the world? Could she draw him a picture? He pulls out a piece of paper and she searches for a pen. Eager to see what she is going to draw, several onlookers offer their own. We all want a glimpse of the inner workings of her mind. She draws a loop to show how the calendar looks to her, with months coming off. Then she says she feels herself to be “sort of hovering above it”.
It’s not uncommon for Ramachandran to meet the people he studies through this sort of chance encounter, he later tells me. And occasionally they shine a light onto one of the hardest questions about what it means to be human: the nature of consciousness.
The reason this is so hard to study is because it is inherently subjective. “The first person singular does not exist in the physical world,” he says. “It’s a ghost.” He calls this the “vantage point problem”. But, he says, it doesn’t make consciousness impossible to study. You just have to find ways of showing that the subjective experience someone is telling you about is real – which is what Ramachandran specialises in. “You take the sense of self and say, OK, what can I say empirically?” he says.
“Consciousness is inherently subjective, it does not exist in the physical world”