TSL Sits Down With V.S. Ramachandran

In lieu of a column this week, I had the opportunity to sit down
with the keynote speaker for Pomona’s Moving Minds Symposium,
Dr. V.S. Ramachandran. Our talk ranged from how arts and sciences
interact, to the nature of consciousness, to the importance of
liberal arts colleges in understanding the mind. The following
interview has been edited for length.

TSL: We’re here
for the Moving Minds Symposium, which is all about the
intersection of art and the sciences … How is it possible to
learn something about the mind through something like dance?

V.S. Ramachandran: We can begin to understand the neural bases of
aesthetics, of dance and art. There’s a whole discipline … of
neuroaesthetics. Despite the diversity of artistic styles, there are
some common themes, some common principles underlying this diversity.
At first, science and art seem antithetical. Art is about individual
human experience, about originality, creativity. Science is about
discovering natural principles. But people are trying to bridge the
gap by studying these neural bases.

TSL: Which is why we’re here now. So I guess the next
question I would ask is how do you think your work fits into this

VSR: I don’t know. It remains to be seen. We’ve studied
synesthesia, where people see numbers as colors or letters as colors.
Or when they listen to a tone, every tone is tinted with a color.
These are random associations almost, or quasi-random associations,
but by studying them, we can understand how the brain makes these
metaphorical associations, which is the basis of artistic creativity.
That would be a clue. So we’re always looking for clues or
footholds in science to big questions. You can’t directly tackle
big questions like ‘What is consciousness?’ But you can find a window
of opportunity and then jump through the window.

TSL: And in terms
of those “big” questions of neuroscience, what do you think we’re
closest to answering?

VSR: Well, something like construction of body image. Maybe we’re
close to that. Maybe metaphor and creativity we’re close to
understanding. We might have an inkling of what’s going on there.
Creativity’s a huge question. But not consciousness; we don’t
even know how to precisely say what it is.

But there’s a tremendous resurgence of interest in these topics.
They used to be considered the problems of philosophy.

TSL: What do you think is holding science and neuroscience
back from answering these questions? Do you think the pieces are
there and it’s just a matter of putting them together?

VSR: That’s correct, I think the pieces are there. This has
happened with DNA. There were lots of pieces lying around related to
figuring out the structure of the DNA molecule. Chargaff’s rules,
the idea of complementary base pairs, all of that was lying around—it
just needed someone to come and put them together. It may or may not
happen with neuroscience … There’s no shortage of data. The
problem is we need a new approach to the problem.

TSL: Do you think something like consciousness, 30 or 40
years down the line, can be explained entirely in terms of

VSR: Well, I can’t make that prediction unless it’s done,
right? But I think many aspects of it can be explained. The
fundamental aspect, the metaphysical aspect; that’s a problem that
usually means many different things. The empirical problem of it is
composed of sense of self, sense of agency, free will, sense of
coherence, unity of conscious perception, the many attributes of
consciousness that we can dissect and analyze and map out a neural
picture. But asking questions like ‘Who am I and why am I here?’ … are often confounding.

TSL: And ones that science is maybe not even meant to

VSR: That’s right.

TSL: I’m interested also in asking you what you think the
role of a school like Pomona, a small liberal arts school that doesn’t
have a ton of funding for research, is in understanding the brain.

VSR: I think they play an extremely important role. I’ve been
extraordinarily impressed visiting liberal arts and small colleges
because the faculty is not in this mad frenzy for generating grants
and they’re driven more by naïve curiosity. And not naïve in the
derogatory sense, but rather like a child’s curiosity about the
world, because they have students constantly surrounding them. So
there’s an authenticity to their research that’s missing at big
schools by-and-large. I see a great future and great opportunity.

TSL: I seem to remember you mentioning that you almost wish
you could go back to an era, like in Darwin’s age, when the “world
was their playground.” I think that’s the phrase you used.

VSR: That’s right, the world being a playground still exists at
small liberal arts colleges. It does exist in big universities, but
sometimes there’s a sense of frenzy and competitiveness that spoils
all the fun. Even though they may be very effective at delivering

TSL: My one final question for you is why do you think
it’s important for an undergraduate to study neuroscience as
opposed to broader subjects like biology or chemistry?

VSR: In terms of neuroscience, human beings are always drawn to
understand themselves. What’s more interesting than understanding
human nature? … At that point it’s an obvious choice. But I
mean, if somebody’s interested in chess, that’s fine by me. The
key is you have to be passionate about something. What’s missing
with this generation, I find, is that they lack passion. They’re
bored. And if you get jaded and bored at the age of 19 or 20 you’re
in serious trouble.

[Students] should hang around professors that are passionate and
enthusiastic. There’s nothing more contagious than passion.

TSL: Do you think there’s a responsibility for professors
to drive that enthusiasm?

VSR: Absolutely. That’s their primary goal. Information can be
transmitted through a book or through the Internet. But the professor
has to be your muse.

Dr. Ramachandran will be a part
of a panel discussion entitled “The Creative Imagination:
Intersections of Science and Art” on Saturday, Oct. 5.

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