The brain is what makes human beings such extraordinary animals but we still know surprisingly little about how it works. In The Tell-Tale Brain, V S Ramachandran, one of the world's leading neurologists, sets out the state of contemporary neuroscience, focusing particularly on aesthetics, language and sight. The result is fascinating.
Neuroscience today, writes Ramachandran, is at the point where chemistry was when the Periodic Table was created. Huge amounts of progress have been made in recent decades and he expects to see great leaps in our understanding over the next few years.
Like Oliver Sacks, Ramachandran uses case studies of people with conditions such as synesthesia, autism and phantom limbs to learn about how the healthy brain functions. And like Sacks, Ramachandran's work demonstrates just how fragile we are: an accident or a stroke can permanently alter our sense of self or our experience of the world.
There are some extraordinary cases in this book, including people who have become convinced that their loved ones are impostors and even a man who is certain that he is dead, despite irrefutable evidence to the contrary.
Ramachandran sets out what we know so far, discusses how his experiments have shed light on previously mysterious topics and suggests possible answers to problems that are so far unsolved.
This speculation, informed as it is by Ramachandran's vast experience and sharp intelligence, is thought-provoking. His theories about art are illuminating, particularly the difference between good art and kitsch.
The book is let down only by the writing, which is often too full of jargon and not always as clear as it might be. However, as someone with no scientific training and very little knowledge of the biology of the brain, I didn't find it too hard to keep up.
Ramachandran has a weakness for bad jokes, something that I found endearing but which could irritate other readers. He also fancies himself as a Sherlock Holmes among neurologists, which leads to a few awkward pastiches of Conan Doyle.
Nevertheless, Ramachandran's weaknesses as a writer should be overlooked in favour of his vast knowledge of his subject. I learned a lot from reading this book and it's changed the way that I think about the brain. I recommend it to all.