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Close-up: V.S. Ramachandran

Famed UCSD neuroscientist puts his mind to problems big and small

San Diego neuroscientist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran has had no shortage of accolades for his work. He’s earned praised from world leaders and Nobel laureates, has been profiled in The New Yorker and Newsweek, and has been called the “Marco Polo of neuroscience” by famed evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.

So when Time magazine recently named him among the 100 most influential people in the world -- alongside President Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey and Sting -- Ramachandran concedes the recognition wasn’t all that unexpected.

“I was not surprised. It sounds arrogant, but it’s not,” Ramachandran said in a recent interview. His advances in brain research have been well documented. Still, he was gratified to see who penned the Time profile: Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health.

“When I saw that, I was extremely pleased,” he said.

Vilayanur S. Ramachandran

Ramachandran said he derives greater satisfaction from his basic research of the mind, and in that research being used to help patients with a variety of conditions, including synesthesia, autism and phantom-limb pain.

Ramachandran is director of University of San Diego, California’s Center for Brain and Cognition, a UCSD professor of psychology and neuroscience, and an adjunct professor of biology at the Salk Institute. These days he’s working on a scientific presentation about his latest work with phantom limbs, specifically, the sensations that a person “feels” even after a limb has been amputated. “When the amputated limb is removed, the feedback is removed,” he said. “So when that person watches another person being massaged, it relieves pain in the phantom limb.”

It was Ramachandran’s idea to use a mirror to reflect an amputee’s intact limb, a kind of mental trickery that has therapeutic benefits. “I like tinkering and solving little problems that sometimes have larger implications,” he said. “A lot of experiments are unrealized. Darwin used to refer to these as ‘fools’ experiments.’”

Ramachandran said his thinking is often influenced by what he learned under the tutelage of Francis Crick, the scientist best known for his part in the discovery of the DNA molecule structure. Crick believed that scientific experimentation is only as important as its broader significance, according to Ramachandran. Or, more plainly, “So what?”

“I’m deeply interested in the methodology, and the chi is to understand the creative process,” Ramachandran said. “These aspects of science are not taught, especially in graduate study.”

Ramachandran said he often peppers his college lectures with the history of science, in the hope that it will inspire students to think more imaginably about the scientific process.

“We’re not valuing human intelligence when science has become a 9-to-5 job,” he said. “When it becomes professionalized, it starts losing its soul.”

Some of the world’s greatest inventors and scientists “had this grand romantic notion of science,” a concept that can get lost in large scientific conferences where scientists are compelled to follow the crowd. “It’s not easy to be unaffected by that, but I warn my students, that gets boring,” Ramachandran said.

There are plenty of big questions out there, still waiting for exceptional scientists to put their minds to, Ramachandran said. Why does pain even exist? How can we better understand human nature, including compassion and happiness?

“The answers to these questions will increase human well-being,” he said.

-McEntee is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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