The Tell-Tale Brain

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The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist's Quest for What Makes Us Human
The Tell Tale Brain cover.jpg
Author Vilayanur S. Ramachandran
Language English
Subject neuroscience
Genre non-fiction
Publisher W. W. Norton & Company
Publication date
January 17, 2011
Pages 357
ISBN 978-0-393-07782-7

The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist's Quest for What Makes Us Human is a 2010 nonfiction book by V. S. Ramachandran that explores, from a neurological viewpoint, the uniqueness of human nature. Ramachandran explores various aspects of visual perception and cognition to argue that humans are unique among species. For example, he notes that although animals show cortical remapping after the loss of a limb, the plasticity seen in the human brain (after amputation) is much more dramatic.[1]

Ramachandran discusses seven main concepts which define the human aspect of self and how each may be disrupted by a specific neurological disorder. The concepts are: unity, continuity, embodiment, privacy, social embedding, free-will, and self-awareness.


Tell-Tale Brain was on the New York Times best-seller list (Number 32 on the Hardcover Nonfiction list)[2] and received mostly highly positive with some exceptions.[3] The book won the 2010 Vodafone Crossword Book Award (Non-Fiction).[4]

Positive reviews[edit]

Oliver Sacks writes “No one is better than V. S. Ramachandran at combining minute, careful observation with ingenious experiments and bold, adventurous theorizing. The Tell-Tale Brain is Ramachandran at his best, a profoundly intriguing and compelling guide to the intricacies of the human brain.”[5]

Allan Snyder, Director of the Center for the Mind, said that the books is: “A masterpiece. The best of its kind and beautifully crafted. Alluring story telling, building to a penetrating understanding of what it is to be uniquely human. Ramachandran is the foremost pioneer—the Galileo—of neurocognition.”[6]

Norman Doidge, M.D., author of The Brain That Changes Itself praised the book by saying:“Ramachandran is the modern wizard of neuroscience. In The Tell-Tale Brain, we see the genius at work, tackling extraordinary cases, many of which mark turning points in neuroscientific knowledge. We see him hypothesizing, experimenting, failing, having epiphanies, experimenting, succeeding. In this utterly entertaining account, we see how these fascinating cases fit together, and how he uses them to explain, from a Darwinian point of view, how our brains, though evolved from those of other animals, become neurologically distinct and fundamentally human.”[7]

In the Sunday Times, James McConnachie writes: "When VS Ramachandran, one of the world’s most influential neurologists, wants to get inside a human head, he doesn’t reach for his scalpel or MRI scanner. Instead, like Sherlock Holmes (to whom he is often compared), he seizes on an oddity in a case study, then begins a pleasing process of deduction interspersed with leaps of excitingly creative thought. This absorbing book charts the acclaimed experiments he has performed around the world and at the University of California’s cutting-edge Centre for the Brain, and explains how they have helped unravel the workings of the human mind."[8]

Allan Snyder, FRS, Director of the Centre for the Mind writes: “A masterpiece. The best of its kind and beautifully crafted. Alluring story telling, building to a penetrating understanding of what it is to be uniquely human. Ramachandran is the foremost pioneer—the Galileo—of neurocognition."[9]

Critical reviews[edit]

In his review for the American Scientist, Simon Baron-Cohen, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at Cambridge University, said he found the book stimulating and enjoyable but questioned the validity of Ramachandran's views on the importance of mirror neurons. In particular, Baron-Cohen took issue with Ramachandran's well known prediction "... that mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology: they will provide a unifying framework and help explain a host of mental abilities that have hitherto remained mysterious and inaccessible to experiments.” Baron-Cohen stated "Whether [Ramachandran] has overstated the importance of mirror neurons and will decide to retract this statement remains to be seen." Baron-Cohen, who is Director of the Autism Research Center at Cambridge University, pointed out that Ramachandran has failed to acknowledge the experimental evidence that contradicts his theory that dysfunctional mirror neurons play a significant role in autism. Baron-Cohen writes "There are also clinical and experimental reasons for being skeptical of the broken-mirror theory of autism... As an explanation of autism, the [Broken Mirror] theory offers some tantalizing clues; however, some problematic counter-evidence challenges the theory and particularly its scope.".[10] Dr. Baron-Cohen, however, does not address numerous other chapters and ideas discussed in the book. Ramachandran himself, has noted (even in the Tell-Tale Brain) that the evidence for the Broken Mirror Theory of autism, is, at present, "Compelling but not conclusive".

In the New York Times, Anthony Gottlieb criticized Ramachandran for not mentioning that his ideas about the importance of mirror neurons are controversial:

"Although Ramachandran admits that his account of the significance of mirror neurons is speculative, he doesn’t let on just how controversial it is. In the past four years, a spate of studies has dented every part of the mirror-neuron story. Doubt has been cast on the idea that imitation and the understanding of actions depend on mirror neurons, and on the theory that autism involves a defect in these systems of cells. It has even been claimed that the techniques used to detect the activity of mirror neurons have been widely misinterpreted. Ramachandran may have good reason to discount these skeptical studies, but he surely should have mentioned them.".[11] However, in his footnotes, Ramachandran does in fact point out the controversy surrounding mirror neurons.

Nicholas Shakespeare, the well-known British writer, felt that Ramachandran did not fully engage the ideas presented in the book:

"Ramachandran wanders along intriguing neural pathways, pausing to investigate strange disorders, but he leaves the impression that he is an explorer who has yet to leave the coast. Further, he appears not fully to appreciate that the interior of this vast continent he is mapping may be at war. His book is intermittently fascinating, but is not important in the way of Iain McGilchrist The Master and His Emissary, last year’s magisterial study of the brain’s two opposed hemispheres, which it nicely (though unintentionally) complements – even to the extent of using some of the same illustrations."[12]

In his review for the Wall Street Journal, Raymond Tallis, emeritus professor of geriatric medicine at the University of Manchester complained that Ramachandran has failed to provide the research needed to back up his theories:

"The trouble begins when the neurologist turns philosopher and tries to use these insights to get closer to "what makes us human." He suggests that such cross-wiring underpins both humans' ability to enjoy metaphors and artists' capacity to create novel connections—an assertion that has scarcely any research to back it up. (What little has been done depends on laughably simplistic models of how metaphors and creativity really work.) Likewise, his explanation of how we became speaking animals has scarcely a toe-hold on empirical data."[13]


  1. ^ Brugger, Peter, Book Review, Cognitive Neuropsychiatry, Vol. 17, Issue 4, 2012
  2. ^ New York Times Best Sellars, February 20, 2011
  3. ^ [1]
  4. ^ "Vodafone Crossword book awards 2010 announced", IBN Live, Sep 03
  5. ^ Oliver Sachs, Review on Amazon Web Site
  6. ^ Snyder, Review on Amazon Web Site
  7. ^ Doidge, Review on Amazon Web Site
  8. ^ James McConnachie, The Tell-Tale Brain by VS Ramachandran, The Sunday Times, January 09, 2011 [2]
  9. ^
  10. ^ Baron-Cohen, Making Sense of the Brain's Mysteries, American Scientist, On-line Book Review, July–August, 2011 [3]
  11. ^ Anthony Gottlieb, A Lion in the Undergrowth, Sunday Book Review, January 28, 2011 [4]
  12. ^ Nicholas Shakespeare, Book Reviews, The Telegraph, Jan 7, 2011
  13. ^ Raymond Tallis, The Mind in the Mirror, Wall Street Journal Bookshelf

External links[edit]