One of my favorite working neuroscientists is V.S. Ramachandran at the University of San Diego. He reminds me a lot of Nobel Prizewinner, Eric Kandel, someone who loves to investigate anomalies and who is acutely aware of the role that intuition and play play in scientific discovery. He can’t remember where he parks his car, but Ramachandran dreams up all kinds of simple, creative experiments aimed at alleviating people’s pain. For example, he used a five dollar drugstore mirror to rid amputees of phantom limb pain, a procedure that has been tested and adopted by The Walter Reed Army Hospital. He was also the first researcher to publish the fact that the brain doesn’t let unused real estate simply go to weeds. If we lose our sight, the area of the brain customarily developed for vision – the visual cortex – will be taken over by other nearby sensory areas, like hearing and touch. It’s a kind of neural redevelopment project that reliably happens in our heads.

Jesus on the Brain

Ramachandran2Ramachandran has been described as both “the Marco Polo of neuroscience” and a free-thinking “poet of neurology.” As an example, off the top of his head he hypothesized a mechanism for how people might hear God or Jesus speaking to them. The thoughts we think every day produce unconscious movement in our vocal cords. Brain damage that results in enhanced sub-vocalization might be the actual process that produces the sensation of an outside voice speaking inside one’s head. In fact, my suspicion is that any number of neurological anomalies might be responsible for many of the “spiritual” experiences that have been passed down to us through the ages. Early life was considerably more stressful then, and trauma-induced neural disorganization very likely accounts for many such “visitations.” For example, if I begin seeing auras or hearing voices coming from a burning bush on my little offshore island, one might question the strength of my connection to everyday reality. The bet with the best payoff would most likely be brain lesions, rather than an actual inspired visitation.

Gandhi Circuits

In a recent New Yorker profile by John Colapinto, Ramachandran spoke about neurons in the brain that he calls “Gandhi Neurons.” As a number of his critics have pointed out, they are more likely Gandhi Circuits, but the critics miss the point. Ramachandran’s assertion is that there are parts of the brain that we can get to fire repeatedly that will grow and connect and move us more and more in the direction of someone like Gandhi – or any number of other people who might serve as inspiring role models. This capacity to imagine ourselves as someone else helps move us away from an egocentric view of the world into a more allocentric view. I don’t think it’s an accident that our current President has studied the life of Lincoln, even going so far as to replicate his train ride to the Capitol. He’s actively working to strengthen the connections to his “Lincoln circuits!” I’m also guessing that when Larry Kincheloe, a doctor in Oklahoma City, practices “intuitive obstetrics,” he’s grown and is activating his own Gandhi Neurons.

Home Growing Our Own

gandhiRamachandran’s point seems to be clearly supported not only by neuroscience research, but by lots of anecdotal evidence as well: if there are qualities in others that we admire and respect and would like to acquire and express for ourselves, we can simply practice acting in the ways those people act. And we can teach and encourage our children likewise, to “fake it til we make it.” At some point, the brain will connect up the circuitry such that we are no longer faking.

But part of such practice must be to actively address those parts of ourselves and our kids that might be the antithesis of what we’re attempting to manifest – we have to somehow admit to and creatively address our dark, unskillful sides. Aversion and denial won’t cut it. So, if I want to be like Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity, for example, I have to start doing things for other people, perhaps even with great reluctance and resentment initially. But I can still do them nonetheless – growing my Gandhi Neurons in the process. I’m thinking such an enterprise would make quite Gandhi happy. As a matter of fact, I often hear his high-pitched, lilting voice in my head telling me that himself!