Thoughts and writings on neuroscience, art, and consciousness from neurologist V.S. Ramachandran.

An Introduction to Ramachandran Brain BlogTuesday, May 17, 2011 10:42 PM

Hi guys! This is VS Ramachandran from the Center for Brain and Cognition at UCSD, in La Jolla, California.

I have never blogged before, but have finally decided to bow to the dictates of fashion. I am not entirely sure how its different from just periodic updates on my university website . I guess its meant to have a more informal conversational slant.

Narcissistic reasons aside, what's the purpose of blogging ? Education is one practical goal; the instant dissemination of knowledge. But a more philosophical goal might be that it provides an immortality of sorts—as your mind merges into the world-wide web.

Anyone who has stumbled his/her way into this blog—Ramachandran Blog—probably already knows that I do research on how the human brain works, studying syndromes such as phantom limbs and synesthesia. Much of that has been widely—perhaps too widely—publicized, so I thought I'd talk about something else instead.

I will begin with the late Francis Crick, who had an honorary appointment at our center (in addition to his main appointment at the Salk and adjunct appointment at the UCSD Psychology Department) There's no particular reason for choosing him as a blog topic, he just popped into mind. Perhaps because I often quote his wise and witty maxims at lab meetings and often tell my students "Crick Stories," which deserve to become widely known. And what better vehicle than a blog? (See also my Obituary of Crick, "The Astonishing Francis Crick")

Francis Crick caricature by David Levine
Caricature of Francis Crick by David Levine
Francis Crick's name has become synonymous with modern biology. His discovery of the double helical structure of DNA with Watson, and subsequently the genetic code, marks the birth of molecular biology in the early fifties . Rather late in his career, in the late seventies, I believe, Crick moved permanently from Cambridge to La Jolla. Having solved the riddle of heredity, he set his sights on the next big problem in biology: how the activity of neurons in the brain gives rise to consciousness. (He was joined in this by Christof Koch). At around that time I had been working on human vision and (later) in neurology at Caltech and University of California at Irvine. It so happened, coincidentally, that his two interests at that time were in visual perception and consciousness and so he became instrumental in facilitating my move to the University of California, San Diego. It was a turning point in my career. ( It's astonishing how single individuals can have a huge impact on ones' research style and interests; the other two scientists who influenced me were the late Richard Gregory and Jack Pettigrew). Soon after, the Churchlands and Terry Sejnowski moved to UCSD/Salk; and we were all fortunate, as it soon became the world's leading center for cellular as well as cognitive neuroscience (Gerry Edelman also moved his empire from Rockefeller to La Jolla). La Jolla soon earned the title of the "neuron valley," which, though not matching Silicon Valley in dollar output, quickly outpaced it intellectually in terms of its collective impact in neuroscience (with exceptions like Stanford, maybe?)

Crick and Patricia Churchland and I had lunch at UCSD almost every fortnight during the last three years of his life (except during summer). Pat and I always enjoyed these; we knew we could expect several Crickisms sprinkled among his scientific insights and jokes. He detested pomposity in science and took great delight in deflating self-important individuals, whether face to face or during question time at seminars. In my next blog I'll mention some little known incidents. During his not infrequent visits to my lab he would regale me and my students with 'generic' advice on how to do science. I like to think—at the risk of seeming immodest—that some of his style (but alas not his stature!) rubbed off on us. And we have now been passing these on to the next generation

I'll transmit these to you, dear reader, in my next blog so you can in turn pass them on to several friends, ad infinitum so Crickisms become as immortal as DNA. And if anyone else has stories I invite them to join me.

By V.S. Ramachandran. Categories: History, Scientific Method

Comment by Zack - Wednesday 18th May 2011 04:24:31 AM

I really regret not having had the chance to meet Dr. Crick in life, he seems like a truly extraordinary man. I look forward to hearing more stories about him!
Comment by Sean - Monday 23rd May 2011 06:54:44 PM

My pleasure to contribute to the immortality of Dr. Crick, although he needs no help. Wonderful to have you blogging also and will surely be cheaper than purchasing more of your books- although I did that also!
Comment by Dr Harimohan - Tuesday 24th May 2011 01:07:31 PM

Dear Sir
I just happened to reach you blog by luck
to read a post on crick by someone who knew him and someone whom every Indian admires and again someone from SMC Chennai ( Iam from KMC Chennai ) was satisfying
looking forwards to many more posts
you work in autism too has great relevance to the mission we are involved in
if and when you have the rare spare time please do click on these links as I would value a response from somebody like you greatly
Thanks again Sir
Dr Harimohan