Phantoms in the Brain: Summary & Review

phantoms in the brain book cover

Phantoms in the Brain reviews exceptional neurological cases to shed new light on brain functions such as decision-making, self-deception, recovery, and neuroplasticity.

Bullet Summary

  • There’s no unified self
  • We construct our own reality
  • We all deploy defense mechanisms

Full Summary

About The Author: V.S. Ramachandran is a neuroscientist and he is known for being a bit of a maverick in the scientific community.
His contributions have not only helped increase our scientific knowledge but also helped countless patients.

Studying The Exceptions

Ramachandran has a different approach than most.

He prefers investigating borderline neurological cases rather than the norm.

He removes patients from the realm of insanity and says they are often simply defense mechanisms.

Ramachandran says that “borderline cases” and “exceptions” provide the best examples to understand how the brain works.
Instead of discounting and ignoring them as most do, one single example is enough to at least start a theory.

He says that if I showed you a talking pig you wouldn’t say “but that’s just one, show me one more, and then I’ll believe you“.

Ramachandran also often uses very simple techniques and technologies.
He says Galileo understood all planets orbit around the sun with cardboard with two lenses inside.

Today is no different: many discoveries are staring into our faces and need no expensive equipment.
And Ramachandran certainly walks that talk…

Chapter 1: The Phantom Within

Ramachandran says there are some specialized parts of the brain and focuses on how they interact with each other.

The example in chapter one is of a woman whose left hand tried to strangle her.

Chapter 2: “Knowing Where to Scratch”

Chapter two of Phantoms in The Brain focuses on phantom limbs.

The patient he examined, Tom, had a constant itching sensation on his amputated hand.
He couldn’t scratch it because, of course, the hand wasn’t there.

What happened is that the mental maps of the arm and face took over the space in the brain that was allocated to the hand. The over-imposing of the brain maps created a mix-up of signals for Tom.

Ramachandran found out that, by scratching certain parts of his face, Tom was able to finally scratch his hand.

Also, people with an amputated foot had much bigger orgasms because the penis mental map took over the foot mental map.
Ramachandran wonders if the foot fetish has something to do with the fact that the mental map of sexual orgasms and feet are spatially so nearby.

Chapter 3: Chasing the Phantom

In chapter 3 Ramachandran discusses a man with an amputated hand who had the feeling his fingernails were digging into the palm of his amputated hand.

Ramachandran managed to cure him with a simple assembly of different mirrors, giving the patient’s brain the feeling that he was seeing the paralyzed hand moving.

As the patient opened the non-amputated hand, the brain thought it was the amputated hand, and finally, the pain was relieved.

Chapter 4: The Zombie in the Brain

Ramachandran says that perception is much more than replicating images in our brains.

Chapter 5: The Secret Life of James Thurber

Chapter 5 of Phantoms in The Brain focuses on hallucinations.

Ramachandran talks about the blind spot and how our brain “fills the gap” (you can check your blind spot here).

This is not an exception, but the example of a trait of our brain to fill in information even when there’s no information.
The same principle applies when we see a dog behind a fence: we don’t perceive the dog as in pieces, but as a whole even though our brain sees “pieces”.

Ramachandran says that our brain fills information out of a basic evolutionary need: saving resources and saving computational power.

Chapter 6: Through the Looking Glass

Ramachandran in chapter 6 of Phantoms in The Brain talks about the patient Ellen.

Ellen damaged her right parietal lobe and simply does not pay attention to what happens to the left of her space and body.
She will notice if people draw attention to it, but if not she might.

Ramachandran experimented with putting a mirror on her “good side” and a pen on her left side.
She knew full well it was a mirror, but since she now saw the reflection on her right side, but doesn’t pay attention to her left side. She thought the pen was “in the mirror” or must have been behind it, never even thinking it was on her left.

Ramachandran says it calls into question our own perception of reality, and how an alien looking at us from a four dimension world might interpret our behavior as being equally perverse.

Chapter 7: The Sound of One Hand Clapping

Ramachandran talks about a patient with a paralyzed left arm… Who was convinced it wasn’t paralyzed?

It was a case of denial patients, who often make up inane and crazy excuses of why their arms or legs don’t move when they need to.

The author introduces Freud and the defense mechanism in this chapter.
He makes the case that all the lies, excuses, and rationalizations patients use are nothing more than an extreme case of defense mechanisms we all engage in -be it the bills or denying our final destination, death-.

Ramachandran shows with experiments that denial patients are not trying to save face but fully believe their own lies.
The author then wonders if there’s some part in their brain that knows the truth, and with another “Ramachandran” experiment he borrowed from an Italian neurologist -dropping cold water in the ear canal-, he found out the patients know the truth deep down.
And that truth can be brought to the rational part of the brain, finally admitting their paralysis.

Ramachandran proposes a couple of ideas about why the cold water worked, but it’s mostly speculative in the book.

For more on separate compartments of the brain also read: Incognito.

Reaction Formation

This chapter is particularly interesting for Ramachandran’s digression about Freud.

He says he used to be, like most of his colleagues, very skeptical about his ideas.
But as he researched more and more he came to realize that, albeit Freud wrote a lot of nonsense, “there’s no denying he was a genius”.

Reaction Formation is the tendency of emphasizing a trait that runs contrary to our natural disposition in an effort to disguise people and ourselves reality.
For example, a late homosexual might strut in cowboy boots and act macho in an unconscious attempt to assert his presumed masculinity.

A study also shows how “gay bashers” get bigger erections when watching male pornography than non-bashers.


Ramachandran says that humor is also often used to “disguise the absurdity of the human condition”.

We use nervous laughter or all the time we use humor to defuse tense situations. It might not be the case that humor is often about topics that are the most difficult to openly talk about, such as sex, religion, and racism.

My Note:
Indeed, all those people who bear tense situations without cracking a joke or smiling are considered stronger.
Think of The Godfather

Chapter 8: “The Unbearable Likeness of Being”

Chapter 8 of Phantoms in the Brain deals with people who don’t recognize their parents or close relatives and believe they are impostors.

Ramachandran explains it with a breathtaking theory.
Since the emotional parts of the brain are damaged they don’t feel any warmth when looking at their parents.
So the brain tells them they cannot be their parents and must be someone else.

Basically, we human beings also have a sort of imprinting. Imprinting based on emotions.

Chapter 9: God and the Limbic System

Ramachandran says many traits differentiate us as human, and pondering on our own lives and the existence of God is possibly one of the most relevant.

He wonders whether our brain has some circuitry for religious experience, and if it exists where it come from, and how it evolved.

It appears there are circuits in the human brain involved in religious experience.
We don’t know though if they evolved for religious experience or if they generate other feelings that are conducive to religious beliefs.

Ramachandran starts his dissection of evolutionary psychology here.
He says that just because a trait is common to all culture doesn’t necessarily mean it has biological roots.
For example, almost all cultures cook, but there are no “cooking genes”.

Chapter 10: The Woman Who Died Laughing

In chapter 10 of Phantoms of the Brain Ramachandran goes deeper on evolutionary psychology.

He says that fiction and facts get easily blurred in evolutionary psychology. The author sat down once to test how far one could go in making up theories without any back evidence, and came up with an “evolutionary psychology” story of why men like blonde.

He easily published the paper and few complained about it.

Ramachandran says there seem to be two camps in evolutionary psychology:

  1. One affirms that natural selection selects all our mental traits
  2. The other camp calls the first “ultra-Darwinist” and contend there are more factors at play.

For example, feathers evolved to keep reptilians warm but slowly morphed to being used for flying (pre-adaptation).
Ramachandran is more in line with the second camp.

My Note:
Always watch out for people on Internet backing up their theories with evolutionary psychology “stories”. That being said, the field will shed copious light on your understanding of human beings, for which I highly recommend you check out The Moral Animal and The Selfish Gene).

Chapter 11: “You Forgot to Deliver the Twin”

Ramachandran talks about false pregnancies, such as “pregnancies” with no fetus, and what they tell us about the connection between mind and body.

The author says that the “wholeness” of mind and body is not just new wave philosophy. There’s some truth behind it.

Ramachandran also mentions those rare cases where tumors disappear by themselves and wonders why they are no studies to investigate this phenomenon more deeply as they could hold the secret for curing cancer.

Chapter 12: Do Martians See Red?

Ramachandran says here that after years studying borderline cases and normal people he has come to the realization that we create our own reality and that there’s no single unified self.

For more on our brain limitations check: Predictably Irrational and Incognito.

phantoms in the brain book cover

Practical Applications

To me there’s on single, huge application that I would draw from this book:

You Make Your Own Reality
You make up your own reality. So why not make a great reality, and one that is useful to you?

Defense Mechanisms
We all deploy defense mechanisms. But these mechanisms often don’t really help us move forward, make us happy or achieve our goals. I would invite you to read Principles by Ray Dalio for an approach that revers reality, be it “good” for us or “bad”.


Collection of curiosities
The book is super interesting, yet I’d have troubles to pinpoint what exactly it talks about. There’s so much meat, and so much variety of it, that there’s not a single thing that stands out.
This doesn’t have to be a con, but the book is less memorable because of it.

Lots of “Theories”
The book presents a lot of theories which are.. Ramachandran’s own ideas. Not necessarily a bad thing, but definitely something to keep in mind.


I wish every researcher read Phantoms in the Brain and followed Ramachandran on his pioneering spirit and disregard for dogmas.

Hopefully, we will have more and more and we will move quicker and quicker towards alleviating the sufferings of many.

I find by the way his method not too dissimilar from this website. The Power Moves also takes specific and often “difficult” social situations and derives general social rules from the specific cases.

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