Dr. Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, a behavioral neurologist who heads the Center for Brain and Cognition at UC San Diego, has a creative approach to certain mental illnesses as a problem of data mapping in the brain. His work is featured in “Brain Games,” an article by John Colapinto appearing in the May 11, 2009 issue of The New Yorker, at p. 76.

            Ramachandran’s genius is devising simple solutions to sensory anomalies. If the data received by our brain is to be properly interpreted, it has to be laid out in the proper place – like the features in a road map. If the mapping has two broad areas – us and the outside world – then our sensory data is supposed to be positioned within one of two cocentric circles. The inner circle is like our personal city limits, the information from our five senses that tells us about ourselves. The outer circle is what we hear, see, touch, taste and smell from things around us.

            This is where is gets interesting.  A number of mental illnesses involve problems with the boundary between the inside and outside worlds. If data cannot be reconciled or seems incomplete, the brain’s automatic conflict-resolution mechanism draws a wrong conclusion, which we often label as a delusion or mental illness. 

            Here are some examples of how brain-data-mapping anomalies may define mental disorders. The left column involves insufficient sensory data arriving from outside our bodies; while the right column is characterized by too much information.

Sensory Map Voids (Missing, Defective or Incomplete Data from the Outside World). [Too little data.]

Sensory Map Surfeits (Overlapping, Cross-Wiring or Mispositioning of Data from the Outside World) [Too much data.]

Apotemnophelia (craving amputation of a healthy limb)

Schizophrenia (inter alia, difficulty distinguishing between sensory data that is internally and externally generated; for example, hearing non-existent voices perceived to be bodyless emanations of the outside world when in fact that are voices generated from within)

Autism (inter alia, a systemic deficit in mirror neurons resulting in “severe social impairment, including an inability to imitate and a lack of empathy”)

Borderline personality disorder (black & white thinking; and the love-hate emotional phenomenon of ‘out of sight, out of love’)

Narcissist, Psychopath and Sociopath. Anti-Social Personality Disorder (“ASPD”)

Synesthesia (associating letters of the alphabet with colors; associating colors with smells, etc.)

Capgras delusion (relatives are perceived to be strangers)

 

Phamtom limb phenomenon (amputated limb still feels like it is present)

 

 

            It remains to be seen if brain plasticity, which is the brain’s ability to re-map physical areas to receive information from a different one of the five senses – or a different part of the body – provides a mechanism for reducing the impact of these serious mental health conditions.