Insomnia, mirror neurons and the recanting of bluster

This week’s Nature has a couple of interesting books reviews: one on insomnia, and another on mirror neurons. The review of the mirror neuron book is by V.S. Ramachandran who also recants one of his famous and more outlandish statements made almost a decade ago.

Insomniac is a book on the trials, tribulations and scientific investigations of insomnia which is reviewed by sleep psychologist Jim Horne.

I nearly took Prof Horne’s course on sleep psychology as an undergraduate but decided against it (rather ironically) as I thought it started too early in the morning.

My early bird housemate decided to take the plunge and many years later he is now a sleep psychologist living on the beach in Australia. There’s a moral in that story somewhere, but I’ve never thought it very wise to think too hard about it.

However, the book review does contain a few gems, most notably some wonderfully succinct descriptions of sleep problems and their treatment:

This tiredness can be linked to insomnia, but both are usually symptoms of something more deep-seated. Treating the insomnia alone (by hypnotic drugs, for example) makes little difference and can be an expensive, frustrating and fruitless course of action, especially in the United States, where sleep induction is a billion-dollar industry. Many, like Green, then seek the solace and sympathies of alternative therapies.

Insomnia comes in many forms: difficulty in falling asleep, too many fitful awakenings or waking up too early. Although there may be obvious physical causes, such as pain and physical illness, for most other sufferers (especially [the author] Green) insomnia is more a problem of wakefulness intruding into sleep, rather than just bad sleep. To be more explicit, it is a 24-hour disorder in which persistent anxiety, anger or miserable notions, sitting constantly at the back of a person’s mind, ruin the expectations of their next sleep. Clearly, the eventual cure must address this state of waking mind. It is pointless going to bed with these stresses.

In the other review, V.S. Ramachandran tackles a book on mirror neurons by Rizzolatti and Sinigaglia.

Ramachandran famously made the rather overblown statement that “mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology”.

I always assumed that this meant they would annoy creationists, but, rather predictably, neither my interpretation nor Ramachandran’s have come to pass.

However, in the last sentence of the review he recants his decade-old bluster with the slightly more realistic “It remains to be seen whether they will turn out to be anything as important as that, but as Sherlock Holmes said to Watson: ‘The game is afoot.'”

Link to review of ‘Insomniac’.
Link to review of ‘Reflecting on the mind’.

One Comment

  1. Varun Dabke
    Posted May 2, 2008 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    Speaking of mirror neurons reminds me of a funny movie ‘God must be crazy’ where an African bush dweller man would mirror language skills of the foreigner he is talking to. Thus they would be able to understand each other.
    Hypothetically, this would require a very EM sensitive brain, which will scan other’s brain to quick learn foreign language skills, just hypothetically!
    Any thoughts on this?


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