The Situationist Staff is recommending a fascinating new book, The Body Has a Mind of Its Own, co-authored by the mother-son team Sandra Blakeslee, who is a New York Times science contributor, and science writer Matthew Blakeslee.
The book’s website opens with this teaser: “Your body has a mind of its own. You know it’s true. You can feel it, you can sense it, even though it may be hard to articulate. You know your body is more than just a meat-vehicle for your mind to cruise around in, but how deeply are mind, brain and body truly interwoven? Take a moment to ask yourself: How do you know you have a body? What gives you your sense of being in charge of it, and how real, how robust, how fragile is that sense? How does your mind know where your body ends and the outside world begins? Answers can be found in the emerging science of body maps . . . .” (You can read more here.)
The Body Has a Mind of Its Own has been very favorably received and highly acclaimed. Nature had this to say:
[The book provides] some of the most exciting discoveries in neuroscience. The unifying theme is the idea that the way our body is mapped by neural circuits in the brain can account for a range of our experiences and perceptions. Using a readable and inspiring format, the authors showcase new and classic research on neural representations, without compromising accuracy . . . . Anecdotes and ideas from sister disciplines, including neurology, psychiatry and cultural anthropology, mix comfortably with laboratory observations. New discoveries titillate our curiosity, explaining common phenomena such as yo-yo dieting and contagious yawning as well as some more bizarre neurological abnormalities such as alien-hand syndrome and supernumerary-limb perception. Also covered are why you cannot tickle yourself, why some people have ‘out-of-body’ experiences, and why babies in Mali walk earlier than those anywhere else in the world . . . . The Body has a Mind of its Own is a thought-provoking book of wide appeal. It is a striking example of how complex issues in contemporary research can be presented to entertain everyone.
We are happy to climb aboard the bandwagon. To provide our readers a better sense of the book we’ve excerpted a terrific review by Wray Herbert written for the Washington Post. (Herbert is himself one of the best writers about mind-science matters, the main blogger at We’re Only Human, and author of the “Mind Matters” column for Newsweek.com.)
* * *
Sometimes, science advances on luck, and so it was with the monkey and the ice cream cone. On a summer day in 1991, neuroscientists in a laboratory at Parma University had wired up a monkey’s brain for a simple experiment. They wanted to see which neurons fired during the series of movements involved in the everyday act of drinking from a cup: the reaching, the finger curling, the grasping and so forth. But on that day the monkey was more interested in a student eating an ice cream cone. The monkey watched intently as the student moved the cone to his mouth and, as it watched, the motor neurons in its brain began to fire. The firing was a classic neurological signature. It indicated that the animal was moving its arms and hands — but in fact the monkey was quite still.
What the Italian scientists were witnessing was the first evidence for what are now known as “mirror neurons”: specialized cells in the brain that inextricably link intention with movement and perception. They explain why yawns are contagious, why sports fans contort their bodies in unison, and — on a more profound level — why one human being can empathically “feel” the distress or joy of another. They are nothing less than the neurological foundation for all human connection.
. . . Sandra Blakeslee and Matthew Blakeslee . . . tell the monkey story in a late chapter of The Body Has a Mind of Its Own, their captivating exploration of the brain’s uncanny ability to map the world. The discovery of mirror neurons, while fortuitous, was actually the culmination of decades of painstaking scientific inquiry in dozens of brain laboratories around the world, and the authors take us into those labs to watch this important scientific tale unfold. They also take us on a tour through the squishy gray matter that embodies our sense of self and otherness.
* * *
. . . The brain has lots of built-in maps, and they don’t stop at our toes and fingertips. Indeed, every time we put on a piece of jewelry or pick up a hoe or scribble with a fountain pen, the brain incorporates those objects — and the space they occupy — into our personal maps. That’s why you can actually perceive the texture of a steak through a knife and fork, and never mistake it for Jello. From the brain’s perspective, those tools are simply extensions of you.
* * *
. . . The authors have essayed some difficult terrain here and, for the most part, with clarity. They know the inner workings of both the scientific laboratory and the brain and wisely keep their heady subject matter anchored in those worlds. Readers will emerge with a far keener sense of where they are.
* * *
To read all of Wray Herbert’s Washington Post review, click here.