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An intriguing title...notice the play of words: for, a mind can only exist in a body, and each living human body has a mind; the novel part is of course the of its own. The body has a mind of its own as opposed to the separate substance, mind, that philosophers have always supposed to be attached to the body in some mysterious way -- like through Descartes' pineal gland. Thus, from the title itself, the book seems to be claiming that the body and the mind are in fact not separate substances, but inherently connected. Philosophers should not get too excited, however; for, whether the book actually solves the mystery of this inherent connection still remains to be seen.
But this is not an academic book, a philosopher's book, it is -- quite the contrary -- popular science. Unapologetically. And, indeed, in many ways thankfully so. The authors clearly possess a sense of wonder for the latest discoveries of cutting-edge scientific research, which (unlike academics) they are able to convey to their audience in a simple, highly readable prose. Further, the authors manage to generate and maintain the interest of the reader (unlike philosophers) with their captivating style as well as through numerous examples from real-life case studies.
Chapter 1 introduces the basic direction of the book: it is "the sum total of your numerous flexible, morphable body maps" that "gives rise to the solid-feeling subjective sense of 'me-ness' and to your ability to comprehend and navigate the world around you" (12). Now the idea of these morphable maps, cumulatively envisaged as a sort of "body mandala" forms the central concern of the book. The authors claim that our beliefs about the world as well as about ourselves, even the belief that there is a single thinking-experiencing self, are ultimately a product of the interaction of various body maps in the brain.
From discussing the physical network of body maps in the brain, the authors move on to the felt experience of the body constructed by these maps, called "the body schema." The body schema, however, is mostly unconscious. The "conscious perception of your body: how you see yourself and how you present yourself to the world" is your "body image." For example, if you have recently lost weight but see yourself in the mirror to be just as fat as before, it is your body image that is to blame.
Obviously, this has interesting implications for epistemology and other meta-psychological studies. The claim is that what we perceive as real is in fact dependent on our ingrained (literally, etched into the brain) beliefs and prior experiences (our body image for instance), and these projections of the "subject" may be contrary to the present reality itself.
Another discussion in the book with relation to a classical problem in epistemology (that is, the problem of "inter-subjectivity" and our knowledge of the other) centers on the discovery of what are called "mirror neurons," or "body maps that run simulations of what other people's body maps are up to" (166). We have a network of mirror neurons that help us understand the actions of others as they contain copies of these actions. Thus it is through accessing a part of ourselves that we are able to understand others. We can thus predict -- and also empathize with -- the actions of others.
Moving away from epistemology-related themes, there are numerous body-map discoveries that have medical (both psychiatric and physiological) applications as well: a tight body suit that re-maps part of the brain, thereby curing anorexia; and, a mirror box which fools the brain maps and thus cures pain from phantom limbs. Relevant to sports trainers or even physiotherapists, the body-maps in the brain can be exploited through processes like imagining certain skilled motor actions, which turn out to be almost as effective as actually practicing them. Through descriptions of body maps gone foul, the book even provides explanations for phenomena that are ordinarily believed to be supernatural, like seeing auras and out-of-body experiences.
With this panoply of useful and interesting information fed to the reader by way of examples and anecdotes, the book is a fascinating read. All the same, the fundamental thesis of the book remains somehow unsatisfying to the critical reader with a keen interest in the philosophy of mind. The supposition that the "the core psychic self" arises "from the sum of brain activity distributed across dozens of maps and other brain regions" (208) needs more considered attention. It is, after all, a very tall claim to speak so reductively of the core, the essence of subjectivity, and also so glibly of the subject's pre-conditioned constitution of the object (reality).
To rephrase this point into the authors' own terms, in chapter 2 mention is made of the first complete body map, which was called a "homunculus" (or "little man"). The Blakeslees dismiss the hypothesis that there is a "little man" in the brain calling all the shots; rather, there are just cells and more cells and, of course, the interactions between cells. Even with this claim, however, the authors are not able to avoid committing the homunculus fallacy themselves. (One commits the homunculus fallacy "whenever he 'explains' something important about how the mind works by sidestepping the real difficulties of the problem and shifting them to another, unspecified level of explanation -- where it remains just as mysterious as ever" (18).) The explanations provided in this book never address the age-old mystery of how the mind and the brain are connected, but instead provide examples -- even including the exact locations -- confirming that they are connected. In short, Descartes' pineal gland has become the Blakeslees' body mandala.
But as we noted at the outset, to address deep philosophical questions is not the aim of the book. Within the genre of popular science, this book has made scientific discoveries accessible and attractive for the general reader, and brought out their utility in our everyday lives. It is fun, provocative, and well-written. These accomplishments in themselves make the book very much worth reading.
© 2008 A. Singh and P. Worah
A. Singh (LUISS University, Rome) & P. Worah (University of Delhi, New Delhi)
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