Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Blakeslees on the body's own mind...

"The Body Has a Mind of Its Own" is the title of a book being released today, September 11, by Sandra Blakeslee (N.Y.Times Science writer) and her son Matthew Blakeslee (also a science writer, making him the fourth generation of science writers in the family line!). Its subject is the maps that our brain makes of our internal and external worlds, including our feelings, emotions, and sense of self... and how plastic they can be. Much of the work they describe has been the subject of posts on this MindBlog. I enjoyed reading the book, and would highly recommend it. It crams an amazing amount of material into a small space. It is easy to read and engaging.

Here is one of the figures from the book, illustrating how our brain cells adapt to tool use, incorporating the tool into our body image.

How our brain changes when we (or monkeys, as in the figure) use a hand tool to extend our reach. Legend. a) Before learning to use a rake (left) or while passively holding the rake (right) without the intention of using it as a tool, the monkey's hand-centered visual-tacile receptive fields stay confined to the hand's immediate vicinity. But while the monkey is actively wielding the rake (center), the cells' visual receptive fields expand along its length. (Visual or tactile input to the shaded area causes a hand-centered cell in the parietal lobe to fire.) b). The visual-tacile receptive field expansion of one of the monkey's shoulder-centered neurons.

These positive points having been made, I felt during my reading like I was looking over the authors' shoulders as they were writing, and I kept wanting to suggest that the presentation be tightened up with more bottom lines brought up front. Many times I had the "Ah Ha!, why didn't they tell me THIS is where they were going" experience. With one study after another thrown onto the page I found myself loosing the thread. When I did find an interesting nugget I had not be aware of, I was frustrated by the fact that there is no bibliography or list of references provided. It would be very useful for the authors to provide such references on a website associated with the book.

There are many excellent summaries and quotable passages in the book. I like the ending paragraphs, which follow a discussion of the neural correlates of our sense of self, and how distortions in our sense of ownership can occur. A few clips:
So, is the self ultimately "just" an illusion?...According to the neuroscience of body maps - and incidentally, the majority of Eastern religions - in many respects, yes...A key point is that your mind feels like a seamless whole when "all your faculties" are working. But if your body mandala were to go on the fritz in one of a hundred ways, whether through damage to one map or several, or through a severing of between-map connections, you might suddenly experience extra arms, a phantom leg...hemineglect (where half the universe winks out of your awareness), alien hand syndrome, and all manner of delusions and misperceptions. Case studies of brain damage like these are one of the biggest philosophical, not to mention logical, arguments against the idea of a uniatry psychic core. When certain parts of the brain break, certain parts of the mind break; the illusion is spoiled, and the underlying multifariousness of the psyche is exposed......The illusion of the self is that self is a kernel, rather than a distributed, emergent system....Localizations of psychic functions are better said to exist in loops of information processing, or circuits, rather than specific points...the...psychic self...is an orchestra without a conductor or a fixed score, but whose players are so good at collaborative improv that wonderful music keeps flowing out of it. Just as the orchestra has no score and no conductor, the mind has no kernel, no "little man" sitting at the center of the fray directing the action. But it is teeming with noncentral "little men," the brain's motley team of homunculi, who form the backbone of the whole production. And you, thankfully, have the irreducible illusion of being the conductor of yours life's music in all its complexity, emotional nuace, crescendo and diminuendo - the ballad that is the you-ness of you."

1 comment:

  1. I could imagine that part of being "a natural athlete"--as in the decathalon rather than a single pure fitness event--is fast remapping. If it takes you no lessons and just a little warm up to perform competently the first time you pick up a tennis racket or a football or a vault pole--or the first time you put on ice skates or assume a ballet or balance beam posture--I'd guess you're remapping fast on the spot and/or you are arrive with an unusually rich store of maps from having mapped more in your life than your peers.