Embodied cognition – the emergent mind
Intelligence in the Flesh by Guy Claxton
1 – Limbering Up – an Introduction
At the heart of this book is an argument: that we neglect our bodies because we underestimate their intelligence. The problem is not that we have become ‘lazy’, or devoid of ‘willpower’. It is a matter of assumptions and values.
The recurring motif is this: we do not have bodies; we are bodies. If my body was different, I would be different. If I was made of silicon or fibre optics, I would need different things, and be intelligent in a different kind of way. My mind was not parachuted in to save and supervise some otherwise helpless concoction of dumb meat. No, it’s just the other way round: my intelligent flesh has evolved, as part of its intelligence, strategies and capacities that I think of as my ‘mind’. I am smart precisely because I am a body. I don’t own it or inhabit it; from it, I arise.
This realisation is both completely mundane – and quite extraordinary.
I’ll unfold a view of the human body as a massive, seething, streaming collection of interconnected communication systems that bind the muscles, the stomach, the heart, the senses and the brain so tightly together that no part – especially the brain – can be seen as functionally separate from, or senior to, any other part. Torrents of electrical and chemical messages are continually coursing through our entire body and its brain. In fractions of a second, the ‘decision-making’ of the brain can be influenced by a badly behaved bacterium in the gut, an d the level of sugar in the blood can be altered by a squeak or a dream.
Doing and thinking are not separate faculties; they are inextricably entwined.
…intelligence refers to the optimal functioning of the eco-socio-embodied systems that we are. Intelligence isn’t a faculty; it is the behaviour of an entire system when it is able to come up with good answers to the perennial question: What’s the best thing to do next? Intelligence is reconciling desires, possibilities and capabilities in real time – especially when the situation is complex, novel or unclear.
Dance, yoga and t’ai chi all have proven effects on cognitive functions such as decision-making and problem-solving, for example.
Stories can be useful even if (or precisely because) they do not refer to objectively verifiable things.
2 – A Brief History of Anti-Bodies
Peter Medawar and Paul Feyerabend showed many years ago that the actual way in which scientists work is completely different from the neat, logical picture that the published scientific paper suggests.
3 – Bodies – What Are We Made Of?
Next to her the warm body [of her dog] shifted slightly, and she wondered if she was giving off minuscule tensions that disturbed sleep. she was trying to remain motionless, but that, as a kinesics expert, she knew was impossible. Asleep or awake, if our brain functioned, our bodies moved.
Complete stillness is incompatible with life: it is anathema.
As neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert puts it:
While sensory, memory and cognitive processes are all important, they are only so because they either drive or suppress future movements. There can be no evolutionary advantage to laying down childhood memories or perceiving the colour of a rose if it doesn’t affect the way you are going to move later in life.
Animals that move have brains; those that don’t move, don’t.
The idea that intelligence can be embodied in physical structures, and that such structures can therefore take some of the strain off minds and brains, is a key one in the science of embodied cognition.
Undoubtedly the human hand requires a sizeable brain to acompany it. Indeed, many, like Tallis, have argued that the evolution of the human hand (as opposed to the paw) may well have been one of the principal drivers for the evolution of the brain. But,. as with the example of walking, we must not assume that the hand is just a highly articulated but essentially passive tool that depends on an intelligent brain to telli t what to do. Some of the ‘joint intelligence’ that the brain+hand so obviously possesses is embodied in the hand’s physical composition.
As far back as the 1880s, it was known that the entire muscular system of the body was constantly vibrating at a rate of around 10 cycles per second. When any part of the body moves, its activity is overlaid on this tremor, and this helps the rest of the body to stay coordinated – just as a pair of dancers can be better ‘coupled’ when both are listening to the same music and their movements are tied together by a common beat. This example reinforces two of our main points in this chapter: the intrinsic activity of the body, and the way in which this inherent activity contributes to the overall intelligence of the whole person. The brain cannot be properly understood except as one element of a larger system that includes the body.
The Chilean immunologist Francisco Varela, whose work has been seminal in the development of the whole area of embodied cognition, says that the immune system is really there to keep knitting the various specialist groups within the body into a single somatic identity. When the immune system spots intruders, it has the sophisticated capacity to deal with them. But this is only how it responds to emergencies. Most of the time it is monitoring and maintaining the body’s sense of coherence and identity, and this is key to how we function in the world.
…the language of distinct organs and systems does not do justice to the coherence and interwoven nature of the body. More than that, it blinds us to the essentially systemic nature of our bodily selves. …so-called allopathic medicine is only just beginning to recognise maladies that cannot be localised to a single source or cause.
Of course there are many other medical systems, such as homeopathy, acupuncture, and those of traditional Chinese herbalism or Indian Ayurveda, that do recognise the intricate interdependencies of the body. But they are often such a tangle of accreted folklore (some of which bears scientific scrutiny and much of which doesn’t) that it is impossible to sort the demonstrable truth from the passionately held and anecdotally supported belief. (And, of course, the placebo effect is still worth having).
As my heart is to my body, so my body is to the world around me. So each System is only the way it is because it is an aspect of a Super-System. The heart beats as it does because it is listening to the rhythms and cadences of the gut and the lungs.
…the human body is not the noun, it’s a verb. We are confections constantly being whipped up by a combination of the Super-Systems in which we are participating and the Sub-Systems of which we are composed.
4 – Why the Body Needs a Brain
Brain, n. An apparatus with which we think we think.
Everything occurs on the skin.
—Hermann von Helmholtz
…so-called C-afferent neurons take a different route to the brain, joining up with afferent fibres from the visceral core of the body, and thus acquiring a strong emotional tone to do with affection and security. We have a whole network of nerves designed tot ell us when we are in touch with another human being who is safe and nurturing.
the key questions of life (and death)
WHAT DO I NEED?
WHAT DO CIRCUMSTANCES ALLOW?
SO… WHAT’S THE BEST THING TO DO NEXT?
In practical terms, what you can do about something influences the way it shows up in your perception. Without touching them at all, you see objects and pictures that are placed near your hands differently from those that are further away. They look clearer, they are looked at longer, and it is harder to shift your attention away from them to another object.
Which brings us to the embroiling of need in perception. Just as action and perception are tightly stitched together, so are they bound in with information concerning values, concerns and interests. Perception is not neutral: it is already weighted, with no conscious thought or awareness, by a host of motivational factors. Hills actually look steeper to people who are tired, elderly or wearing heavy backpacks. The physical cost of climbing the hill is already factored in to the way the hill looks. … Hoping, wanting and fearing are already dissolved in perception, in other words. We don’t have to add them in deliberately.
[Our brains] are not designed to see, hear, smell, taste and touch things as they are in themselves, but as they are in relation to our abilities and needs. What I’m really perceiving is not a chair, but a ‘for sitting’; not a ladder but a ‘for climbing’; not a greenhouse but a ‘for propagating’. Other animals, indeed other people, might extract from their worlds quite different sets of possibilities.
In fact, we could see the deep structure of the brain in terms not of Needs, Deeds and See’ds but in terms of a different set of basic concepts that have already combined these. If we meld perceptions and actions – if we see perception as deeply imbued with the possibility for action – we could call the result affordances. An affordance is a scene already parsed in terms of the things I could possibly do. If we blend perceptions with our concerns, we might call these opportunities. An opportunity is an aspect of the world seen in the light of my current needs, interests or values. And if we combine actions and concerns, we could speak of intentions. An intention is an incipient action that already has a sense not just of possibility but of purpose.
The ability to anticipate how what I do changes what I experience gives us another way of streamlining our operations. As we saw above, what is predictable is often of less interest than what is not, so we can cut costs by skimming over the matches and concentrating on the surprises. This is vital, because it is from the unexpected that we learn the most, and it is also the unexpected – that for which we are unprepared – that can be dangerous or disruptive. In addition, this kind of prediction enables us to tell the difference between changes in the world that are brought about by our own actions, and therefore possibly under our control, and those that occur independently of what we are doing, so are beyond our immediate control. How we draw this distinction makes a big difference to how we treat events.
5 – How Brain and Body Talk to Each Other
I used to think that the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realised who it was who was telling me this.
Contrary to the Cartesian view, there is no big boss in the brain who forces through resolutions and dictates policy. According to the emerging perspectives of embodied cognition, the body is self-governing. It is like a medieval moot, a meeting that can reach a conclusion only by a process of respectful and attentive debate.
The insulin recpetors are especially involved in regulating appetite, and in allocating energy resources around the brain. We know that changes to bodily concentrations of insulin will lead you to eat more or less, or to select different foods. More surprisingly, due to its direct action on the brain, insulin can also reduce your inclination to persist with difficult tasks. Staying focused on something you find hard and would rather not be doing is energetically expensive, so changes to insulin levels may have a direct impact on your willpower. This is worth emphasising, as it is a very clear illustration of the relationship between body and intelligence.
We should also be careful about how we are born. In a normal vaginal birth, bacteria begin to colonise the gut of the baby as it is travelling down the lower birth canal. Babies born by Caesarean section, however, miss out on this colonisation, and this has implications fro their brain development.
…Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee summarise the research that shows how different areas of the brain cooperate in this way:
The sensory maps of your parietal lobe are also de facto motor centres, with massive direct interlinkage to the frontal motor system. They don’t simply pass information to the motor system, they participate directly in action. They actively transform vision, sound, touch, balance, and other sensory information into motor intentions and actual movements. And by the same token, the maps of the motor system play a fundamental role in interpreting then sensations from your body. Your parietal lobe is not purely sensory, and your frontal lobe is not purely motor: Physical sensation and action are best seen as a single sense that, like a coin, has two inseparable faces with different appearances.
The second wrinkle links to this. It comes from the suggestion by Damasio that the brain can create mini-loops (which he calls ‘as-if loops’) within itself to simulate the (wanted or unwanted) bodily effects of different perceptions and/or actions. Using the same high-level maps, the brain can run a simulation of what would (probably) happen in the body, if I did such-and-such, without actually having to engage the body directly – which would be more energetically expensive, as well as time-consuming.
So where is your brain? It is all over your body. And what is your brain? It is currents of information from all corners of your body continually making their way, by electrical, chemical or physical means, towards the stem of the brain, much of it by way of the spinal cord and the fluid canals of lymph and blood. Already subjected to some integration and simplification and transformed into a range of complementary ‘maps’ of the body’s states of readiness and need. As these high-level maps arrive at the neocortex they are further integrated with information arriving from all the special senses about the state of the outside world, and with more information about what types of action might be available and appropriate. In the anterior insula, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the anterior cingulate and the premotor cortex, processes are applied to these representations that sort out competing priorities and decide on which action plans will go forward for full-scale implementation. If the stakes are high, other frontal lobe processes monitor the implementation to see if any unexpected glitches or unintended consequences are appearing, ready to slam on the brakes and ‘think’ again.
6 – Emotions and Feelings
Emotions are…the result of the organism’s need to continually monitor how things are going, and to initiate changes within itself in response to possibilities for perceived harm and benefit.
From an evolutionary point of view, emotions must be useful, or we would not have them. We must begin by seeing emotions as contributing to our ability to act intelligently, not as impediments to such action. To be sure, our feelings seem sometimes to ‘get the better of us,’ and to be associated with courses of action that we felt unable to resist, but later regret. There are times when we wish we had gone with our head rather than our heart. But reason and emotion are lifelong partners who occasionally tread on each other’s toes, not sworn enemies.
What emotions are for
The general view now is that our basic emotions are built-in ‘default settings’ of our whole embodied Systems.We feel emotional when we perceive something as belonging to a class of events that has a characteristic kind of significance. Mostly this means things that fulfil an important need, or threaten an important aspect of our well-being. Emotions are responses, developed through evolution, to important, perhaps even archetypal, events. If we see something as an object of desire we are automatically primed to approach and secure it. If we are hungry we start looking around for sources of food, approach them, and ingest them.
…survival and well-being are better protected if we respond not just to significant events themselves but to signals and portents of those events. You are more likely to survive if you get ready to run when you see the grass twitch than if you wait to feel the hot breath of the tiger on your neck. We don’t wait till we are in the school principal’s office before we start to get nervous. Emotional states are often responses to those cues. They are not actions in themselves, but states of readiness to respond to events that, we suspect, might be able to unfold. We are on a hair trigger, so that, with the slightest confirmation that what we suspected is actually about to happen, we can leap into action and – sometimes, at least – beat the world to the draw. This built-in emotional intelligence adds a behavioural layer to the internal life support systems…
These whole ‘body+brain+sensors’ reactions are so intricately interwoven that it is impossible for us to pull them apart and tell what is ’cause’ and what is ‘effect’. The circular loops connecting body and brain are bi-directional, so that ‘higher’ processes are influencing ‘lower’ ones, at the same time as the ‘lower’ are feeding information up tot he ‘higher’. Words like ‘resonance’ and ‘reverberation’ capture this shimmering complexity much better than ideas of ‘stimulus’ and ‘response’. did I see the bear, feel afraid, and so tell my legs to run? Or did the unfolding of bear-seeing, gut-trembling and leg-thrusting happen in such a fast and loopy fashion that they are, in essence, different facets of the same holistic episode? Traditional ‘folk psychology’ tells us the former. Embodied science tells us the latter.
Many of these bodily and behavioural aspects of emotion are visible or audible, so emotions often have a communicative function, as well as being about personal well-being. Some of these signals have evolved biologically – as in ritualised displays of aggression, for example – while many others acquire significance in particular cultures. Hanging your head and avoiding eye contact signals subservience in some cultures, but insolence in others, so there is plenty of room for confusion, especially in a multicultural world. As a result of social learning, each of our emotions can become extreme, blocked or pathological, and thus generate additional problems.
Basic emotional modes
For the purposes of illustration, I’m going to offer you eleven, but other authors lump some of these together.
[The] kind of happiness – the resolution of distress and relief at being rescued – we might call comfort.
Here I’ll lump together the various systems that are triggered by the need to recover from exhaustion, illness, or injury. …The kind of happiness that accompanies the successful completion of recovery we might call zest or joie de vivre.
This mode is triggered by the need to prevent toxic material entering the body, and/or the need to expel such material if it has already slipped past our guard. …The kind of happiness that comes with the passing of disgust involves a general reopening up to life and experience: a feeling of re-engagement, we could call it.
Fear is aroused by the appearance, real or anticipated, of something dangerous, accompanied by the possibility of avoidance or escape. …The kind of happiness that emerges when fear has passed might be called relief.
This mode kicks in when the body-brain judges that some of its assets and resources are under threat from another being who might be susceptible to intimidation. …The successful discharge of anger results in the kind of happiness we could call triumph.
This mode is triggered by a different kind of threat: the loss of a stabled, valued part of your world that is deemed irrecoverable. …Relief from sorry, like relief from exhaustion, may bloom as the kind happiness that we can ‘coming back to life’, or ‘rediscovering one’s zest for life’.
Human beings, like dogs and chimpanzees are social animals, and being accepted by the pack or the troop has a direct effect on one’s chances of flourishing, and even sometimes surviving. …The happiness associated with absolution from shame might be called acceptance or ‘the relief of forgiveness’.
…desire mode, in which I will include sex and ambition as well as hunger, thirst, and the need to warm or cool down. …consummation of the desire leads to the (usually more short-lived than we expected) kind of happiness called satisfaction or satiation.
[This mode] aims at the acquisition and consumption not of ‘goods’ but of knowledge and experience. …The happiness that follows learning we might call mastery or a satisfying sense of comprehending that which was previously obscure (and therefore potentially unpredictable).
…If nothing else is calling on our time and energy, we are built to be both acquisitive and inquisitive. Whereas the ‘negative’ modes get us to fixate on what is wrong, and how to fix it, in enquiry mode we are more open-minded and creative.
This mode is the partner of distress mode. it is the response called out in us by hearing or seeing distress in others. …As with the other emotional modes, it is balance and appropriateness that are key.
This is different from fear. In fear mode, the threat and the potential remedy are clear. …In anxiety mode – in the way I am using the term here – you are unsure which of the emotional modes it is appropriate to engage. Is it a trick or a treat? …Indeed, like a pack of hounds casting around for the scent, we often cycle through several of the modes before we settle on the one that is the most promising base from which to attempt to pursue, or re-establish, our core sense of well-being.
As with real colours, the primary emotions get blended into a glittering array of different moods and feelings. Embarrassment is a mild version of shame or guilt. Jealousy is a blend of distress and fear, caused by an anticipated loss, and aggressive intimidation designed to prevent the loss occurring… …sulking is simultaneously a hurt withdrawal and licking of wounds, and a (passive) aggressive attempt to punish the offender (by the withdrawal of affection or responsiveness) so they won’t do it (whatever ‘it’ is) again. Contempt or disdain are social emotions that blend anger and disgust: one is repulsed by the weakness or inappropriateness of someone’s social behaviour, and irritated with them for not knowing better. Indignation is a form of intimidation aimed at forcing someone, through a mixture of reasoning and bombast, to admit that their estimation of you (or of another being or belief you care about) is unjustified. Nostalgia is a mild form of sorrow, focused on the loss of what are seen as ‘the good old days’. Admiration is the experience of desiring to possess some of the character traits – beauty, wit, kindness – of the admired person. Envy is admiration with a dose of disdain mixed in. And so on.
But emotional control via physical tension is a mixed blessing. If short-term, strategic and appropriate to the real situation, the ability to check one’s emotional impulses and displays is a boon. Social manners and mores require it continually. But where the restraint of attention, or of bodily movement, becomes habitual, there are increasing costs. First, inhibition is energetically expensive. It is tiring – and stressful – being tense or phoney all the time. And this expenditure of energy has knock-on effects on other aspects of bodily functioning. The immune system can become less effective, leaving us less able to fight off infections. …A wide range of illnesses have been reliably linked to emotional suppression, including asthma, heart disease, ulcerative colitis, and, not surprisingly, a variety of aches and pains such as back pain and tension headache.
Second, the inhibition of expressiveness – resulting in a tense or wooden demeanour – often has social consequences. Giving less of ourselves away and presenting a rigid persona, we become harder to know, and intimacy and warm friendship may suffer.
The third potential cost of emotional inhibition concerns mental functions that we would normally consider ‘intelligent’: thinking, memory and problem-solving. If exerting control over our attention and our muscles…drains the body’s energetic batteries, we might wonder if this will hamper other processes that also need a good supply of juice.
In general, people who are habitual repressers of their emotions also report more memory problems in everyday life. And if you think a lot about controlling your emotional behaviour, your memory is worse still.
More intriguing are a range of research findings from Joseph Forgas at the University of New South Wales in Australia, which show that mood affects memory, learning and thinking in surprising ways. Broadly, if what you need to learn or remember somehow matches your current emotional mode, you will process it better. You spend longer attending to it, connect it with a richer set of information and understandings already in your memory, and so store it in forms that are more readily retrievable.
These mood-dependent switches in cognition can be very significant in cases such as the validity of eyewitness testimony. Happy people not only pay less attention to detail, they are also more prone to incorporate misleading information, suggested tot hem after the event, into their actual memory of the event. Basically, when we are happy we tend to notice and recall what we think is plausible rather than what actually happened: both perception and memory are strongly tinted by our own prior knowledge, opinions and expectations. Alarmingly, when people are happy they tend to rely more on ethnic or racial stereotypes when making judgements about other people.
7 – the Embodied Mind
Real events always involve a mix of perceptions, actions and concerns, but these maps, with their different kinds of abstractions – concepts, habits and values – enable us to partially decouple those different elements. We become able to look at objects with a more dispassionate eye. We can wander round an art gallery just looking, without needing to do anything about what we see. We develop the ability to ponder on our feelings and motivations in the absence of immediate calls to action as in a counselling session or a heart-to-heart conversation). We can act ‘for the joy of it’ without having to evaluate the consequences of our actions (as in unselfconscious dancing). We can explore or rehearse possible courses of action ‘off-line’, and run simulations of how we would feel under different conditions (and thus be more considered and more creative). So these different distillates of experience enable a wide variety of ‘higher’ forms of intelligence. the (partial, variable) ability to decouple perceiving from desiring, desiring from acting, and acting from perceiving brings added freedom – and added complexity. If it seems to us that hte worl dis full of more or less neutral ‘objects’ (and people), with which we can engage in various ways, it is because that is one common way in which the body-brain separates out its facets and ingredients. But this is an acquired ability, I suspect, not a fundamental design feature of the body-brain-mind.
Neuroimaging studies have shown that words like CHAIR (or BATH) are represented in the maturing brain not in some neat cortical dictionary, but in terms of widespread loops of interconnected neurons that knit together (a) the muscle patterns you use to say the word, (b) the perceptual processes you use to recognise it, (c) what most chairs have in common, (d) what various kinds of chair look like, (e) what you typically use them for, (f) how CHAIR relates to THRONE and HAMMOCK, and (g) some memories of special chairs (‘Granddad’s favourite armchair’) which you have personally encountered. Just seeing the word CHAIR primes the bits of the brain that control sitting down.
Simply reading or hearing a word primes its habitual use – even if this use is not referred to or even implied in the sentence. If you read ‘Jane forgot the calculator’, your brain automatically readies itself to make the kind of movements involved in pressing keys. If you read (as you are now doing), ‘Mike spotted the kettle’, your brain quite involuntarily activates the gesture of grasping a handle.
‘Giving away’ a plot twist or a punchline does not involve a physical action, yet our brains automatically fire up the circuitry that is involved in moving the hands away from the centre of the body.
You see the same firing-up of the sensorimotor cortex when the critical verb does not even have a literal counterpart, as in ‘Anna delegated responsibility to Jill’, or ‘Molly told Patrick the story’. The brain representations of giving and taking are still activated. Glenberg suggests that, during childhood, we learn a variety of ‘action schemas’, such as giving and taking, that gradually become distilled by the brain into more abstract patterns such as ‘Source – Object – Recipient – Mode of Transfer’.
If you look at the structure of the brain, you can see that the areas that are traditionally associated with understanding and producing language are intricately tied up with concrete actions. One of these is called Broca’s area, and neuroimaging studies have shown that, as well as its involvement in language production, Broca’s area is active when concrete actions are being observed, or even when they are being imagined.
Don Tucker makes the case strongly in his book Mind from Body: Experience from Neural Structure:
The brain evolved to regulate the motivational control of actions that are carried out by the motor systems and guided by sensory evaluations of ongoing environmental events. There are no faculties of memory, conscious perception or musical appreciation that float in the mental ether, separate from the bodily functions… [All our behaviour and experience must be conceived of as elaborations of primordial systems for perceiving, evaluating and acting. When we study the brain to look for the networks controlling cognition, we find that all of [them] are linked in one way or another to sensory systems, motor systems and/or motivational systems.
8 – the Welling Up of Conciousness
Benny Shanon sums up this integrated, embodied view of the mind, using a different set of metaphorical terms, like this:
Fully-fledged cognitive patterns are generated out of a substrate which is qualitatively different…[These substrates] are not cognitive or mental in the sense that manifest patterns are. The process of this generation is one of differentiation and fixation, whereby patterns with well-defined structural properties are created out of a substrate lacking such properties… I call the process of this generation crystallization, and I maintain that this is one of the fundamental operational features of the human cognitive system… [Conscious] structures are not the basis for mental activity but rather the product of such activity.
We might call these four major fronds of the developing ‘fern’ of experience. One branch elaborates internal, ‘interoceptive’ body states: visceral, hormonal, immunological and neural. A second alters the direction and acuity of incoming sensation, via modulation of the ‘exteroceptive’ perceptual systems. A third branch begins to ready muscle groups for direct action. And the fourth branch may head in the direction of linguistic and other kinds of symbolic output such as gestures. And, as the fronds of the fern remain connected at the heart of the plant, so all of these remain functionally looped together in the body-brain.
When we have to respond fast, taking such short cuts can be advantageous: it can even save our lives. But if leaping to conclusions becomes habitual, we are likely to miss detail and novelty. We construct our own world based not on the unprecedented particularities of the moment, but on what is normal and expected. Thus we can come to see in terms of faint, familiar stereotypes and generalisations rather than the vivid, complex individuality of what is actually present.
Going too far in this labour-saving, top-down direction doesn’t just make life duller; it obviously incurs risks and costs. We might try to make the world conform to our expectations, and thus persist in applying methods of thinking and acting that worked once but are not, in a new situation, appropriate or effective.
Language can certainly exacerbate this problem. There are many studies showing how a verbal label often leads to a kind of ‘functional fixedness’ in which alternative ways of looking at or categorising an object are rendered invisible by the label.
However, fools rush in, so I shall take a chance and say that, to give a rough approximation, consciousness seems to emerge when some combination of five conditions are present. The first is intensity. Consciousness accompanies external events that are sufficiently abrupt or intense: for example, the sudden ringing of an alarm bell, the flashing of a bright light or a piercing pain. The second is persistence. Intensity seems to interact with the persistence of a stimulus: less intense stimuli often become conscious if they persist for more than around half a second. Softern events can build up to the requisite level of activity for consciousness if they are maintained.
The third condition is reverberation. Persistence may occur not because of a physical continuation of an external even but because of conditions within the brain that allow activation to reverberate, for example round a well-worn neural circuit where resistancte is low an activation can, so to speak, keep rekindling itself. It is argued, for example, that we can easily retain a sensible sentence in mind because its elements ‘fit together’ and create such a reverberating circuit, while a list of random numbers needs to be continually rehearsed or refreshed if its elements are not to ‘fade away’ and become inaccessible.
The fourth condition for consciousness is significance. Consciousness seems to be attracted by experiences that are of personal significance. These may be threats to physical well-being or survival, or to possessions or personal attributes with which one identifies. …
And the fifth and final condition that is likely to bring about consciouness is checking. Activity often generates conscious experience when it is being internally checked or inhibited.
Acts of disciplined thinking tend to become conscious because they require a narrow defile of activation to be maintained against competing possibilities and distractions. (That’s why ‘working memory’ is strongly associated with consciousness: not because ‘that is a place where the light of consciousness shines brightly’, but because the inhibitory effort required to keep tight control of internal events creates the kind of intense corralled activation that is associated with the appearance of consciousness.)
Conscious rational thought is not a different kind of event from feeling or seeing. It too has its roots in the embryonic concerns of the body-brain; it doesn’t come from different stock. Where it differs is in the intensity of activation it attracts, as it unfurls and emerges, by virtue of the degree of neurochemical constraining that it requires. Reasons and arguments well up from the dark depths of the body-brain just as emotions, intuitions and images do.
The research shows that we confabulate reasons for our behaviour all the time, and then treat them as if they were direct readouts from the interior – but they are often wrong. …
It turns out that this inferred self-knowledge isn’t very good. Other people who know you reasonably well will predict your behaviour better than you will. Your own estimate of how generously you give to charity, for example, is, well, generous. If you want to know yourself better, ask a friend.
In adulthood, if we have reasonably good and intelligent friends, what they say about us is likely to be pretty accurate. But it was not always thus. In childhood, other people can be very keen to tell us who we are, and how we ought to be. They may lock us into a cage of attributions based on our gender, our skin colour, or even just on their need for us to be predictable and untroublesome. But those attributions espalier our inner workings, potentially misdirecting our actions and distorting our consciousness.
9 – the Augmented Body
Your self does not end where your flesh ends, but suffuses and blends with the world, including other beings.
—Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee
…there is, around your solid body, an invisible bubble which scientists call the ‘peripersonal space‘. It is the area in which, without shifting your overall position in space, you could grab, stroke, kick or butt something it came in your way. It is the zone of direct interaction with the physical world: the principal arena in which we use our limbs to latch on to things we desire or that interest us, or to fight off or bat away things that are noxious or threatening.
In everyday language we mark this…by talking about ‘this book’ (within grasping distance) as opposed to ‘that book’ (further away).
The backbone of the story of human evolution has been the story of perfecting our knack for incorporating an increasingly sophisticated assortment of physical tools into our increasingly flexible body schemas.
–Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee
The British engineer Francis Evans has suggested that our technological disposition developed out of two evolutionary shifts. The first was an inquisitive inclination to mess about with the material we find, and get it to reveal additional affordances. If you fiddle with a stick you might reveal its ability to become a fishing rod. If you try smashing stones of a certain kind together, you might splinter off shards that can be found useful for cutting. And the second big contributor to our technological bent was, of course, learning how to get up on our hind legs and free our hands for manipulation and investigation.
All creatures are best viewed ecologically, as finding and creating eco-niches that then influence their capabilities. …
A tuna by itself is physically about seven times too weak to perform the aquabatic feats that it routinely does – accelerating like a rocket, turning on a sixpence, and so on. The way it does them is by capitalising on natural eddies and vortices in the water, and by using its tail to create additional currents which it then ingeniously exploits. The tuna uses the natural properties of the water to effectively ‘turbo-charge’ its own motion. Is it the tuna solo that is the ‘intelligent system’ here, or is it tuna+vortices-and-pressure-gradients?
The fact that our tools ‘become us’ also begins to explain why people grow so fond of and dependent on them. Chefs becomes attached to their knives, musicians to their instruments, artists to their brushes, carpenters to their chisels and millions of motorists to their cars. … There is, these days, almost no difference in kind between losing your smartphone and having a mini-stroke.
…our brains are peppered with ‘canonical’ neurons that automatically fire up actions relevant to a seen object, and ‘mirror’ neurons that fire when we do something, and also when we see someone else do the same thing. So, when I see you pick up a cup, my brain automatically primes me to copy you, and when I see you smile, I am already halfway to smiling back.
In general, one of the effects of depression, in both children and adults, is to dampen this social resonance so that the sufferer actually feels physically isolated from others (and they from her).
As the sophistication of my mental model grows, I become able to incorporate your model of Me inside my model of You. I can begin to imagine how you see me, and what you think of me. When I inhabit your vantage point, one of the things it enables me to see is myself. I can become an ‘object’ to myself, with traits, temperament and habits as well as a visual appearance.
10 – Craftiness and Expertise
Our core design specification, developed through hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, is to find opportunities to do things that matter. All our sub-systems are yoked together by the overriding concerns and interests of the body as a whole, and of the social and biological niches in which we are embedded. Deep down we are doers and makers, practical problem-solvers, not thinkers and talkers.
The amount and nature of the explicit knowledge you need is entirely dependent on the job; it is not a universal good.
In his book the English Patient, novelist Michael Ondaatje coined the word ‘thinkering’ to express the way in which the hand feeds the mind…
Physical manipulation of things, like direct personal experience of any kind, generates sensory images of all sorts and thus enables thought. Hands-on tinkering leads to minds-on tinkering. Bodily engagement with nature teaches much more than any amount of words or numbers in science books. Doing produces a personal understanding that symbols simply can’t.
American philosopher Hubert Dreyfus has identified five rough stages that someone traverses on their way from being a novice in a particular sphere to becoming an expert. They differ in the kind of thinking that has to be done. Novices remember and follow ‘the rules’. Advanced beginners still have rules and maxims to follow, but the stages become more subtle and situation-dependent. You have to think: ‘What kind of situation is this?’ and then apply the rule. When you are competent, you don’t classify situations according to type; you think for yourself about what the most important priorities are, and then apply the skill and knowledge you have already gained. When you become proficient, you need to think less often, as your ability to ‘read’ situations becomes more immediate and intuitive, but you may still need to refer back to the ‘rule-book’ (in your head, if not literally) to check on procedure.
And finally, the expert may scarcely need to think or analyse the situation at all. Their experience is so rich, varied and deeply embedded that, like a top-flight tennis player, they are able to simply respond by doing the right think intuitively – at least 99 per cent of the time.
Another influential philosopher, Michael Polanyi, famously called this tacit knowledge: knowledge that is such a fine web of contingent possibilities, built up through years of experience, that it simply cannot be rendered down into words. The nuerochemical loops and networks that underpin your expertise are orders of magnitude more intricate than any vocabulary, however technical, could hope to capture. It is not…that you are inarticulate; the knowledge itself is of such delicacy that it is in principle inarticulable.
‘If you can explain it, you don’t really understand it,’ [Dreyfus] said.
So let us have a look at how non-intellectual learning happens. There are, as we would expect, three components to expertise: having a good repertoire of reliable, flexible, skillful actions to call on; being perceptive about the opportunities for action and the affordances of the material you are working on; and hooking both of these up with a sense of what kinds of valued outcomes could arise from acting that way. Learning is developing each of these in concert with the others. …
There is learning by noticing. Just by being attentive to the world, the neurochemical systems pick up patterns and regularities. The bodily systems automatically tune themselves to register what goes with what, and what follows what. Attention is itself a skilled and variegated capability. Often when we are searching for something we miss it, or fail to look methodically.
Attention often needs to be patient as well as acute.
Deserving of a category of its own is learning by imitating. Close observation of a role model serves as a template for one’s own tentative actions. Much derided though it has been, the traditional apprenticeship of ‘sitting by Nellie’ – watching how Nellie does things, and trying to copy what she does – is one of our most powerful learning tools.
The Siamese twin of observing is learning by doing: perception is no use if it does not become a guide for skilled action.
Just changing a simple habit – such as always choosing fruit for dessert rather than the creamy alternative, until it becomes second nature – takes around two months.
As Richard Sennett says, ‘Technique develops by a dialectic between the correct way to do something and the willingness to experiment through error. The two sides cannot be separated.’
Papert saw that Jean Piaget, his old mentor, had got it wrong. As children grew up, they did not move from physical learning through imaginary learning and on to formal or rational learning, leaving the alier modes behind as they ‘outgrew’ them. On the contrary, imagining and reasoning added to observing and experimenting, making practical learning more and more intricate and powerful.
11 – Rehab – How Can I Get My Body Back?
So what can we do – assuming the damage to our complex interior is not irreversible to smarten up? In the rest of this chapter I will review four methods proven to be effective. The first is biofeedback: training ourselves to be more sensitive to and in control of our insides. The second is meditation, particularly a widely used form called mindfulness practice. The third is a therapeutic process called focusing, which increases awareness specifically of activity in the torso, where all our major organs live. This both increases interoceptive awareness directly and quietens competing forms of noisy activity in the mnd. And the fourth is exercise and movement, some, but not all, of which helps to enhance intelligence. Actually, there is a fifth form of somatic therapy as well – shifting our understanding of human intelligence so our minds make room for our bodies. That is the whole purpose of this book.
The stuck clients…tended to trot out tales of woe fluently and rapidly. They had their well-rehearsed story – and they were sticking to it. But, strikingly, the ones who were getting the most benefit talked much more hesitantly. It was as if they were trying to find just the right words to express the complex truth of their predicament, and were listening carefully to their own formulations to see if they did justice to this truth. …Clients were not rationally appraising what they had said, but allowing their spoken words to resonate with what they were feeling in their bodies, especially in the torso, where the major organs and the visceral core are situated.
In one study, people learned new words 20 per cent faster after a burst of intense physical activity. Exercise is especially useful for protecting our minds from the effects of ageing. The hormones involved in regenerating neurons decline as we get older, and exercise offsets that decline.
…the role of exercise can also be seen as vital for keeping internal communication between organs and sub-systems at an optimal level. The body is a mass of interconnecting, interlocking, intercommunicating sub-systems. As in any relationship, these communications vary not just in content but also in quality.
Peter Lovatt, however, has found a direct effect of dance on the way people think. Peter is both a professional dancer and an academic psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire. With his colleague Carine Lewis, Peter gave novice dancers 15 minutes of either free, improvisational dance, or of highly structured dance steps, and then tested them on their ability to solve two different kinds of puzzle. One required creative, insightful thinking, the other more logical and analytical thinking. The effect of the dancing on their problem-solving was quite specific. The improvisational dancers showed improved performance on the insight problems but not on the analytical problems, while the structured dancers showed exactly the reverse effect.
12 – the Embodied Life – Self, Spirit and Society
Intelligence often grows out of a patient willingness to say ‘I don’t know’ and abide in uncertainty.
There is a calm in accepting Pascal’s dictum that ‘the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing’ (and so do the larynx, the lungs and the gut).
…beyond basic arithmetic, statistics and probability, more complex maths can best be learned when you need it (as I and many others have done). There is no practical justification for inflicting trigonometry on everyone.
It would seem a gross exaggeration to claim that we have been accepting, as leaders, people systematically trained to lack the deepest kind of intelligence there is. Yet a recent letter to The Observer, signed by many leading psychiatrists, psychotherapists and neuroscientists, expressed exactly this concern.
As Matthew Crawford, author of the Case for Working with Your Hands, says, ‘it is a peculiar sort of idealism that insistently steers people towards the most ghostly kinds of work’. There are whole societies that pride themselves on outsourcing any form of manual labour, from making coffee to building skyscrapers, to immigrant workers, and in which the insignia of ‘success’ are fine white garments that demonstrate the ultra-cleanliness of the micro-world you inhabit. In such societies, the idea of embodied intelligence could be completely, and dangerously, revolutionary.
In an embodied world, intuition born of experience would have its proper place, and medical students would be taught more about both the benefits and fallibilities of their own intuition: when to heed it, and how, over time, to improve its quality. They would also be trained more effectively in the old-fashioned arts of inspecting, listening to and, very importantly, touching (‘palpating’) and smelling the patient’s body and its products.
The current obsession with digital technology raises a number of such concerns, and they are coming at us so thick and fast that research cannot document which are real problems and which are new forms of perennial moans about the decline of the young. Screen life is sedentary. …The body’s massive musculature is trivially engaged. Does that matter? Screen life is sensorily impoverished. It offers sight and sound, but …nothing solid and smelly, tickly and tasty in the way that real life is.
Automation is, without question, depriving many people of the visceral satisfaction of baking a good loaf of bread or assembling a real car.
Intelligence is getting things done that matter to you. It is finding good resolutions of those three sets of factors: your concerns, your capabilities and your circumstances. And to do that well, you need your body, and you need the kind of broad, detailed integration of its messages that gives rise to conscious awareness.
My claim…is that practical, embodied intelligence is the deepest, oldest, most fundamental and most important of the lot; and the others are facets or outgrowths of this basic somatic capability. Emotional intelligence is an aspect of bodily intelligence. mathematical intelligence is a development of bodily intelligence.
I do not want this book to give any succour to lazy New Age thinking that muddles up grains of truth with bucketloads of magic and mythology.