Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Book Review: The Intelligent Body

Book Review, “Intelligence in the Flesh,” by Guy Claxton (2015, Yale University Press)

What does it mean to be smart? Is it the ability to reason logically, to perform complex mathematical feats or recall obscure bits of information? Or is it skillful functioning in a world where things are constantly changing and demanding our attention? Claxton argues that in real life, we must use not only our brain but our arms and legs and everything else to figure out what to do next, and that this is the true meaning of intelligence. Being smart, according to this author, really has little to do with the ability to reason well.

A passage from a page near the end of this book captures the author’s main point:

“I think it is time to reclaim the concept of intelligence from the abstract world of disembodied symbols and propositions, logical arguments and rigorous deductions, and proclaim its wider relevance to the challenges and complexities of everyday life. To deal well with life’s demands requires a full body – not just for getting around and implementing actions, but because a well-integrated, well-tuned, highly resonant body is itself the organ of intelligence. The brain plays an important part in that integration, allowing loops of information from the skin and the spleen, the hands and the heart, the gut and the gullet to be brought together in fruitful discourse. But without all those loops carrying fast-changing information about what is possible and what is desirable, and without the constant conversation between all the far-flung outposts of the body, the brain would not be intelligent at all. It is only as good as the intelligence it receives. The condition of my body, and my awareness of its humming, shimmering activity, constantly modulates my ability to be smart.”

A recurring motif in this book is that we do not have bodies—we are bodies. The author argues that the brain is not so much the “executive in charge” of our bodies, but, rather, the organ that responds to multiple streams of intelligence and information coming into it from all corners of the body. It isn’t so much that we “think” with our gut as that we “know” in our gut.

A number of fascinating experiments are reviewed and described in this easy-to-read book, including a number of interesting studies involving measurements of electrical conductance in the skin. One particularly fascinating experiment showed that people who were presented with stacks of cards to choose from “figured out” the pattern in those stacks first in their bodies, and only later in their minds. Measurements of skin conductivity showed unmistakable “blips” of activity when their hand hovered over the correct stack before they were able to explain why they were choosing that particular card. Only later, if ever, were they able to articulate the way they’d solved the puzzle.

In another experiment, children were shown photos of kids, some from their own kindergarten class, and even when they claimed to not recognize the kids in the photos, their skin conductance showed a noticeable jump upward when they gazed at pictures of children they had gone to school with. So, their bodies “knew” their former classmates, even if they had no mental recall of that.

I have known for a long time that my body “knows” things before my mind does, so it’s exciting to find that this truth has now been confirmed with controlled scientific studies. Other studies are summarized that show that merely changing the body’s posture can effect a change in mood or emotion, another truth that many of us have already figured out on our own. These and other fascinating experiments are summarized and described in easy-to-understand language and it's a fascinating glimpse into a body of literature that many people will never have the chance to read. In the realm of “science books for the public,” this one is one of the best I’ve read recently.

There’s a lot of review in this book for those of us already familiar with the workings of the human body, with theories of complex adaptive systems (which the body is) and with ways to increase awareness of one’s own body through techniques such as yoga and tai chi, but I think this is fine since it means the main ideas will be accessible to all readers. There’s a complete set of notes and references and a very well-done index, too, all of which make the book even more useful than most.

It’s been a long time since I read a nonfiction book on this sort of topic and, I have to admit, I found it a little dry, despite the fact that the author makes a good attempt to keep the tone light and to inject humor when explaining complex ideas. Again, this could be because much of the book (at least the first half and portions of the second) were review for me, so I wasn’t learning much. This really isn’t the fault of the book, though—it just shows that I may not be the intended audience.

If you’re curious about how your body makes you smart, and want to learn how to improve your body’s learning abilities, take a look at this book and try some of the techniques he suggests. Yoga. Tai chi. Biofeedback. All of these (and other body-awareness methods) will open your mind to all sorts of new possibilities. I would add to that list Feldenkrais,which is a body-awareness method that has opened up all sorts of new realms of understanding for me. It’s fun and you’ll learn a lot, I promise. And, as the author shows, it’s when we’re learning that we feel most alive, and this learning happens all over our body—not just in our brain.