Books : reviews

Sandra Blakeslee, Matthew Blakeslee.
The Body has a Mind of Its Own.
Random House. 2007

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 11 March 2009

This is another good "how the brain actually works is really weird" books. This one is about the multiple "maps of the body" in the brain: how they help us do, think and feel; and what happens when they disagree with each other, or go wrong in other ways. The "going wrong" part can range from simple bodily illusions that anyone can experience, to musician's cramp; it can mean that someone now feels that they have three arms and legs; it can be full-blown anorexia, or a body dysmorphia where someone want a limb amputated because it isn't a part of their body.

One particular area of interest (to me, anyway) is the mind's sense of the body's state. Our usual "five senses" are outward-looking, sensing the world, and these are the ones we typically try to replicate in robots (and then, mainly vision, sometimes sound -- only specialist "sniffer" robots have a sense of smell, for example). However, we also have sophisticated sensing of our internal state: orientation of joints, stresses and strains of muscles and tendons, heart rate, and so on. We are just not quite as conscious of it, but it is essential for movement, and affects the way we think and feel (for example, holding a smile makes us feel happy!) Such sophisticated internal senses may therefore be crucial for robots, and researchers are beginning to add in analogues of these (from simple self-monitoring sensors to artificial endocrine systems). These may need to be much more deeply embedded -- embodied -- than those of current systems, however.

There is a lot of fascinating stuff here. It feels a bit choppy, a gallery of weird happenings, without sufficient depth about what's actually happening, and no bibliography to follow up interesting snippets. That somewhat academic criticism aside, this is a good introduction to how what we feel and experience is so heavily modulated by different areas of the brain that it might sometimes bear no resemblance to "reality" at all.