- If the body had been easier to understand, nobody would have thought that we had a mind.
→ "Rorty (Richard) - Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature", 1981, p. 239.
- Over the last century, human beings in affluent societies have become more and more sluggish. Millions of us work in offices, pushing paper, staring at screens, discussing proposals and rearranging words and spreadsheets. For our leisure, we look at more screens, text and tweet, escape into virtual worlds, gossip and chatter. Some of us still play tennis or knit, but the drift is undeniably chair- and couch-wards. Our functional bodies have shrunk; just ears and eyes on the input side, and mouths and fingertips on the output side. Laundry now involves all the physical skill and effort of pushing clothes through a porthole and pushing a button. Cooking2 can be no more than ripping off a plastic film and closing the microwave door. Our real bodies get so little attention, and so little skilful use, that we have to make special arrangements to remember them: we program country walks and trips to the gym into our smartphones. Inactivity and cleanliness used to be the privilege of the rich3: not any more. And the machines that make all this leisure possible are opaque - most of us wouldn't know how to fix them4, and wouldn't want to. We have become mind rich and body poor5.
- But this is not another panicky book about obesity, heart disease or the dangers of the internet. Nor is it a hymn of nostalgia for the dying arts of quilting and whittling. 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. We aspire to cerebral jobs and disembodied pastimes because we have got the idea that those kinds of things require more intelligence than practical, physical things, and consequently they are more highly esteemed6 in our societies. Crudely, they make us look smarter, and looking smart is good, so doing mind stuff makes us feel good. (Of course, because they are more highly esteemed, they also, by and large, pay more.) Conversely (with a few possible exceptions such as some top athletes) being physically tired, dirty and smelly is associated with a lack of intelligence. So we learn to aspire to being clean and verbal7.
- We still think about the relative intelligence of body and mind in an archaic and inaccurate way: so says the new science of embodied cognition. Many neuroscientists do not now think that intelligence belongs only to minds, and that the pinnacle of human intelligence is rational argument8. They no longer believe that the mind is an ethereal source of control, sent to curb the body's waywardness and compensate for its stupidity. They do not think that minds and bodies are different kinds of stuff. The idea that bodies are dumb vehicles and minds are smart drivers is old hat9. The new science of embodiment has important implications for how we think about ourselves and how we live our lives. This book is a shot at getting that knowledge out there - because I think it matters a lot.
- The predominant association of intelligence with thinking and reasoning isn't fact; it is a cultural belief - a virulent meme, some would call it - that misdirects us. Young people who prefer doing intricate things with their bodies - breakdancing, skateboarding - to doing their maths homework are not lacking in intelligence. I think they are part of a growing cultural rebellion against the hegemony of the intellect (though most of them wouldn't put it quite like that). I hope this book will help their parents and teachers understand why that rebellion is itself intelligent. I hope it might contribute to a wider revaluing of the practical and physical, in education for example, so that those who are not cerebrally inclined10 will not be led to make the mistake of feeling stupid.
- Let me, in this overture, introduce some of the main themes that will emerge as the scientific story unfolds.
- 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, respond to different things, notice 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 arise11.
- This realisation is both completely mundane - and quite extraordinary. It overturns the accepted, intuitive psychology - academics call it the 'folk psychology' - of two thousand years of Western civilisation. Chapter 2 ("Claxton (Guy) - A Brief History of Anti-Bodies") sets the scene for the new view …
- Chapters 3, 4 and 5 take us into the modern, scientific understanding of the body:-
- This being so, we need to rethink the relationship between thoughts and feelings. Feelings are not a nuisance. They are not - as Plato thought, and many still do - wayward and primitive urgings that continually threaten to undermine the fragile structures built by dispassionate reason. They are, as we will see in Chapter 6 ("Claxton (Guy) - Emotions and Feelings"), the bodily glue that sticks our reasoning and our common sense together.
- Language and reason themselves look different when we see that they too are rooted in the body. Chapter 7 ("Claxton (Guy) - The Embodied Mind") explores the ways in which our more abstract understanding grows out of the physical and sensory concepts that the young child grasps first …
- Much of our somatic intelligence operates unconsciously, without conscious supervision or even awareness. So what is consciousness for, and how does it emerge from the intrinsic activities of a complicated body? In Chapter 8 ("Claxton (Guy) - The Welling Up of Consciousness") I'll suggest that conscious thoughts and images are actually the result of a progressive (though often quite rapid) process of unfurling meanings and decisions that have their origins in the darker, deeper, more visceral areas of the brain and body.
- Bodies do not stop at the skin. So neither do minds. We'll see in Chapter 9 ("Claxton (Guy) - The Augmented Body") that the internal streaming of information continues through our fingertips and out into the tools we use, for example.
- The fact that we are fundamentally doers means we are also inveterate makers. Making is doing that involves those extraordinarily sophisticated on-board tools, our hands. In Chapter 10 ("Claxton (Guy) - Craftiness and Expertise") we will find that human intelligence lives in our hands just as much as in our tongues and our brains.
- So, with all this in mind (and body), we will come back to the question: what does it really mean to be intelligent? A lot has been written in the last twenty years about different kinds of intelligence. We have had emotional intelligence, practical intelligence and 'bodily-kinaesthetic' intelligence, along with a host of others. But I'm not proposing another kind of intelligence to add to the list. My contention here is more radical than that. It is that practical, embodied intelligence is the deepest, oldest, most fundamental and most important intelligence of the lot; and the others are aspects or outgrowths of this basic, bodily capability. Emotional intelligence is an aspect of bodily intelligence. Mathematical intelligence is a development of bodily intelligence. There is a world of difference between human intelligence, properly understood, and mere cleverness12.
- In the real world, 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. The ability to figure out the next number in the sequence 1,2,3,5,8, ... is a very poor proxy13 for your ability to act wisely when you lose your wallet14 or when you get a great job offer that would mean uprooting the family. At such times you need to be able to analyse the situation, check your values and assumptions, and figure out the consequences15 of various courses of action. In times of change or challenge you need your reason - but you also need your ability to sense inwardly what is truly in your own best and deepest interests. And a lot of clever people can’t do that16. I don't think they teach it (yet) at Harvard Business School.
- Which obviously leads us on to the question of how you do 'teach' it, and that is the business of Chapter 11 ("Claxton (Guy) - Rehab: How Can I Get My Body Back?").
- Finally in Chapter 12 ("Claxton (Guy) - The Embodied Life: Self, Spirit and Society") we will round up the implications of embodiment both for individual well-being and for the nature of the over-intellectualised, somatically impoverished institutions that surround us.
- In a way, this book is the third (and probably last) in a trilogy which began in 1997 with my book "Claxton (Guy) - Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: How Intelligence Increases When You Think Less". There, I was one of the first to argue, on the basis of scientific research, that much human intelligence depends on processes of which we are not - and largely cannot be - aware. I called it 'the under-mind'. It is now also widely known as the adaptive or cognitive unconscious.
- Then in 2005 I wrote a sequel. "Claxton (Guy) - The Wayward Mind: An Intimate History of the Unconscious", aiming to situate this new 'unconscious' within a wider cultural and historical context. I brought together the kinds of stories that societies since about 4000 BC have created to try and account for mental phenomena that seem to be at odds with 'common sense': hypnosis, hallucination, mental illness and creative inspiration, for example.
- Perhaps they arise from the external influences of gods, demons and spirits.
- Or maybe they spring from the 'subconscious', a dark inner maelstrom of whimsy and wildness (as Plato thought, long before Freud).
- Or was the source simply activity in the matter of which we were made, that just sometimes failed to conform to normal expectations - an excess of 'black bile', maybe?
- I showed that versions of these three stories recur and compete throughout human history, right up to the present day. I argued that each has its value, and its pitfalls. Stories can be useful even if (or precisely because) they do not refer to objectively verifiable things.
- But with the rise of affective neuroscience and embodied cognition we are now able to offer much more robust and compelling versions of the third story. At my most radical, I would now claim that, not only are 'the gods and spirits' non-existent (even though they may still have their uses), but the unconscious is dead too. We may choose to continue using it as a metaphorical or poetic way of talking, but thar ain't no such animal. There are myriad processes in the body that never lead to conscious experience, but there is no real, identifiable place or agent inside us that is a separate source of impetus from consciousness and reason. Like 'the mind', 'the unconscious' is a place-saver, a dummy explanation. It is like a temporary filling in a tooth, put there till something better comes along. And now it has.
- I should say a little about my style and source material. I have read hundreds of research papers, but a good deal of this primary material is quite technical and even arcane. I have tried to dig out the main points and present them in an accessible and palatable way; to walk a middle path between respecting the rigour and niceties of research and telling a good story. But this means I will inevitably have skated over many points of contention that my more learned academic colleagues rightly consider to be important. The so-called 'hard problem' of consciousness will have to wait for another day17, as, very largely, will the relationship between what I have to say here and other important work on what are called Systems One and Two (or, in Daniel Kahneman's terms, fast and slow18 thinking). Sorry, guys.
- I have also glossed over several topics you may reasonably have expected would receive better treatment in such a book.
- I'll say nothing about the difference between male and female bodies, or the difference between men's and women's relationship to their bodies.
- Issues of physical and mental health remain largely unexplored, and what used to be called 'psychosomatic' conditions have not got anything like the attention they deserve.
- Neither have traditional understandings of the body-mind such as those found in many indigenous cultures, notably the traditional Chinese, Indian and Native American. I now suspect that these systems of thought, and others like them, are intricate blends of real insight and hocus-pocus, but it would take a whole book to disentangle one from t'other, and there isn't room here even to begin to make a start. (Can I feel a quartet19 coming on?)
- As well as the primary sources, I must gratefully acknowledge several overviews of the new science of embodied cognition on which I have drawn, sometimes extensively. They include:-
- I have pilfered part of my title from "Lakoff (George) & Johnson (Mark) - Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought", and many ideas from "Damasio (Antonio) - Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain" and Antonio Damasio's Self Comes to Mind.
- I am acutely aware that, in writing this book, I am standing on the shoulders of giants, and the above authors are some of them. Most of these books are quite technical, however, both scientifically and philosophically, and they often delve into academic disputes of limited interest (and accessibility) to non-specialists or people new to the field.
- There are also three excellent recent books on craft and practical intelligence that I want to mention as well:-
None of these, though, situates the renewed interest in physical making within the emerging science of embodied cognition. For those who want to dig deeper, any of these books would make excellent reading. However, none of them has - for good or ill - the sweep of mine, attempting to embrace visceral physiology, brain science, the function of emotion, consciousness, craftsmanship and 'handiness', as well as the wider social and personal implications of the new science for our view of human intelligence. I hope the breadth will prove interesting, even if some of the depth has had to be sacrificed.
- Matthew Crawford's The Case for Working with Your Hands,
- Richard Sennett's The Craftsman, and
- Mike Rose's The Mind at Work.
- Well, that's quite enough throat-clearing. Let's get on with it. We'll start with a quick look at how the separation of mind and body, and the privileging of one over the other, came about.
Footnote 1: Chapter summaries have been extracted and moved to form Abstracts for the corresponding Chapters.
Footnote 2: By the number of cookery programs on TV, it’s as though cookery has become the new leisure sport – but I suppose most people watch – as they do football – rather than “play”.
Footnote 3: They always had their sport – especially hunting. And gentlewomen used to sew.
- Another over-simplification. We still fix what’s possible or economical to fix – eg. fences – though the “rich” – as they always have – get others to do things that are tedious, uncomfortable, dangerous, or require more skill than they care to spend time acquiring.
- Nerds enjoy fixing their tech devices, admittedly by replacing major components, but others don’t know how. Cars are becoming difficult to fix without the right equipment, but many – especially the poor, or those who enjoy tinkering – still have a go.
- Please don't think that I am making any claim to the moral high ground here. Writing a book is about as cerebral and sedentary as it gets. And I do indeed have 'bike ride?' pencilled in my diary for the Sunday after next. I'll return in the last chapter ("Claxton (Guy) - The Embodied Life: Self, Spirit and Society") to a discussion of why understanding has so little purchase on behaviour.
- This is a vastly more complex situation than is being made out.
- As is well known, machines now do what was once done by artisans, so there’s lots less skill involved in much manual work.
- But it is true that engineering has acquired an undeserved “blue collar” aura.
- Lots of skilled manual jobs are much more difficult than lots of routine “white colour” ones.
- Skills are not valued in themselves, but according to their scarcity in the general population. As plumbers become scarcer, and people still need plumbing done, the status and financial reward of plumbing jobs will rise.
- Sometimes every normal person is highly skilled in a complex activity that machines have difficulty emulating (bipedal walking, speech), but as they are ubiquitous, they are not valued or even noticed unless they are absent.
- In other activities, very small differences in skill or achievement make all the difference – an Olympic sprinter isn’t that much faster than a decent amateur, but is rewarded infinitely more.
- Education – as well as having intrinsic benefits – was also once an obstacle course to determine the “smartest” (this isn’t just a modern, western thing). Making tertiary education open to all confuses some into thinking they are joining this race, when they aren’t.
- Ballet-dancers, concert pianists and other practitioners of 'high culture' are exempted from this generalisation - though even in school, dance, drama and music sit only just above PE in the hierarchy of esteem. And, in the case of ballerinas at least, they are not supposed to look as if they sweat and strain.
Footnote 9: Not even Descartes thought of the mind as the captain of the ship – he thought of mind and body as more “intermingled”. See "Descartes (Rene) - Sixth Meditation".
- Maybe not, but it’s still true that reason separates human beings from “the beasts”.
- Not that non-human animals aren’t intelligent, nor that they can’t reason in their own way.
- But reason – and rational argument – is a pinnacle of human achievement – though it was pretty well achieved by the ancient Greeks, so is also “old hat”.
- Another thought is that – pace Aristotle – rationality isn’t definitive of human beings, and doesn’t come naturally to everyone, but has to be acquired by discipline and (maybe) innate predisposition or ability. It is necessary, and – because it is not universally shared – prized when necessary, and resented when rationality suggests we can’t have what we want. That’s the message of the “alien” Mr. Spock, anyway. More “old hat”.
- Again, lots of issues. “Inclination” isn’t all there is to it.
- But, it has something to do with it, and people do best what they are inclined to do, and making the only esteemed options “cerebral” is unfair.
- Performing musicianship is a mostly physical activity (as Claxton has admitted in a footnote), though it is (or should be) improved by a musical education (ie. provided that education has a practical purpose).
Footnote 12: So, he would not be a fan of “wit” then?
- This account of what we are is fully correct, in my view.
- However, he needs to argue against the views of those – like Lynne Rudder Baker and Mark Johnston – who think we’re only constituted by human organisms. Johnston is, I think, a sitting duck for Claxton’s approach, but maybe Baker is not.
Footnote 14: I imagine that most people figure out what to do, especially those who score well on IQ tests.
- Maybe, but it (or more difficult questions) is a good proxy for the sort of job it’s a proxy for.
- But it has to be supplemented by more practical forms of intelligence.
- This is found a lot in IT circles, where aptitude tests along IQ-test lines are most relevant. “Soft skills” – needed lest the “nerds” couldn’t communicate with “ordinary people” – came so far to the fore that most employees lacked the special skills required to do the technical job quickly and accurately.
- Such consequences cannot always be figured out, and provided there isn’t an obvious discord between the various likely impacts on your various values, you need to evaluate whether you’re the sort of person who is – or could become – capable of coping with the more likely unknowns.
Footnote 17: No doubt, but as it’s “hard” I doubt Claxton will have anything sensible to say about it.
- Maybe not. In which case “society” – insofar as it values their special skills and aptitudes – needs to help them out a bit. Or their families or employers should do so.
- One thinks of footballers. Given that we value their specific skills – which are not generalised in other areas – and they are hugely open to the temptations their hardly-earned wealth puts in their way – we (in the form of their employers) need to protect them from likely catastrophes.
- For all that, people with the special skills we value are – and should be – themselves highly valued as they are scarce, and the very best are irreplaceable.
- Actually, “Systems One and Two” are Kahnemann’s terms, though his book – "Kahneman (Daniel) - Thinking, Fast and Slow" – has “fast and slow” in its title to sell more copies.
- I hope this doesn’t mean that Claxton hasn’t actually read Kahneman.
- Ie. A fourth volume to extend his trilogy.
- Would this be simply a discussion of “indigenous cultures”, or cover the other lacunae?
- If the former, it’ll be twaddle as he won’t – as an outsider dilettante – be able to appreciate what these cultures have to say.
- Also, if it really is “hocus pocus” why bother with it?; and insofar as it’s sense, it’s probably better said in modern terms.
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2019
- Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)