In the 1930s, the surgeon Wilder Penfield pioneered a remarkable technique that is still in use today for some types of brain surgery. While the patient remains conscious, the surgeon cuts a large hole in the top of her head, removes a portion of the skull, and peels back several layers of tissue in order to access the brain. Then he uses an electrical probe to systematically stimulate sites in the brain, asking the patient what she feels.
The method was originally devised to distinguish tumors from brain matter (so that surgeons didn’t remove functioning brain cells), but over the years, Penfield refined the technique to develop a map of the brain and its relation to body function. Each body part, it turned out, corresponded to a particular region of the somatosensory cortex, and these correspondences were very similar in every individual.
Subsequently, similar maps have been made for motor control, vision, and other abilities. Penfield’s discoveries, and those of his successors, are truly remarkable. But they only cleared the way for the much more dramatic discoveries yet to come. If so much of the brain maps onto particular body parts, then brain function must be intimately connected with the physical body. But observing brain function as the body moves or responds to stimuli proved much more difficult than the reverse process—until the application of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology in the 1980s and 90s. With fMRI, researchers can watch areas of the brain “light up” in real time as different parts of the body are touched by the experimenter or moved by the research subject.
Actually, the process of fMRI research isn’t quite that simple, and that’s one of the problems I have with Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee’s new book, The Body Has a Mind of Its Own.
The Blakeslees are a mother-and-son team; Matthew is a fourth-generation science writer, and Sandra writes regularly for The New York Times and has co-authored books with neuroscience legends like V.S. Ramachandran and Jeff Hawkins.
There’s plenty of good science in The Body Has a Mind of Its Own, but as the authors acknowledge, “certain details and caveats that a specialist would consider vital have been condensed, glossed over, or shoehorned into metaphors.” As an example of the latter, there’s the idea that the brain “lights up” at all. Why is it, in a 200-page book, that the Blakeslees can’t take a page or two to explain how fMRI, the darling of The New York Times and other science pages, actually works? After all, they go to elaborate lengths to describe Penfield’s poking and prodding neurosurgery.1
On the other hand, the Blakeslees also describe some truly fascinating phenomena. You know about visual illusions, but did you realize there’s also such a thing as a sensorimotor illusion? One of the most astounding is the “Pinocchio illusion,” achieved by taping a small buzzer, like a personal massager, to the biceps tendon. Then you touch your index finger to your nose and close your eyes. The buzzer fools you into believing your arm is extending, and since your finger is still touching your nose, the only way to reconcile the two sensations is to perceive that your nose is growing! Like visual illusions, these illusions don’t work for everyone, so before you use this as an excuse to make a purchase from your local massage-device supplier, make sure you check their returns policy.
There’s also an engaging discussion of the golfer’s disorder “the yips,” which has caused professionals from Vijay Singh to Sam Snead to flail wildly at easy 3-foot tap-ins. The condition and other related conditions seem to appear in only the most accomplished athletes—and also artists, musicians, and others who have achieved exceptional skill controlling their muscles. Suddenly, and until recently inexplicably, this control is lost, often during the simplest and most basic exercise of their talents. Second basemen can’t make the routine throw to first base. Painters can’t hold their brushes still. The Blakeslees discuss these conditions primarily with the specialists that these golfers, baseball players, and artists hire to try to overcome their problems—and that in itself is problematic.
This approach blurs the line between science and hucksterism. A specialist who can help A-Rod with his throwing motion is part scientist and part social chameleon—the sort of person who can mix easily with multimillion-dollar athletes and convince high profile science writers to profile them. That’s not to say that some of what these gurus say isn’t scientifically valid; it’s just that these people are in the business of providing a service, and if the science doesn’t seem to be working, they’ll move on to hunches and outright guesses. How are we, as readers, to know when the science ends and the guessing begins?
Certainly not by looking up the Blakeslee’s sources: they don’t cite them. Sure, they quote neuroscientists, psychologists, and doctors in the text, but they don’t ever explain when a quotation is backed by peer-reviewed research and when it’s merely a hunch. One psychologist they talked with, Martin Grunwald, had a theory that anorexia nervosa could be treated by having people suffering from this condition wear full-body cat-suits under their clothes. It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds; Grunwald says he had success with one patient. The theory is that an anorexic has a warped body image which the cat-suit helps to realign. But after a few months, Grunwald’s patient relapsed and left the country, taking the expensive cat-suit with her. He can’t continue with the research because he can’t afford another cat-suit. It’s an interesting (and sad) story, but it’s not science. Again, this isn’t to say that Grunwald doesn’t do real research, just that this particular project doesn’t qualify.
The Blakeslees like to take readers on strolls through researchers’ labs to give them a sense that they’re on the bleeding edge of research. But some of the projects they discuss are only in preliminary phases; their hypotheses may or may not be confirmed. It’s an entertaining roller coaster ride, but one without seatbelts, and we’re not quite sure if the track will take us safely back to the starting gate, over a precipice, or into a brick wall.
Much of the science in The Body Has a Mind of Its Own is rock-solid, but much of it is speculation. This book doesn’t give readers enough information to appreciate the difference—that’s not good science, and it’s certainly not good science writing.
Dave Munger’s work has appeared in Seed magazine. He blogs at Cognitive Daily.
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