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Book Review: The Body Has a Mind of Its Own: How Body Maps in Your Brain Help You Do (Almost) Everything Better by Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee

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The Body Has a Mind of Its Own: How Body Maps in Your Brain Help You Do (Almost) Everything Better is a fascinating and highly readable book co-written by a science journalist and her son. It tells the story the brain's body maps, providing scientific explanations for such phenomena as phantom limbs, the distorted body views of anorexics, and out-of-body experiences. Read this book, and you may never think of your body in quite the same terms again.

Descartes did not get it right when he said, "I think, therefore I am," and set off hundreds of years of fallacious thinking about the mind-body connection. According to The Body Has a Mind of Its Own, a more accurate statement might have been, "I feel, therefore I think."

Starting with how our brains use our senses to map the external body, the authors discuss historic research of such scientists as Wilder Penfield, who discovered the strange homunculus map of our senses in our brains. (Based on the number of neurons devoted to each sensory area, the map has a huge tounge, lips and hands, and the parts are not laid out in body order; the face is closer to the thumb than the neck, for instance.)

They trace the development of science's understanding, based largely on the use of functional MRI imaging, of how such maps are used. They then move on to how the body senses its internal states (heart, lungs, etc.) and how it uses and integrates this information. They leave final frontier of the emotions — how we sense them and use them to construct the experience of pain and our very sense of self — for last.

Author Sandra Blakeslee specializes in writing about brain science. She regularly contributes to The New York Times, and has co-written books with a prominent neuorscientist, a psychoanalyst, and even Jeff Hawkins, the found of Palm Inc. Her co-author for this book, her son Matthew, is a freelance science writer. Together they have an engaging writing style that is extremely user-friendly yet does not "dumb down" the science.

They make reference to many works and quote many scientists, and they provide a glossary and index at the end. Unfortunately, they do not provide a bibliography, so anyone wishing to pursue their sources has to do the legwork themselves. At 208 pages, it is a not terribly long book; it is actually like a very long magazine article.

The Body Has a Mind of Its Own is well worth picking up for anyone interested in the brain. Not only is it approachable to the layman, its jumping off point is different from other popular neuroscience books I have read. Until I picked up this book, I had not heard about the advances in research regarding how we perceive our bodies and how this shapes our very experience of self. Anyone interested in neuroscience would be happy reading this book and furthermore should read it, to round out their understanding of cognition.

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About Nancy Fontaine

Nancy Fontaine is a librarian and freelance writer living in New Hampshire with her husband, two cats, and every four years during presidential primary season, the national press.
  • The book’s point is a half-truth. The half that is missing is cognitive neuroscience and the notion of “mind over matter.” For more perspective, see my new e-book, “Core Ideas in Neuroscience.”