Intelligence in the Flesh: Why Your Mind Needs Your Body Much More Than It Thinks

Intelligence in the Flesh: Why Your Mind Needs Your Body Much More Than It Thinks

by Guy Claxton


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An enthralling exploration that upends the prevailing view of consciousness and demonstrates how intelligence is literally embedded in the palms of our hands

If you think that intelligence emanates from the mind and that reasoning necessitates the suppression of emotion, you’d better think again—or rather not “think” at all. In his provocative new book, Guy Claxton draws on the latest findings in neuroscience and psychology to reveal how our bodies—long dismissed as mere conveyances—actually constitute the core of our intelligent life. From the endocrinal means by which our organs communicate to the instantaneous decision-making prompted by external phenomena, our bodies are able to perform intelligent computations that we either overlook or wrongly attribute to our brains.
Embodied intelligence is one of the most exciting areas in contemporary philosophy and neuropsychology, and Claxton shows how the privilege given to cerebral thinking has taken a toll on modern society, resulting in too much screen time, the diminishment of skilled craftsmanship, and an overvaluing of white-collar over blue-collar labor. Discussing techniques that will help us reconnect with our bodies, Claxton shows how an appreciation of the body’s intelligence will enrich all our lives.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300223477
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 10/25/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 344
Sales rank: 1,090,968
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Guy Claxton is emeritus professor of the learning sciences at the University of Winchester. His many publications include Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: Why Intelligence Increases When You Think Less. He lives in Sussex, UK.

Read an Excerpt

Intelligence in the Flesh

Why Your Mind Needs Your Body Much More than It Thinks

By Guy Claxton


Copyright © 2015 Guy Claxton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-21597-7




If the body had been easier to understand, nobody would have thought that we had a mind.

Richard Rorty

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. Cooking 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 rich: not any more. And the machines that make all this leisure possible are opaque – most of us wouldn't know how to fix them, and wouldn't want to. We have become mind rich and body poor.

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 esteemed 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 verbal.

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 argument. 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 hat. 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 inclined 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 arise.

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 sets the scene for the new view by taking a quick scan back over the evolution of the old view. From classical Greece to the late twentieth century, it was simply inconceivable that a pillar of meat – and especially the dull-looking lump of matter inside the skull – could have been the source of Euclid's geometrical proofs, Plato's Republic or Shakespeare's sonnets; or that acts of great selflessness and wise judgement could have arisen sui generis from 70 kilos or so of flesh. The smart stuff had, then, to be immaterial and come from elsewhere. The 'mind' was invented to fill what philosophers call 'the explanatory gap'. Consciousness, especially rational thinking, looked to our forebears as if it had to sit in the centre of this hypothetical mind, with the Senses delivering information to it through one bodily door, and Decisions being despatched to the workhorses of the body through an opposite one. We think that we See things, then we Think about them, then we make Decisions, and finally we Act. But it's not like that at all.

Chapters 3, 4 and 5 take us into the modern, scientific understanding of the body. When science first tried to 'naturalise' the mind, its most obvious physical accomplice was the brain. But, as I will show, the proper substrate of the mind is not the brain alone but the entire body. I'll unfold a view of the human body as a massive, seething, streaming collection of interconnected communication systems that bind the muscles, the stomach, the heart, the senses and the brain so tightly together that no part – especially the brain – can be seen as functionally separate from, or senior to, any other part. Torrents of electrical and chemical messages are continually coursing throughout the entire body and its brain. In fractions of a second, the 'decision-making' of the brain can be influenced by a badly behaved bacterium in the gut, and the level of sugar in the blood can be altered by a squeak or a dream. The cells and molecules of the immune system have so many receptors at all levels in the brain that the immune system now has to be thought of as an integral part of the central nervous system. In fact, it's all just one system.

I'll demonstrate that we are fundamentally built for action, not for thinking or understanding, and that, as a consequence, our intelligence is deeply orientated towards the construction of effective and appropriate behaviour. Thinking is a recently evolved tool for supporting smart action. We'll see that the brain evolved to help increasingly complicated bodies coordinate their interlocking sub-systems in the service of the whole community. Brain is servant, not master of the body. It's a chat-room, not a directorate. Seeing, Thinking, Deciding and Acting are not strung out, like different departments in a factory; they are inextricably entwined. Careful science shows that how I see is instantly imbued with what I want and how I might act. The body-brain is designed to blend all these influences together in the blink of an eye, and often issues intricate, intelligent actions without thought or premeditation.

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, the bodily glue that sticks our reasoning and our common sense together. Feelings are somatic events that embody our values and concerns. They signal what we care about: what gives our lives meaning and direction. Our hopes and fears arise from the resonance of our organs in response to events. Without physical feelings and intuitions, abstract intelligence sheers away from the subtleties and complexities of the real world, and people become 'clever-stupid', able to explain and comprehend but incapable of linking that understanding to the needs and pressures of everyday life. Particular emotions can get tangled and perverted by experience, and very often do. We become fearful of intimacy, or angry at our own timidity. But the solution is not for Reason to trounce Emotion. The body's signals are essentially wise, if sometimes confused. If the wisdom is ignored, it will be hard to sort out the confusion.

Language and reason themselves look different when we see that they too are rooted in the body. Chapter 7 explores the ways in which our more abstract understanding grows out of the physical and sensory concepts that the young child grasps first – giving and taking, coming and going, full and empty, warm and cool, nurturing and threatening. We come to understand what someone means when they ask if we have grasped the argument, by analogy with the physical act of grasping. And these primeval links back to the body are never lost. There is no separate bit of the brain where abstract ideas like Truth and Justice are stored, and where Philosophising takes place. From birth till death, the body is the moment-to-moment substrate of our thoughts and desires – however refined. Studies show that, in complicated predicaments, people make better decisions when they rely on their 'gut feelings' as well as their reason and do not see them as antagonists.

Language itself teems with expressions that muddle up mind and body. I hear a side-splitting joke and laugh till I cry or hoot with glee (or the joke may be lame, toe-curlingly awful, eliciting only a weak groan and a rolling of the eyes). I read a heartrending story and am moved to (a different kind of) tears. My eyes pop with surprise and I prick up my ears. My shoulders slump with disappointment, I have butterflies in my stomach, and my blood runs cold. I feel gripped by an idea, or queasy at the very thought. I know things in my bones and feel them in my water. A creepy tale makes my flesh crawl, while a compliment makes me flush with pride. A memory comes and I smile quietly to myself. Informally, instinctively, we know that mental and bodily events resonate tightly with each other – but all these somatic reactions are no mere accoutrements of the mental activities they accompany; they are absolutely of the essence.

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 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. Thoughts are stories the embodied brain constructs about what is going on in its own hidden depths: reports from the interior, sometimes heavily edited and censored, and sometimes arriving by pigeon post long after the action is over. Many experiments show that our conscious intellect is often a rather pale reflection, or even a crude caricature, of the sophisticated operations that are going on 'behind the scenes'. Consciousness has its own priorities – creating a semblance of order and self-esteem, for example – which lead it, often, to misrepresent the complexity and waywardness of what is going on below. We confabulate much more than we like to think.

Bodies do not stop at the skin. So neither do minds. We'll see in Chapter 9 that the internal streaming of information continues through our fingertips and out into the tools we use, for example. When you pick up a familiar tool, be it a fish slice or a chisel, your brain literally incorporates it into its representation of your body; it becomes as much a part of your body as the hand itself. It is easy to trick your body-brain into believing that a rubber arm on a table in front of you is actually your own, so that, when someone hits it with a hammer, you cannot but flinch. But it's more even than that. We are also deeply interconnected, through our bodies, largely unconsciously, with the material and social worlds around us – our bodies literally reverberate with each other at many levels. The 'intelligent agent', seen rightly, extends throughout and beyond the whole body. It is constituted by the tools and the space around us, and also by everyone with whom we are 'in touch'.

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 we will find that human intelligence lives in our hands just as much as in our tongues and our brains. Making is in our blood, it seems. We have been crafted by evolution to be natural-born engineers, compulsive sculptors of our environments. Human beings are habitat decorators, toolmakers and workshop designers par excellence; we were Homo fabricans long before we were sapiens. Or rather, the sapiens grew out of the fabricans, and still relies deeply upon it. It is in our nature to amplify our intelligence by imagining, and then making, ever more powerful tools. We are only as smart as we are because we are enmeshed in a world of our own making: a vast web of books, spectacles, notes, printers, weblinks, diaries, calendars, maps, satellite navigation gizmos, computer programs, filing systems, Skype links, mobile telephones ... all of which I know, more or less, how to capitalise on. As Andy Clark puts it, 'we make our worlds smart so we can be dumb in peace'. My intelligence stretches way beyond what can be captured in an IQ test.

There are signs of a wider resurgence of the physical: a backlash, perhaps, against the intellectualisation of intelligence. Optimistically, you could discern evidence of a New Materialism on the rise: one which is not about conspicuous consumption, but about the quiet, protracted hands-on pleasures of making, mending, customising and perfecting physical skills. The Maker Movement in the States gathers strength, and puts pressure on manufacturers to make things mendable again. FabLabs, 'tinkering workshops' and 3D printers are springing up in response to the desire to engage with solid, workable stuff. The more the digital world takes hold, the stronger, for many of us, seems the compensatory desire to get back from the virtual to the real, from the symbolic to the material. And this signals a re-esteeming of physical delicacy, sensibility and creativity (beyond those protected 'Sites of Special Cultural Interest' called sport and art). Craft is cognition, people are saying. Doing and thinking are not separate faculties; they are inextricably entwined.


Excerpted from Intelligence in the Flesh by Guy Claxton. Copyright © 2015 Guy Claxton. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Figures, ix,
1 Limbering Up: An Introduction, 1,
2 A Brief History of Anti-Bodies, 15,
3 Bodies: What Are We Made Of?, 32,
4 Why the Body Needs a Brain, 56,
5 How Brain and Body Talk to Each Other, 79,
6 Emotions and Feelings, 102,
7 The Embodied Mind, 138,
8 The Welling Up of Consciousness, 167,
9 The Augmented Body, 193,
10 Craftiness and Expertise, 219,
11 Rehab: How Can I Get My Body Back?, 242,
12 The Embodied Life: Self, Spirit and Society, 264,
Notes, 293,
Acknowledgements, 314,
Index, 316,

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