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

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Busy Bodies make Clever Bodies

Olly Robinson

INTELLIGENCE IN THE FLESH: Why your mind needs your body much more than it thinks
Guy Claxton
Yale University Press, 2016, 344 pp.

The work I do as an academic is really rather unhealthy. It involves countless hours of staring at computer screens, tapping away at keyboards, with my eyes and body stuck in a fixed and rather unnatural posture. Even when I am away from the computer, my attention at work is usually in some cognitive matter, and hence away from my body and environment. This combination of heavy-duty rationality and a lack of bodily movement is tailor-made to cause imbalance. I use dancing to help solve this problem. I go out as regularly as I can to ‘5 Rhythms’ classes, or other ecstatic dance workshops, to help feel physically alive, vital, real, present and full of emotion. Every workshop feels like a remembering of my true embodied self and a temporary release from the fictional junk of my cognitive self-concepts.

Given this passion of mine, I was excited to read Guy Glaxton’s book Intelligence in the Flesh, which synthesises his ideas on how intelligence is a function of the whole body. Claxton relays how society has become more sedentary over time, and its pastimes ever more disembodied. Even things that used to involve complex bodily action, such as cooking, for many now simply involve ripping off a lid and putting a tray in a microwave. Meanwhile, psychology and philosophy have been taking intelligence away from the body for some centuries now. Intelligence tests typically require little if any bodily work or physical activity and instead emphasise abstract reasoning or memory. In sum, culturally and academically, we have been displacing the body as the foundation of wisdom or cleverness. We need to reclaim the wisdom of the body – this is the core message of the book.

For Claxton, the body is the basis of all intelligence. Reason comes from nowhere else, in his view. There is no Platonic realm, no Higher Source, no mind or soul distinct from the complex operations of body. We have evolved physically, we are made for action, and there is no dividing line between brain and body. It is all one intelligent system. The mind and consciousness ‘well up’ out of the body’s working.
The whole discussion of how brain and mind relate, says Claxton, is mistaken. The body is the mind’s substrate, not just the brain. Thoughts, feelings, intuitions, values and concerns all are expressions of total bodily events that incorporate the nervous system, immune system, circulatory system and more. Our blood sugar changes in response to thoughts, our thoughts respond to bacteria in our intestine. Hence studies show that people make better decisions when they rely on their physical intuition – their gut feelings. The brain is more like a chat room than a directorate.

Feelings and emotions are the glue that keeps the embodied system together. They bring the whole organism into a kind of action-focused alignment, and demand expression. If feeling is not properly expressed, it becomes confused and loses its natural wisdom. Any divorce of thought from feeling creates a kind of ‘clever-stupid’ intelligence (which, in my experience, is all too common in academia).
Thinking, from the Claxton’s embodied cognition theory, is a series of stories that the body constructs about what is going on in its inner depths. There is no other unconscious than the unconscious depths of the body and our lack of conscious access to its finer workings. This does not leave room for an unconscious that is akin of Jung’s model or Huxley’s. There is no extended ‘Mind at Large’ beyond our conscious bubble. The unconscious is just the operation of matter and physical information beyond our ken.

Claxton’s materialism, while not leaving much if any room for God, transcendence or paranormal phenomena, does provide for a spiritual sense of unity, albeit a radically immanent one. We are one with the cosmos, being not rational souls inserted in the physical world, but integral parts of the material whole. We flow out into the world beyond our skin. To open to the wisdom of the body means opening to its porous nature – accepting that it has no clear edges. Every breath in draws atoms from the world into us, and every breath out expels atoms from one’s inside into the outside world. Every learning event draws information in, and every sentence spoken sends it out. Embodied intelligence works with this in adaptive and functional ways. Tools and technologies become seamless parts of systems that include the physical body, while information flows seamlessly inside and outside the body, connecting us intimately with the world and each other.

In the final two chapters, the book discusses whether and how embodied intelligence can be taught, and what it means for education. Why do we make children sit stock still through class, says Claxton, when intelligence benefits from moving around and from gestures? And then we pathologise those kids who want to move around as having an attention deficit disorder! This is such an important message, and one that needs to be echoed throughout the education system, including higher education, where we have also forgotten the power of learning through action. Claxton calls for a New Materialism, which embraces the importance of making, doing and moving in the physical world.

Claxton considers various ways that we can rehabilitate our somatic intelligence – he briefly reviews the effects of biofeedback, mindfulness meditation, exercise, tai chi and dance. I did feel a little short changed that dance only got about half a page of coverage, and exercise only three pages. I felt the book missed out on a chance of extensively exploring the research that is out there on the benefits of exercise, yoga and dance. And given Claxton’s expertise on Buddhism, I was hoping for a bit more on spirituality in the book.

Overall, Claxton’s basic thesis is important and convincing. We must learn to re-engage with our bodies and their extraordinary capacities. Like him, I believe that the whole body is indeed the locus of feeling, memory and thinking. However unlike Claxton I am not a materialist, and I don’t share his view that the physical is all there is, when it comes to intelligence and consciousness. I expect that is also true of many readers of the Network Review, given that the Scientific and Medical Network is in large part about exploring alternatives to scientific materialism. But if I was going to read a book that had a philosophically materialistic foundation, it would be this one. It shows just how healthy and wise materialism can be.

Olly Robinson is Senior Lecturer at the University of Greenwich and author of “Paths Between Head and Heart: The Seven Harmonies of Science and Spirituality”, to be published in 2017 by O Books.

Buy Intelligence in the Flesh: Why Your Mind Needs Your Body Much More Than it Thinks here.