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Surprising Science

From AI to Anxiety Relief, The Brain Needs a Body

Cognitive scientist Guy Claxton believes we should think of our entire body as our brain. 

The goal of transcending flesh is an old fetish. Yogis meditated and fasted for eons in order to rise above our ‘meat casing,’ performing painful ablutions and inventing kriyas, intense breathing exercises that are physiologically indistinct from intentional hyperventilation. The goal of many religions, from some forms of Tibetan Buddhism to numerous strains of Christianity and Islam, is all about letting the spirit soar free. 

While language changes, pretensions remain. Today we talk about ‘uploading consciousness’ to an as of yet discovered virtual cloud. Artificial intelligence is only moments away, so the story goes, with experts weighing in on the ethical consequences of creating machines void of emotional response systems. In this view consciousness, itself a loaded and mismanaged term, is nothing more than an algorithm waiting to be deciphered. Upon cracking the code, immortality awaits. 

Of course others are more grounded. The goal of extending life to 150 years includes the body by default, though the mind is still championed above all else. Yet we seem to age in opposing directions by design. At forty-one little has changed in how I think about myself, yet my body is decaying: a post-knee surgery creek here, a perpetual tight shoulder there. It certainly feels like a slowly approaching transition, even if that, like much of life, is an illusion. 

The brain has rightfully been placed as the seat of consciousness. It is certainly the weigh station where all perceptions pass through. Yet in discussion of becoming robots an essential facet of life is missed: consciousness is not only produced by your brain, it is also your nervous system’s response to the environment. In this sense it might be better to think of your entire body as your brain. 

That’s an argument cognitive scientist Guy Claxton is making. History might belong to Hippocratic holism and Cartesian dualism, but in the past few decades scientists have become serious neurological fanboys. Breakthrough technologies made non-invasive means of measuring blood flow available, reshaping how we think about metacognition. No longer do we only know that we think, we can now witness how our brain responds to every single thought and emotion, then string together the threads in the fabric of cognition. 

When we believe a separate mind (or spirit) exists apart from our body, Claxton writes, we make worse decisions regarding our body. He points to a study at the University of Cologne in which two groups read texts, one in support of dualism, the other expressing mind and body as part of the same being. 

Not only did the dualists report less engagement and interest in healthy behaviours and attitudes than the physicalists, they were actually more likely to choose the chips than the salad when they went off for lunch.

Which is effectively how we always act. Dualism supports everything from suicidal terrorism to environmental destruction—if you believe another spirit world better than this one awaits, why care about what we do to the planet and its resources? We were ‘put here’ to lord over this domain anyway. 

Historian Yuval Noah Harari finds this phenomenon apparent in everything from religion to economics. In Homo Deus, he argues that as we transformed from animals struggling to survive to animals that thrive our main pursuit became pleasure. Impatient creatures we are, we swerve manically between stress and boredom in the perpetual quest for gratification, taking out whatever stands in our way. 

Case in point: Today the headlines proclaim that the Dow Jones passed 21,000 for the first time in history. Immediately speculators started wondering what does 30,000 look like? The myth of perpetual progress creates an impossible load for the planet to handle. Harari believes the incessant anxiety of unfettered growth is digging us a certain grave. Because we train our eyes on the market’s algorithms, however, we’re blinded to the destruction of our surroundings. Then someone says that climate change is merely an engineering problem and we think, Sure, why not? Just more numbers on a screen to be managed.

This disembodiment from our environment comes with a heavy toll. Harari cites the Buddha, who taught that the pursuit of pleasure is the root of suffering. Upon achieving a goal we don’t pause to revel in satisfaction. Instead we immediately crave more, dopamine monkeys chasing grapes.

Claxton finds a partial solution in yoga and meditation, which help in the development of embodied cognition. (Harari meditates two hours every day, and performs one sixty-day Vipassana retreat each year.) The relationship between our body and mind is critical for self-understanding. That we ever separated them is likely an aberration of biological development, as Paul Bloom points out. Cognitive software updates might be constant, but upgrading physiological hardware takes quite some time, and so the feeling of dualism is likely to persist. 

Matthew Crawford believes the disembodied culture fostered since the Industrial Revolution diminishes personal autonomy. He left a lucrative career at a D.C. think tank to work as a motorcycle mechanic, resulting in one of the best books on this subject I’ve read. He finds manual work more intellectually engaging than sitting behind a computer selling political agendas. The fact that education is mostly focused on technology is unfortunate, as it promotes disassociation from the world we live in. 

The disappearance of tools from our common education is the first step toward a wider ignorance of the world of artifacts we inhabit.  

We’ve made some strides of late, however, at least with our own bodies if not tools. While physicality has generally been removed from our daily workload, the exercise industry continues to expand. Six days a week I move bodies in yoga and fitness classes. People inherently recognize they’re not only toning and stretching their muscles and fascia. Emotional catharsis and mental focus keeps studios and gyms crowded. If emotional intelligence has been a catchphrase over the last decade, a renaissance in physical intelligence is occurring. 

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That’s important. Rewarding careers that push numbers from bank account to bank account instead of those responsible for building the buildings those computers sit inside is an indication of how disembodied we’ve become as a culture. Championing sedentary behavior in the quest of prosperous algorithms is a modern tragedy we don’t pay enough attention to. More than our personal well-being is at stake. We need our bodies as much as our brains, a lesson we need to learn before atrophy is complete. 

Derek’s next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/4/17 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.


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