Cognitive Daily

I’ve reviewed Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee’s recent book The Body Has a Mind of Its Own over at The Quarterly Conversation. So, is this the science book that should have made the New York Times’ Notable Books list? (Several ScienceBloggers have complained that the list includes no science books).

As I point out in my review, the book does have some great highlights:

The Blakeslees … 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.

That’s pretty interesting stuff, right? Unfortunately, the book has some big problems, too:

The Blakeslees discuss these conditions (like the yips) 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?

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 Wilder Penfield’s poking and prodding neurosurgery.

In the end, I can’t recommend the Blakeslees’ book as an example of good science writing. It’s unnerving to those of us who spend a lot of time reading about serious research, and it’s potentially misleading to those who don’t. For more, see my complete review.

Note: The book did make the Washington Post list, but even that review was middling.

Comments

  1. #1 Michael Bach
    December 5, 2007

    On top of your well phrased criticism comes the problem that the “Pinocchio illusion” does nearly not exist. It didn’t work with me and another colleague recently — ok that may not mean much. But I just spoke to a colleague who regular includes this in student practicals. His (informal) findings are that it works in around 1 of 100 students. The inverse illusion, namely that the nose (very slightly) seemingly moves inwards, occurs more often, but is very small (I had the same experience: existent, but tiny). So much for popular science.

  2. #2 onclepsycho
    December 5, 2007

    Thanks for this review, I was sort of considering getting this book, but now you just confirmed my fears about it. About the pinocchio illusion, doesn’t work for me either (it did work on a colleague though). Peter Brugger actually investigated individual differences (N=32), and found that the perceived nose elongation correlated with scores on the Perceptual Aberration Scale, but only in men.