Review: The Body Knows Its Mind. The surprising power of the physical environment to influence how you think and feel. By Sian Beilock. 2015, Robinson, London. 277 pp.
Beilock is a cognitive scientist and this book discusses 'the new science of embodied cognition'. It's comparable in some ways to Richard Wiseman's book, 59 Seconds, and though I enjoyed Wiseman more, it will appeal to a similar audience. Beilock's intention is "to find out how our thinking is shaped by the body" and "to find the keys to how we can function at our best". This is not a theoretical textbook, but aims to provide an overview of embodied cognition research and how we might apply it in our everyday lives. Beilock achieves that aim pretty well, and while it's not aimed at the professional, she supplies extensive references for those who want to know more.
Embodied cognition is very broad field and one that is fundamental to so many areas of research and practice. The breadth of research means that most of those working in related areas will find it hard to keep up, and that's where this book can be of use. Don't expect to get an in-depth study of research on a specific topic: you'll find you know more than the author on at least some of it. I learnt a lot from a few chapters and nothing at all from others. Her chapter on ecotherapy, for example, focusses on a few key research projects that will be familiar to anyone working in that area. But judged as quick overview its not at all bad, so if ecotherapy is new to you it's worth a read.
Beilock introduces some fascinating research. I loved the section on research into how we use physical movement to help us work out problems. Is 'thinking outside the box' more than just a metaphor? Researchers at Cornell University built a box big enough to sit in to find out. Those sitting outside the box were better at solving word puzzles, and those walking freely around did best of all.
Occasionally Beilock mentions something from an unfamiliar area of research that's relevant to my own. Beilock notes that "when we are in close physical proximity to someone or something, our brains more primitive emotional regions perk up, which could help us better understand what others are feeling". Her practical take on this is that virtual interactions may have significant downsides. If this research finding is correct, and "physical distance encourages the perception of being psychologically distant", then therapists who work with clients via Skype need to take notice. Without reading an overview book like this it would probably have taken me much longer to hear about that research.
The epilogue, "Using your body to change your mind", provides brief summaries of the research already discussed and suggestions of how you might apply it in everyday life. It's useful as far as it goes, but the theme of 'using' the body as a 'tool' to help your mind harkens back to outdated notions of mind/body dualism.
Although Beilock opens the book by affirming that she's rejected the "idea that we are simply a set of software programmes running on our body hardware", that metaphor reappears several times in later chapters. It's a minor fault, but illustrates how deep rooted this notion is. Even when someone knows full well that this idea is mistaken, it's become so much part of our language that the habit sticks. I also got the impression that for Beilock the mind is still somehow separate from and superior to the body. She notes that researchers into supermarket behaviours thought that "People's bodies hack their brains". Only someone who uncritically accepts mind/body dualism would make that comment; our bodies are not only separate from our brains, but they are somehow interfering with the workings of the mind.
That brings me to some further criticisms. Some of the research conclusions are so well known that it seems pointless to repeat them. I think we all know that moderate exercise is good for your mental health, but Beilock presents that research alongside more unfamiliar ideas, like the finding that working up a sweat can improve negotiation skills. Beilock could have saved space on discussing well-known research and explored more interesting ideas. I was hoping for more on how embodied cognition is - arguably - always situated. Beilock makes the provocative assertion that "thinking extends way beyond the cortex", but doesn't run with it.
In general there's a lack of critical engagement with the research. Brain scans appear to show that the neural circuits involved in physical pain are also activated by emotional suffering. Building on that finding, Beilock cites research claiming that paracetamol can reduce both social and physical pain. Perhaps it can, but giving children paracetamol to successfully ease mild emotional distress might also involve the placebo effect. To be fair, Beilock is not writing a critical study of embodied cognition research; it's more of a 'look what we've found' celebration. In some ways that's a weakness, but there's only so much you can do in a short, simple to read introduction.
In conclusion, this is the perfect book for the lay person who would like to know more about what embodied cognition is and why its important. It's an easy read; if you didn't know better you'd think it was written by a journalist. But it's also useful for those of us working in the embodiment field because it covers a fairly wide range of research. An embodiment professional will know a lot of this already, and may occasionally be irritated by the popular style or somewhat simplistic summing up of nuanced research. But you will learn about what other people are doing and be able to follow up Beilock's introduction using her references.
Review by Adrian Harris, PhD, MSc.