This required reading just Blew My Mind.

September 23, 2007 § Leave a comment

Welcome to a new tag in my notebook: “This required reading just Blew My Mind.” Here’s a little tip about grad school that you probably already know. In grad school, you read. A lot. And if you’re lucky, some of it might even Blow Your Mind. But then you have to go on and read something else that may or may not Blow Your Mind, and either way eventually you forget the preceding Mind Blowing reading. So I’m going to start jotting down some of these things so I don’t forget them.

Your Body Is a Wonderland!¹

Item no. 1 comes from “Plastic Brains, Hybrid Minds,” a chapter in Natural-born cyborgs by Andy Clark (as opposed to Andy Clarke, who, BTW, has also Blown My Mind in several passages of Transcending CSS). OK, so we’ve already got some awesome stuff here, including plastic brains and cyborgs, but it gets better.

Clark says that our conception of our bodies can extend beyond the actual matter that comprises them if we are “tricked” in the right way.

He lists several party tricks, devised by another researcher², that you can try to confirm this, including one where you, blindfolded, sit behind your friend in a chair with one index finger on her nose and one on your own nose. (You’re remembering that joke about picking your friends and picking your nose, aren’t you? You are so crass.) Another one of your friends, standing beside both of you, uses your index fingers to stroke and tap the noses of you and your friend with exactly the same rhythm.

After less than a minute of this synchronized nose-tapping, about half the subjects report a powerful illusion. It is as if their own noses now extended about two feet in front of them. . . . To make sense of this close and ongoing match between arm’s length tapping and end-of-nose sensation, the brain infers that your nose must now extend far enough for the arm’s-length tapping to be causing the feelings. So your nose must be about two feet long. (p. 60)

Whoa. That required reading just Blew My Mind. “To recap, human brains (and indeed those of many other animals) seem to support highly negotiable body images” (p. 62).

¹ This is what Ian said after I told him about the article. Who knew that a song he loves to hate so much would come in handy in a conversation about cognitive science?

²V.S. Ramachandran, professor and director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego at the time the article was published


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