Authors Investigate the Body's 'Mind of Its Own' Your brain and body use "maps" to translate incoming sensory signals into meaningful information. Science writers Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee talk about their new book, The Body Has a Mind of Its Own, which explains "body maps" and their role in connecting the body and the brain.
NPR logo

Authors Investigate the Body's 'Mind of Its Own'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Authors Investigate the Body's 'Mind of Its Own'

Authors Investigate the Body's 'Mind of Its Own'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript



Okay, the holiday season, you're at a party talking to someone you just met and a few minutes into the conversation, you discover he's one of those dreaded close talkers, something like you seen on "Seinfeld." He leans in just a little too close, you would take a step back, he moves closer to you. Take another step back and soon, you're up against the wall there's nowhere to go. Your personal space is under siege and if it's, really, very close, it's a very uncomfortable feeling because, that's because even though you can't see a boundary around yourself, your brain knows where the space starts and stops and it, in turn, makes you react to feel like your space has been invaded.

That cocktail party scenario is just one example of the complex mapping your brain does. Whether you are a professional athlete or you're just trying to cross the street, how your brain keeps track of your body is a really complicated and amazing process. And your brain can play tricks on that space around you, too, making you believe that supernatural things are occurring, like out-of-body experiences. Do you see auras and colors? Some people do. And now, neuroscientists are just learning how these may be natural events orchestrated by your brain.

My next two guests have written a book on the topic, talking about the mysteries of your brain and the space around you.

Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee are a mother-son science writing team. Their new book is called "The Body Has a Mind of Its Own: How Your Body Maps in Your Brain Help You Do (Almost) Anything Better."

Sandra Blakeslee is a frequent contributor to New York Times and she and her son join me from KANW in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Ms. SANDRA BLAKESLEE (Co-author, "The Body Has a Mind of Its Own: How Your Body Maps in Your Brain Help You Do (Almost) Anything Better"): Thank you.

Mr. MATTHEW BLAKESLEE (Co-author, "The Body Has a Mind of Its Own: How Your Body Maps in Your Brain Help You Do (Almost) Anything Better"): Nice to be here.

FLATOW: Thank you. Sandra, well tell me about your body has - your brain has body maps? What is - what are we talking about here?

Ms. BLAKESLEE: Right. So your brain actually has - your brain maps as a sprawling network of body maps, and so it's - these things happen sort of out of consciousness under the hood as it were. You have maps of your body parts, which is called your touch map. So if you touch your arm or your leg or your hip or young side of your face, there's an area in your brain that maps each limb, each finger, each toe, each part of your body. There's a motor map every time you move a hand or an arm or any part of your body that motor region controls the motor map.

You also have a spatial map. So if you put your hand out in front of you and lay it over your head, you're mapping all of every inch of space around your body. It's sort of affixed to you body and you can - your brain is keeping track of everything in that space. You're mapping your internal organs, your felt sense, you're mapping your emotional world that way. So these maps has worked in concert to give you the sense of being a unitary being, but it's kind of strange because these maps can fall apart and these maps can lead to all sorts of strange phenomena.

FLATOW: Hmm. These maps, your brain, I'm reading in your book your brain is also mapping the space that you're walking through at the same time, right?

Ms. BLAKESLEE: Correct.

FLATOW: It's creating a place you call there a place cell. There are cells called place cells in the brain that are actually keeping a storage area of what you're walking through.

Ms. BLAKESLEE: Right, and this is an area - this is an area called the hypocampus, which is where memory is kind of mediated. But is also a place map. So where - when you walk through a room, it's taking - this region of your brain is mapping where you are in space. And a little further up there is an area called grid cells, which are mapping also where you are in space. So the finding is this that great athletes probably have very good grid cells and very good place cells because of the way they move around the court and the way they can ease in basketball and in football and in soccer - games like that. The brain is mapping that space constantly and people would have, could be more gifted at it if they had better parietal maps.

FLATOW: You talked about Bill Bradley, the great basketball player, later a senator from New Jersey, who could virtually see behind him almost, as if he had eyes in the back of his head because he had such great talent.


FLATOW: And that's because he was able to use these cells - these maps better than most people?

Ms. BLAKESLEE: Presumably so. And he would train and practice and practice and practice. But he had a great gift for mapping that space and the argument is if that great athletes have a better mapping system for their spatial placement of the body.

FLATOW: Matt, can you use this information to make you area better athlete now that you know that these maps and spaces in cells exists?

Mr. BLAKESLEE: Well, yes, as it turns out. So your body map network is in control of your movements and all of your skills. What we tend to call muscle memories and skill memories aren't actually in your body or in your muscles, they are distributed throughout these networks. When you practice a sport, you are finding the connections between and among these maps and improving the skill that way. But you can also do what's called imaginal practice. It's not practicing your mind's eyes so much as practicing your mind's body.

And as we detail in the book, by practicing in your mind's body, feeling the actual stress on your joints and the velocities - you don't even need to use your vision for this, in fact, sometimes it helps not to do that - you can actually improve your skills more than under sort - some circumstances, improve your skills more than you can through actual practice. By combining imaginal practice in your mind's body and real practice, you actually get much better results typically than you do just going out to the court, just practicing with your physical body.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number, we're taking calls about mapping - the maps that of your body that your brains have. I want to know - this book is fascinating. I'm talking with Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee. "The Body Has a Mind of Its Own: How Your Body Maps in Your Brain Help You Do (Almost) Anything Better."

One of the truly fascinating parts of your book is the understanding that we gain from reading it about how knowing about these maps, knowing how the brain works may explain somebody's supernatural things that we think are supernatural but can actually be explained naturally - and especially people seeing colors and auras and things like that, Sandra?

Ms. BLAKESLEE: Yeah, it's very, very cool. So a lot of this work is happening in Europe but some here too. With auras, there's a condition called synesthesia, which is a mixing of the senses. And it's actually more common than most people think. But you could be born a synesthic(ph) and you can see letters that will have colors and so on. But some people have sort of an aura synesthesia they will see colors around other people, and these colors are consistent. So every - you have friend named Joan(ph), who will have blue, another friend named Joan who will have pink, and when they test these people, they're sure are not confabulating because if you test them a year later and asked them the same type of questions and they have the answers exactly the same, it's like that they're really seeing that. So that's synesthesia - out of body experience as you can induce in you. I could induce one of you pretty easily…

FLATOW: Really?

Ms. BLAKESLEE: …to it. Yes.

FLATOW: I dare you.

Ms. BLAKESLEE: Yeah. Okay, I'll take a flight to Washington or New York? There's - well, the way with first shown was in a sort of scientist in Switzerland and he was doing some brain exploration surgery. Before you do epilepsy surgery, you put a probe in the brain and you try to find where the focus of the abnormal tissue is. This guy has caught sort of going around looking in the brain just looking for this abnormal tissue. And he turned on the electrode in a place called the right angular gyrus, it's sort of right over your ear towards the back of your head.

And the woman on the table, she just flew out of her body and she went, ah, and she was floating on the ceiling looking down, their legs floating. He turned off the electrode, she was back in her body. Turned it on, she was out. Off and back in. And he has done a bunch of patients like that. More recently, they did the same experiment but with virtual reality and they put you - let's say that you would be standing there and you would see projection of yourself about 6 feet ahead. If they run a stick or a ruler down your back and a ruler down the back of the avatar, which is this, you know, imaginal…

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. BLAKESLEE: …picture of yourself. You will then move into that body. You will move out of your body into the avatar. And this is getting - they're getting very, very sophisticated with virtual reality and you can have - you can take and you can induce out of body experiences now with virtual reality without, you know, having to put a electrode in your head.

FLATOW: Speaking of virtual reality, we have people on "Second Life" who are actually congregating around SCIENCE FRIDAY's spot here.

Ms. BLAKESLEE: Wait. Ah.

FLATOW: And Ovular(ph) in "Second Life" writes a text: Could you discuss gender differences in spatial mapping. Is there a gender difference? Matthew?

Mr. BLAKESLEE: Well, I - we don't really have very much to say about that.

Ms. BLAKESLEE: Well, there is one difference. Men tend to have larger parietal lobes and women tend to have better more connections between the two hemispheres. These are basic biological findings. And so the spatial mapping for males is probably a little better than for women. But then, again, all of that stuff about male, female?


Ms. BLAKESLEE: It's all on a bell-shaped curve and you've got, you know, women who tend…

Mr. BLAKESLEE: So much overlap.

Ms. BLAKESLEE: Yeah. Huge amount of overlap. But there isn't - there aren't very strong differences in the way these maps are laid down. They're laid down at birth, you have sort of a scaffolding for these maps when you're born. And then as experience flows into the brain, you build up these maps, you build up motor maps and cognitive maps.

Mr. BLAKESLEE: There's some studies like I'm aware in rodents, for example. They find some gender differences like I think female rats tend to prefer using landmarks to navigate whereas males use a little bit more dead reckoning. That would be - correspond roughly to using place cells versus grid cells like we were talking about earlier. But I don't know how much they've - how far they've (unintelligible) this to people.

FLATOW: Let me see if we're going to take…


FLATOW: …a quick call in before we have to go to the break. Let's go to Stephanie(ph) in Wenatchee, Washington. Hi, Stephanie.

STEPHANIE (Caller): Hello.

FLATOW: Hi there.

STEPHANIE: My question is, you know that's - when you have your eyes closed and someone runs their finger not touching you but it feels like someone's touching you but between your nose and eyes? What makes it happen? Do they know?

FLATOW: Good question.

Ms. BLAKESLEE: Yeah. Yeah, what they do. This is your peripheral personal space map. So again, if you put your arms out in front of your body and wave them over your head and ran to the side, all of that space is mapped and you actually own that space and when people enter that space and if they try to tickle you or something like that, cells in your parietal lobe, which are mapping that space - well, it's more than one of the maps - are active. The cells are active when anything comes into that space. So you actually feel the presence of someone even with your eyes closed and this is why a healing touch is so powerful and (unintelligible) these things. It's probably not because of energy fields, but it's because of this activation of these body maps.


Mr. BLAKESLEE: Yeah, the anticipation can actually cause a sensation in your lower, like, in your primary touch map, for example.

FLATOW: So you can watch the cells in your brain actually firing when this happens?

Mr. BLAKESLEE: Yes. That's right.

FLATOW: And then I've (unintelligible)…

Ms. BLAKESLEE: They're firing away.

Mr. BLAKESLEE: Because all of these maps are interlinks, they're all influencing each other with sensations, predictions, anticipations, interpretations and…

FLATOW: Wow. It's fascinating stuff. This is just some of the really fascinating stuff of the book "The Body Has a Mind of Its Own: How Your Body Maps in Your Brain Help You Do (Almost) Anything Better."

My guests are Sandra Blakeslee and Matthew Blakeslee. We're going to come back, take a short break, get more into some of these really unusual consequences of the body maps. Take more of your questions, 1-800-989-8255. Find an avatar in "Second Life" at Science School wearing a SCIENCE FRIDAY T-shirt. We'll be right back after this short break. Don't go away.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour about how your brain keeps track of your body and your space around you, described as a bubble around your body in the book called "The Body Has a Mind of Its Own: How Your Body Maps in Your Brain Help You Do (Almost) Anything Better." Sandra Blakeslee is here with her son Matthew Blakeslee. Four generations of science writers, San?

Ms. BLAKESLEE: Yup. Good job.

FLATOW: I remember your father, Al…

Ms. BLAKESLEE: Uh-huh.

FLATOW: …but I don't think I ever met your grandfather.

Ms. BLAKESLEE: So Howard - yeah, Howard Blakeslee was, I think, the first or among the first science writers in the United States starting around 1920 and he founded the field and Associated Press. And Alton, my dad, followed him. And then I fell into it sideways many, many years ago and mostly, in the New York Times, I've worked for them for 40 years. And now, Matt.

Mr. BLAKESLEE: I pretty much fell into it by accident as well. I was…

FLATOW: Did you want to be a science writer?

Mr. BLAKESLEE: I had never really considered it, not seriously. I was training to be a scientist and then for various reasons, I decided not to go into an academic track. I was trying to find something else to do…

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. BLAKESLEE: …looking at various options. And then Sandy said, why don't you try science writing and it was something kind of easy to fall into because I'd seen it all my life being done and discussed around the dinner table and everything, so I gave it a try and it's working out really well.

FLATOW: That's good because usually, that has the opposite effect. I know what my kids, they don't want to talk to all about science because I'm talking about it all the time. So it's good to see that.

Ms. BLAKESLEE: Yeah, that's right.

Mr. BLAKESLEE: I didn't happen to us.

FLATOW: That's good. Let's go to Bianca(ph) in Wichita. Hi, Bianca.

BIANCA (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. So I am (unintelligible) and I'm apprentice midwife and I work in the (unintelligible) field and this has gotten my brain going, Because so often I see women who really choose to focus on visualization of their birth, have really successful, wonderful, easy laid back labors compared to women who, you know, don't really want to talk about it at all or don't want to be idealistic about the births that they want to have, have really difficult labor. Then, I just thought it seems very similar to what you're talking about sports.


BIANCA: And I want to hear your comments about that.

FLATOW: Sandy, anything?

Ms. BLAKESLEE: Well, you know, this - if you go to a sports psychologist and know how this laundry list of methods to improve your capacity to play the sport. One of them is visualization, visual imagery. What we're talking about, in this case, is motor imagery, which is different than visual imagery. Motor imagery is where you actually concentrate on the feel of the movements or of the sport. And what happens is that you increase this, literally, increase the size of the motor maps with imagery. That's only worked with motor imagery not with visual imagery. How would it apply to childbirth is a really interesting observation. And I don't know, Matt's wife is about to have her second baby in a few months so maybe, you can…

Mr. BLAKESLEE: Touch true. Well, I mean, one thing about visualization, about getting in touch with your physical sensations is this taps into another bottle body mapping system that Sandy mentioned at the opening. In addition to all these maps you have of your body's musculature and skin sensations, what you'd use for voluntary volitional movement, there's this whole other track coming from your visual organs and from a separate population of receptors in your skin that gave rather to a separate region in the brain called your insula and this is a map of your heart, your lungs, your guts. This is where you have gut feelings, and in all giblets and the interior of your skin. This is where you experience pain, itch, tickle sensation, sensual touch - the kind that is shared between lovers and parents and young children.

And this is also where you experience breath and heartbeat. And in humans, it's actually interesting. This are has been evolved to a much higher level than in any other animal, even our closest friendly cousins, for experiencing social emotions, social pain as well as physical pain. Meditation thickens the insular cortex and so - I guess this (unintelligible). I think by having in touch with your experience that way - paying attention to pain and trying to own it and control it through experiencing it, that could be the way that this visualizations are helping these mothers during child birth.

AMANDA: Uh-huh.

Ms. BLAKESLEE: I'm sure you can attenuate that map that way, yeah.

FLATOW: I think you may practice your…


AMANDA: I'm sorry?

Mr. BLAKESLEE: Please, go ahead. It also made me think about women who have birthing who are survivors of abuse. And I'm curious…

FLATOW: I guess we lost Bianca in a figurative spin.

Mr. BLAKESLEE: Well, you…

FLATOW: Go ahead, you can answer that.

Mr. BLAKESLEE: Go ahead.


Mr. BLAKESLEE: Somatic psychotherapy?

Ms. BLAKESLEE:: Yeah, go ahead.

Mr. BLAKESLEE: Yeah, there's a subfield of a psychotherapy called somatic experience or somatic psychotherapy. There might be other terms, too. And this involves not just strolling through memory lane and finding intellectual reasons why something might have hurt you and stayed with you, but actually experiencing the associated sensations in your body. So when we're talking about how your (unintelligible) strange from your father, you also experience -consciously experience and attempt to the feelings in your body that attend those thoughts and…


Mr. BLAKESLEE: …the talking. And this is a more direct way in many cases, it's a good handle on those emotions and come to grips with the emotional blockage that you're experiencing your life.

Ms. BLAKESLEE: There's one element in all of this we didn't talk about yet, but it's called plasticity. I'm sure that, Ira, you probably had people on your show talking about plasticity. The brain is constantly rewiring and it's just - it's a very (unintelligible) organ. And so with experiences and things like meditation or things like somatic experiencing or somatic psychology can actually change the maps, change the way the maps are organized.


Ms. BLAKESLEE: And so that's when - and a successful therapy is remapping.

FLATOW: Yeah. You talk about a bit about that in another area. In playing video games like Nintendo and the Wii, which I have and I real like it's a wild game I find myself thinking I'm actually bowling or playing tennis or whatever. With the game you take it very seriously this cyber world? And if we really - are we remapping? Are we recreating a new and different map by uniting with the game?

Mr. BLAKESLEE: Well, you're using your existing maps, but it's just amazing how much they can suck you in, isn't it?


Mr. BLAKESLEE: Well, one area of mapping that Sandy didn't mention in her opening was something called the (unintelligible) system. A lot of people have probably heard about this but (unintelligible) are a special set of neurons in some of your body maps that actually simulate the intentions and actions of other people as you witness them performing those actions and they also are active when you perform those same actions. So these sort of a psychic bridge between people.

There's no neuroscientific evidence for telepathy, but this is pretty much as close as you can get and they're really amazing. And they're not only activated when you witness people, you know, fighting or kissing or what have you, when you simulate - when you witness those things, you simulate those things in your mind's body. But same things also happening when you are controlling an avatar in "Second Life" or a first person shooter in a video game or when you're (unintelligible) with the Wii. And this is one reason why you've sort of lose track of the interface and directly experience those virtual experiences.

FLATOW: We have a virtual experience that everybody has had. I want to play, sort of, illustrate that, but how can it evoke - kind of evoke feelings, sounds here, and I'm playing some sounds of traffic. You're (unintelligible) in traffic. Oh, it's raining get that cab. Oh. And now, you hear cars rushing around. If you're a New Yorker or somebody's in Chicago, well, you know exactly how you feel when you hear that sound. Thank you, Charles(ph).

That really sets things off, straining in your mind.

Ms. BLAKESLEE: Right. Those are - that's are your auditory (unintelligible) so you have, again, a network of (unintelligible). The auditory (unintelligible) are being tickled by those sounds and it's tapping into the seeing it, feeling it, watching it, doing it, are all activated by the sound. So that if you hear crunching feet on gravel or a honking horns or the rain or anything like that, you actually can feel it, smell it, taste it, experience it, just through that one modality, just through that the hearing. It activates all the other maps.

FLATOW: Another fascinating area you mentioned in your book, "The Body Has a Mind of Its Own" is how your weight loss, your feelings about weight loss and the actual weight loss itself can affect your body mass.

Ms. BLAKESLEE: Yeah. Why your feel fat after you lose weight?


Ms. BLAKESLEE: It's a very, very common experience. And so this taps into another two types of body maps. One is your body schema, which is also done as proprioception. What this is, you have receptors in your joints, in your bones and your tendons, and in your muscles. And that's sending messages up to your brain of where you're located in space. So let's say you lose 30 pounds, right? And your clothes are thinner and your lighter and so on. And your proprioceptive sense actually will change because you're 30 pounds thinner and your clothes will fit differently, and that the touch on your skin from your clothes will be different.

But you still feel sad. So why is that? And the reason, we argue, is that there's another body map called your body image, which is the set of beliefs you have about your body. And these are sort of developed in very often in early adolescence. By the same time that you decide what religion to be, and what political party to be, your body image coalesce. It will trump your thinner body schema, you're thinner felt body sense, because the body image is so potent.

So one way to get around - and if you're trying to skip the weight off is to do things, to get more in touch with your, sort of, proprioceptive sense. One way you can do that is to work on your balance and thinks like that to tune up your felt body sense to overcome this body image that you're very much psychologically stuck with.

FLATOW: Let's go to the phones. 1-800-989-8255. Nancy(ph) in Tamarack, Idaho. Hi, Nancy.

NANCY (Caller): Hi there.


NANCY: I had my 16-year-old son who, as a baby, was impossible to be around. He constantly ram into things. He (unintelligible) jaw with his head until I practically had no tongue. And about two years ago, he started ski jumping. And - well, he's a freestyle skier now. So he jumps, he does rails, he's unbelievable good at this. He has no problem whatsoever just throwing himself off a 60-foor jump. And yet he still…

FLATOW: But is he - he's still (unintelligible) on the ground.

NANCY: He's still a (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BLAKESLEE: That's fascinating. As a matter of fact…

NANCY: He could die, of course. He's intelligent and (unintelligible)…

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah.

NANCY: But that, you know, he still wants him to (unintelligible) onto his mother.

FLATOW: So he's created a successful body map when he can navigate very well when he's on a - up in the air as a skier.

NANCY: Right. It answers the question of tweaking a different set of reacceptance.

Mr. BLAKESLEE: That's hard to answer in too much detail. The question of individual variation is one the neuroscience is still lagging behind decades of looking at average human capabilities. But we all know that there are people with, you know, who are very smart or capable and talented in one area and then another area that even things pretty closely related they're hopeless or, you know, at least a lot lower than you would expect. I don't know how to answer that in detail.

Ms. BLAKESLEE: Well, I have an idea. So there's two mappings. There's peripersonal space map, which is out at the end of your fingertips, and there's extrapersonal space mapping. And you can actually - when you use it - we even haven't gotten into this. This is - well, if you use a tool, if you use a rake or anything like that, it extends your body map out to the end of the tool. And skies - when he's wearing those skies, his body map is including the skies.

But it's likely he could have - kind of a being clumsy, his parietal network for peripersonal space map might have low fidelity. But when he's dealing in wider spaces, out beyond his body, he might have perfectly normal extrapersonal space mapping.

FLATOW: Yeah. And -

Ms. BLAKESLEE: So he would have a lot of facility to move in that space outside that envelop around his body.

FLATOW: Hope that works for you, Nancy.

NANCY: Thanks. Bye.

FLATOW: Thank you. 1-800-989-8255. We're talking about the body has a mind of its own this hour on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. With the authors of the boos, Sandra Blakeslee and Matthew Blakeslee. And we have lots of folks on the phone, who want to talk. As you would imagine, there's a lot of information going out here.

Let's go to John(ph) in - is this Skwentna, Alaska?

JOHN (Caller): Oh, yes it is.

FLATOW: All right. Go ahead.

JOHN: First, thanks for being on the show and listen to you a lot and I really enjoy it. I have a comment and then sort of a general question.

FLATOW: Well, a quick comment because we're running out of time.

JOHN: Okay. I had neck surgery and then I had shoulder surgery. And the physical therapist that was working on my shoulder said, oh, you had a she was reading my aura and said, oh, you had a neck injury, and there was no way for her to know that. And, you know, I don't believe in the supernatural and I'm just wondering if that aura thing is - if you had much experience with it or other people that have had similar experiences.

FLATOW: Sandy, you talk about auras a lot in the book.

Ms. BLAKESLEE: Yeah. So I - in researching this, there's a whole field, the people that believe that aura reading can be taught and that auras can be read. I don't want to go there because I'm not so sure about it. But the auras I'm talking about are synesthesia - it's actually wiring in the brain that's causing the auras. And you can't imagine that; you're born that way. And there are some people that are born that way. The argument that you can teach auras I just don't know. I can't say if it's true or not.

Mr. BLAKESLEE: What John's therapist might have been picking up on, though, is you know, all of your body parts and the maps that control those body and represent them in your brain are interlinked. And so as we all know, pain and sensation can be referred up and down. His physical carriage might have been altered by the first surgery and the second surgery combined in a way that you wouldn't see just one of the surgeries or injuries.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. I got a minute or two before the break. Are there cultural differences in these body maps? I mentioned at the beginning that "Seinfeld" moment where, you know, people get very close. In some cultures they welcome being that close. In other cultures that body map just goes nutty.

Ms. BLAKESLEE: Right. So - actually, that body map at the party is more of a visual map that's been studied. Some cultures have 15-inch differences that, you know, face to face is 11 inches, 13 inches, 15 inches. I think U.S. is 17 inches. And that's been studied. But when people - so, yes, if you're born in, let's say, in an Arab country, you're going to have a closer peripersonal space mapping for face-to-face conversation. You're going to have a comfort zone that's much smaller than we have in the United States or at least for Americans.

So that you - a lot of that is taught, a lot of that is learned. The Asians have very different spatial representations and spatial reasoning than Westerners. And there's a whole area of cultural anthropology right now looking at spatial mapping and that's, you know, learned. It's culturally learned.

FLATOW: Is there an age, a spot in your life when that can be changed at all, or when it's being cemented?

Ms. BLAKESLEE: Probably that there might be critical periods for learning this - but in - when you're learning a language, when you're learning to walk, when you're learning to run and throw balls or whether to learn a martial art or when you are child, you have a very plastic open, you know, brain for absorbing these differences. So probably you're - the plasticity stays throughout your life and you can certainly - you can move to Japan as an adult and learn Japanese aesthetics, but probably not as innately or as deeply as if you were born in Japan.

FLATOW: Would they know from your walk, your gait that you're different.

Ms. BLAKESLEE: Oh, yes. I had this great story. I lived in Africa, and one day, I was sitting with my husband in a - this was in Cameroon, and we were sitting in the bar and we were - this guy walked in and he was in the full regalia of Cameroonian with the, sort of, this robe and with the hat and everything. And he walked up to the bar, and his back was facing us. And we said, that's and American.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BLAKESLEE: So we walked over to him and tapped him, and we said, where are you from? He said, damn, how did you know? His name was Marty(ph) and he was from Washington, D.C. And he looked - his face looked Cameroonian, but his walk was American, it was a complete giveaway.

FLATOW: All right. Look at that. That's a good way - good place to take a short break here. We're talking with Sandra Blakeslee and Matthew Blakeslee, authors of "The Body Has a Mind of Its Own: How Body Maps in Your Brain Help You Do (Almost) Everything Better." Short break. We'll come back. Talk a few more minutes. Take your questions. 1-800-989-8255. Stay with us.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

Up next this hour, we'll be continuing to talk about "The Body Has a Mind of Its Own: How Body Maps in Your Brain Help You Do (Almost) Everything Better" with Sandra Blakeslee and Matthew Blakeslee.

A question from "Second Life" from Kimo(ph). He says, do animals have body maps?

Mr. BLAKESLEE: Oh, absolutely, they do. The primates' body map network is a lot more sophisticated than any other order of mammals, but all mammals have these primary body maps in the neocortex. They, at least, have a primary and secondary and some of them have more sophisticated body maps for representing, you know, higher levels of action and perception.

In our book, I think we actually have a section - I think at the end of chapter two where we show the proportions in some, sort of, cartoon caricatures of the body maps - the primary body maps of some other animals.


Mr. BLAKESLEE: So a hog has a really huge snout region with gigantic nostrils. And what's another one, the naked mole rat has these tentacles sticking out of its nose that are just gigantic, I think, about the same size as the rest of its body because they're so sensitive.

FLATOW: We just have a few minutes left. So I want to talk philosophically about this whole new area of neuroscience. Where - Sandra, what do you think? You've been an observer for a while. Where do you think this is all headed? Where is it leading us to? How we view our brains differently?

Ms. BLAKESLEE: Yeah, we do. We have this illusion of being a unitary self-conscious - the subjective sense and the more you, sort of, probe the brain, you realize that it's a bunch of parts and they're working together, and they're giving us this illusion of consciousness. And it's an illusion of being whole. And it really raises an - illusions of free will.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. BLAKESLEE: Free will is actually - you can test the timing of the brain and your motor cortex, your motor system is planting all of the movements before you're even conscious of it. So consciousness is the last guy the block that knows what's going to happen because - and this is why brain machine interfaces work. You've probably heard about these where you have - you're able to think to move a cursor…

FLATOW: Right. Right.

Ms. BLAKESLEE: …or to think to move a robot. And this is because they can read the motor intentions out of your brain before you're even conscious of doing it. So it raises a lot of - I think neuroscience is so much more interesting than philosophy because you can actually do experiments and its shedding light on that.

Mr. BLAKESLEE: Yeah. The brain is where the rubber meets the road in terms of figuring out the mind-body connection.

FLATOW: Because it make understanding…

Mr. BLAKESLEE: There are thousands of years…


Mr. BLAKESLEE: I'm sorry.

FLATOW: I was going to say, there's a make-understanding consciousness that question easier or more difficult now.

Mr. BLAKESLEE: Oh. You are more difficult.

FLATOW: I mean, that's the - you know, you ask neuroscientists: What is consciousness, and then they throw up their hands a little bit because some of them just needs something to measure, you know.

Ms. BLAKESLEE: Right. Well, there's this thing called qualia, which is the - what's called the redness of reddest. There's a deep subjective nature to experience that scientists cannot - or that neuroscience cannot answer. And that's where they throw up their arms. But you can answer the question about sub-subjective awareness more scientifically. And that's what they're moving in on. So they break the problem down away from the big C word and into its parts, and they're making a lot of progress that way. And this inner-receptive map - that Matt was talking about - this sense - this felt body sense that you have, this awareness, and it's awareness of time and it's awareness of yourself in space. That's pretty much a definition of consciousness. And the pieces of that puzzle are coming together.

FLATOW: Hmm. Sandra and Matt, I want to thank you both taking time to be with us. This fascinating book, "The Body Has a Mind of Its Own: How Body Maps in Your Brain Help You Do (Almost) Everything Better." A really interesting read. It will open up your mind a little to things that I think you haven't thought about.

Sandra Blakeslee, Matthew Blakeslee, thanks a lot and have a great holiday weekend.

Ms. BLAKESLEE: Thank you. You too.

Mr. BLAKESLEE: Thanks. It's a pleasure to be on your show.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.