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Where are you? Raymond Tallis wants to know. He is not asking about your physical location; a GPS unit could supply an answer to such a simple question. Where are you inside yourself? If someone kicks you in the leg, sure, the leg is part of you, and the kicker has surely kicked you, but the leg is somehow "out there", it is literally a limb and is definitely distant from the "you" who feels the kick, or the "you" who might think about it or talk about it. Where that you is, and who that you is, are the themes in _The Kingdom of Infinite Space: A Portrait of Your Head_ (Yale University Press). You may well have the feeling that the real you is somewhere in your head; perhaps you got this feeling because you learned long ago how the brain within your cranium is in charge of everything. You cannot feel your brain doing this work; it is all automatic, and though the brain is full of nerve cells, it has no cells assigned to do any feeling of pain or of bustling activity. The ancients thought that the brain was an organ to cool the blood, and so its role in cognition was not always assumed. It feels to me, and it might feel to you, that my me is somewhere right behind my eyes, though if I ask where those feelings are coming from, I can't feel their origin. Tallis's serious but brightly written book has much to say about consciousness, but it starts off with a paradox: "This book about the head says little about the brain." Tallis jokes, "First, be assured the importance of the brain has not entirely escaped my attention." The brain is the biggest and most important part of the head, but Tallis spends much more time on the head's activities around the brain, the things that might make us think that the head is our headquarters.
"Selves are not cooked up, or stored, in brains," Tallis writes. "Selves require bodies as well as brains, material environments as well as bodies, and societies as well as material environments." So it is instructive to examine the head and its "outer" activities, because, Tallis explains, "the brain is absurdly over-rated", and for all its power and mystery, a brain cannot constitute a whole being's world. "I want to celebrate the mystery of the fact that we are embodied," Tallis writes, and the celebration here has to do with the myriad non-brain activities of the head. Like secretions. Can you list them all? Well, there is saliva, of course. You will, quite automatically, slurp up around 30,000 liters of saliva during your lifetime, most of which you won't think about at all. It is remarkable that we humans have taken secretion of saliva, a biological necessity, and put it under our conscious control, at least whenever we want it to be, for the purpose of insulting someone else, or to lick a stamp. Saliva has within it molecules that help fight infection, and so does ear wax. There's mucus. There's sweat, which is produced in other places of the body, of course, but sebum, a mixture of fats and dead cells from the hair follicles, is produced almost all from the head. After all these, Tallis winds up with tears, "a secretion at last with a bit of class". There is plenty here on the way humans use our heads to communicate by shaping air and making sounds, but plenty also on how heads communicate silently. Blushing is one way, as are the expressions that are hard wired into us; even congenitally blind people use the same expressions for anger, surprise, fear, and so on.
Tallis is a retired professor of medicine, which enables him to give physiological details about such head activities as kissing, yawning, or vomiting, or the skills of head-butting, or details of the worms and insects that will infest a lifeless head. He is also a poet, and his love of language is found throughout this thought-provoking book. There are many gentle puns, such as his reflections on the use of Botox: "The wrinkles return and injections have to be repeated and, eventually, the face has to face up to the fact that it is no longer beautiful; and to withstand the inattention that anticipates its ultimate effacement." With all his physiological information about the extra-cranial activities of the head, Tallis succeeds in taking the focus away from the brain, a blow against the "neuromythology" that reduces consciousness to intracranial processes only. He has no more solved the knotty problems of consciousness than the neurologically-based philosophers have, but the physical / mental puzzle is probably intractable. What he has done is raise fascinating questions by reminding us that we are wonderfully complex embodied physiological masses, part of nature but always able to use nature to step out of ourselves and observe, and always pulled back into our physical selves no matter how objective we try to be. The combination of philosophy and physiology proves to be a heady mix.