The Kingdom of Infinite Space: A Portrait of Your Head Hardcover – Sep 23 2008
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About the Author
Raymond Tallis is emeritus professor of geriatric medicine, University of Manchester, UK. As a poet, novelist, and philosopher, he has explored consciousness, language, and what is distinctive about human beings. His recent books include The Hand; I Am; The Knowing Animal; and The Enduring Significance of Parmenides: Unthinkable Thought. He lives in Cheshire, UK.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
"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.
He tells us that he will say very little about the brain; and what he does say is to belittle the claims of what he calls `neuromythology'. This self-denying ordinance seems to me at its most awkward during a long passage from pp.265 to 268, where he lists a range of things which are stored up in "the head", but then sets up the Aunt Sally to say that "I, or my head, or my brain" are not like a computer. Some people - even some philosophers - may think that the brain is like a computer; but I guess that most people are aware of the difference.
With often sparkling wit (and occasionally with baroque convolutions of expression) he describes and meditates on everything from the taking in of breath to the discharging of saliva, mucus, sweat and tears. Of many of these processes we are scarcely, if at all, conscious; many of them involve very complicated mechanisms and a cocktail of ingredients; few of them can we control; and some of them run definitely counter to our wishes and interests. Here is a passage that gives you a flavour of Tallis' writing:
"The particular cruelty of acne vulgaris is that it breaks out in adolescence, when one feels most defined by one's physical appearance. This is compounded by one of the body's nastier little ironies: the hormone testosterone that makes boys achingly attracted to spotless beauties is also the most important driver to the overproduction of sebum that makes them spottily unattractive."
His discussion of breathing involves descriptions not only the physiological mechanism of laughter but also the psychological situations which trigger different kinds of laughter, from the snigger to the bellow. An even more elaborate mechanism, involving complex arrangements of tongue, lips, the oral cavity, the glottis, the vocal cords etc is required for speech. But non-verbal communication can be just as demanding: there are 43 muscles that, in various combinations, shape about 3,000 meaningful facial expressions, from several kinds of smile to scowls. To such intentional signals we can add the unintentional one of the blush.
Then the eye: beginning with conveying the sense of wonder about the complexity of its structure, Tallis goes on to comment not only on looking but on being looked at, and on the meanings of the downcast gaze.
The structure and operations of our auditory organs (there are up to 20,000 hair cells in the cochlea of the ear) are another miracle.
Our recognition of taste depends on about 5,000 taste buds in our mouths, and of smells on 10 million receptors at the back of our nasal cavity. (Dogs have more than a billion such receptors.)
And eventually to the wrinkled skin and to the empty skull, and to Tallis' reflections on our mortality.
From time to time he has indulged himself in digressions into areas which have nothing to do with the head - as, for example, in his disquisition on the origin of spelling. The chapter on kissing is worked (up) into a story of frenzied anticipation - and never mentions what Freud had to say about the origins of oral gratification. But for the most part these digressions are thought-provoking and have the wryness of observation, the richness of similes and the plays on words which are among Tallis' hallmarks.
He is constantly amazed that our heads - or we as its owners - exist at all, the processes of their formation being near-infinitely complex and the odds against their creation near-infinitely great. Every now and again throughout the book he muses about the relationship between our Self and our body, particularly that part of our body - the head - in which we tend to locate our Self while at the same time being aware that it is an object of our contemplation; and the reader - unless he yawns at those passages as too philosophical for his grasp or for his interest (and there is a disquisition on yawning also) - becomes involved in the same mind-boggling conundrums as is Tallis himself. This is especially true of the difficult last chapter, in which he worries where thoughts come from, to what extent we form them and to what extent they come to us unbidden, and where they are actually located. But there are many illuminations in the earlier chapters for those who cannot follow Tallis to the end of his book.