Book review

“Body Am I” by Moheb Costandi – Book review

My review of the new neuroscience book "Body am I" by Mo Costandi

This is my review of the book Body am I on the topic of brain-body interaction and perception. It is authored by Moheb Costandi, a British science writer who specialises on neuroscience.

The book is a classical popular science treatise about the history of research and the recent discoveries in a specific field. Here, it is the neuroscience of bodily perception, the bidirectional feedback between the brain on one side and the limbs and the rest of the body on the other.

Much of the book is dedicated to the experiences of limb amputees: phantom pain, phantom limbs, struggle with prostheses etc. The history of the neuroscience is narrated, starting with the the surgeons’ experiences with the limb amputees in the 19th century. Early pioneers of brain-body neuroscience are introduced at length. Scientific progress in the bionic prosthesis technology is presented in the book’s final chapters. In between there are people who are convinced that their own limbs are foreign, or controlled by foreign powers, some only find peace when their otherwise perfectly healthy limb is amputated. Other psychiatric disorders are discussed, like anorexia, Alice-in-Wonderland syndrome and other misconceptions about own body.

Since it is a popular neuroscience book, there is a lot information about brain structure, the anatomy of the motor cortex and the somatosensory cortex, the famous “homunculus” on the brain is discussed. It becomes clear that patients with limb amputations and psychiatric disorders are the main source of neuroscientific insights for scientists. And sometimes, brain surgeries on anaesthetised but awake patients provide a unique opportunity to study somatosensory and motor functions by targeted stimulation of the open brain.

The book seeks to dispel the concept of the duality of mind and body, because the brain needs the body just like the body needs the brain to function. Not just to provide the brain with oxygen and nutrients, but with all the sensory input without which the brain can’t function. Sometimes this input is somehow wrong, which creates psychiatric disorders and body misconceptions in an otherwise perfectly healthy person. An illusion feels real even when the sufferers know the truth.

There is the neuroscience of how sensory input is processed, how limb movement is generated and how the limb positions in space are perceived by the brain. Costandi also spends much time on the tricks scientists use to create strange bodily experience in otherwise perfectly healthy participants, the most famous of which is the the rubber hand illusion:

It is an interesting book, very well researched and it seems to be scientifically solid. Costandi is a professional writer and his texts are engaging and easy to read and understand, especially for lay audience of non-neuroscientists.

In my view, the book’s classical orientation as pop science book is however it’s main weakness. Science is presented in the traditional linear way of steady progress and discoveries, without any discussion about dead ends and, well, irreproducible research this science encountered. Which especially in the field of psychology happened quite often. After all, fraud in psychology made the news more than once.

I assume Costandi pre-filtered and vetted the research findings which he finally discussed in his book, and left all the shaky research and all the dark characters in the history neuroscience “on the cutting room floor”, unmentioned and unreferenced. Which is good, but I would have loved to read about bad science being proven wrong and debunked. We need to be reminded also of bad scientists who twisted results and abused patients to prove a pet theory. Alas, there is nothing critical in that book, and a naive reader will walk away with the feeling that science is always pure, honest and never goes wrong.

The other aspect which I felt uneasy with was Costandi’s casual references to primate experiments, without a word on ethical concerns or implications. This kind of experiments is often highly invasive and very cruel (I wrote about this topic here and here, in German). Macaques get their skull caps surgically removed and replaced with steel plates, with electrodes stuck into their brains (and often into their eyes as well). The experiments officially are declared to be animal-friendly, with the macaques “voluntarily” jumping into the chair, allowing to be strapped and fixated so the studies of sensory perception, brain stimulation and neural processing can begin. In reality, the monkeys would never agree to that if they had a choice. This is why they are deprived of food and water prior to the experiment. Being highly intelligent and aware of death, they understand that they will die of thirst unless they cooperate with the experimental requirements. They jump into that chair to get a sip of water or a grape. These experiments are definitely not at all voluntary, but horribly cruel on several levels. And in any case – prior to the studies the macaques are kept in small cages, often in solitary confinement, their lives already miserable. When the experiments are done, the monkeys are killed so their already exposed brains can be studied in more detail.

The humanity’s reward is yet another peer reviewed paper on neuronal perception, it’s reliability and reproducibility is unclear because monkey experiments are expensive and work intensive, and therefore can’t be repeated willy-nilly. In fact, Costandi tells of numerous experiments with human volunteers where nobody gets hurt, and which deliver many interesting and easily reproducible insights. Do we really need to torture monkeys?

Disclaimer: As usual, I received no payment or incentive to write this review, but I did receive the book gratis from the publisher upon request. I also know Mo Costandi personally, we met twice, years ago.


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2 comments on ““Body Am I” by Moheb Costandi – Book review

  1. If you have read Phantoms in the Brain by V. S. Ramachandran, can you give any comparison between the two books? Both in terms of writing style, and in terms of how deep each author dives into the subject matter.

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