For readers wanting a witty, informative immersion in mind-body issues and debates, you can’t do much better than this pairing of Bill Bryson’s “The Body: A Guide for Occupants” and Tim Parks’ “Out of My Head: On the Trail of Consciousness.”
Bryson, a genially impeccable writer of memoirs, travelogues and books on language, has grown increasingly ambitious of late (see: “A Short History of Nearly Everything”). “The Body” – a delightful, anecdote-propelled read – proves one of his most ambitious yet, as he leads us on a head-to-toe tour of a physique that’s terra incognita to many of us.
“We pass our existence within this warm wobble of flesh and yet take it almost entirely for granted,” he notes. “How many among us know even roughly where the spleen is or what it does? Or the difference between tendons and ligaments?”
Bryson delves into all the latest findings, including some that are startlingly recent. “The smell of licorice,” he informs us in a passage on how our noses operate, “was decoded only in 2016.” He cites some of the miracles we scarcely think about. (Skin, one expert points out, never fails us: “Our seams don’t burst, we don’t spontaneously sprout leaks.”) He also notes some of our more anomalous failings: “Nearly all animals produce their own vitamin C, but we can’t.”
In playful, lucid prose, he offers scoops on baldness, the common cold and our ability to hear stereoscopically (“Your forebears spent eons as prey to endow you with this benefit”). Medical history figures prominently, too, as Bryson discusses the popularity of bleeding as a medical procedure in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the origins of radiation treatment for cancer, and our present overuse of antibiotics (“about as nuanced as a hand grenade”).
Without causing your eyes to glaze over, he works official medical terminology into his text. (“Deglutition,” we learn, is “[t]he anatomist’s word for swallowing.”) He also has a pithy way of stating general principles (“All bodies are compromises between strength and mobility”), and he repeatedly emphasizes how many of our features are a mystery to us: “What evolutionary imperative led us to get whorls on the end of our fingers? The answer is that nobody knows.”
No human organ is quite as mysterious, he acknowledges, as the one ensconced inside our skulls: “Considering how exhaustively the brain has been studied, and for how long, it is remarkable how much elemental stuff we still don’t know or at least can’t universally agree upon. Like what exactly is consciousness? Or what precisely is a thought?”
Those questions are the focus of Parks’s “Out of My Head,” in which he uses every trick in his writer’s arsenal to evoke the leaping, lurching, fleeting, distractible nature of consciousness itself as he weighs three theories of consciousness that are vying for primacy in the world of neuroscience.
The contenders are: 1) “The popular and orthodox view: consciousness is produced by your brain and exists exclusively in your head.” 2) “The minority enactivist view: consciousness arises from our active engagement with the world and requires both subject and object to happen, so conscious experience is extended through the body and into the environment.” 3) “The minority minority view, the Spread Mind, in which experience is made possible by the meeting of perceptive system and the world, but actually located at the object perceived, identical with it even; in short, experience is the same thing as the object.”
Parks doesn’t contemplate these alternatives in a void. His book incorporates memoir elements, with the erosion of his own curmudgeonly resistance to owning a smartphone providing some droll suspense, and his lively portrait of his girlfriend Eleonora providing a key attraction. Parks is twice her age, but she clearly can hold her own against him. (“That is quite mad,” she tells him when he’s outlining what Spread Mind theory has to say about dreams. “Or you explained it very badly.”)
Spread Mind theory, while controversial, is gaining some traction in the world of neuroscience, Parks reports. As he interviews neuroscientists and, ultimately, partakes in a conference where luminaries from the arts and sciences share their takes on the latest theories concerning human consciousness, ordinary life – meals, walks, family worries, illness – keeps complicating the picture.
The microdetail Parks delivers as he observes his surroundings and the restless workings of his own mind echoes that in his Man Booker Prize-nominated novel, “Europa.” It also has an affinity with Virginia Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness experiments (“Mrs. Dalloway” is cited twice) and a small army of Western and Eastern philosophers. Parks is determined to trace every wrinkle of mind-digression, morphing perception and fluctuating theory that he can.
This takes concentration to follow, but the pay-off can be grand. It helps that he’s amusingly frank when he feels he’s in over his head. “Parks has gone out on a limb,” he imagines his readers thinking, “and he doesn’t even have the cover that it’s fiction.”
His observations of the human mind in action are enjoyably on the mark. “What is striking is how continually discontinuous consciousness is,” he notes. His full embrace of Spread Mind theory by the end of the book is prompted by his acceptance that it’s “impossible to imagine a world without objects.” His transformative moment comes when he realizes that there’s something fundamentally varied about everyone’s perceptions – visual, tactile, odiferous – of particular objects.
“[A]ll one had to do was think of vision as touching and suddenly it was easy to appreciate that every time you moved your eyes the world happened anew, or rather a different object happened, from all the possible objects that can happen.”
Between Bryson’s primer on how each bit of your body functions (my only gripe: there’s not enough on fingernails and toenails) and Parks’ attempts to follow the mind’s convoluted workings, these two books cover a remarkably large swathe of human corporeal and cerebral experience.
THE BODY: A GUIDE FOR OCCUPANTS
By Bill Bryson
Doubleday, 446 pp., $30
OUT OF MY HEAD: ON THE TRAIL OF CONSCIOUSNESS
By Tim Parks
New York Review Books, 312 pp., $18.95Michael Upchurch is the former Seattle Times book critic.