Have you ever inadvertently walked too close to an overhanging branch only to have a leaf or twig that you didn’t see slap you on the eyelid as you passed? Was it by some lucky coincidence that you happened to blink at the perfect instant? Michael Graziano, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Princeton University, would assure you that timing of the blink was no coincidence.
The Spaces Between Us is an account of the author’s 30 years of research into a person’s awareness of the space around their body. Graziano describes this bubble of awareness as a “second skin” so dynamic that it will remake itself to surround a tool you are holding or a tall hat you are wearing. This awareness affects every aspect of our behavior and, Graziano argues, is at the foundation of communication through body language and facial expression. In studying the area of the brain that processes sensory input to build this awareness, one startling discovery was that the essential neurons are not in the brain areas already known to handle input from the senses. Instead, they are located in parts of the brain normally associated with motor control, perhaps because they provoke motor responses.
The Spaces Between Us is more than an engaging tale about the marvels of brain function. Graziano describes how scientists think and work, especially how they struggle to ask good questions, design experiments to answer them, and interpret the sometimes-bewildering results. He discusses the role of traditions or “paradigms” in science, noting that sometimes they obscure the path to understanding. He also relates a personal experience that demonstrates how scientific knowledge doesn’t always become general knowledge, even for the scientist himself, when faced with a personal problem.
Here are some questions to guide you and provoke your thinking as you read this book.
- Describe how a person can study the activity of a single neuron in a monkey’s brain.
- Drawing on the work of Heini Hediger, Graziano asserts that the strongest drive of a living being, stronger than the drive for sex or food, is to protect its body from harm. What do you think of that idea?
- The tradition in neuroscience had long been to show monkeys two-dimensional images and study their responses. What were the researchers able to discover by using a “looming ping-pong ball” in three-dimensional space instead? What was surprising about the different ways that individual neurons responded to the movements of the ping-pong ball?
- Graziano explains that it’s unlikely scientists would perform brain experiments with monkeys in the same way today as he did in his lab 30 years ago. Brain research on human subjects is also problematic. How do you analyze the balance between potential harm and potential benefits in scientific research? You might want to research the subject of ethics in neuroscience.
- In what ways does Graziano buck the traditions of his discipline?
- An accepted paradigm in science is to view the body as a machine and the brain as a sophisticated computer. Graziano seeks “mechanisms” by which the brain operates, refers to neurons as “logic-gates” and admires the “computational machinery” that underlies certain responses. Yet he also writes, “Nobody should ever mistake a lot of boundaries and acronyms for actual deep understanding… [The motor cortex]… is probably not made up of separate areas of adjacent to each other with clean boundaries between them.” Is it possible to study the body scientifically and not see it as a machine? How do you think Graziano would answer that question?
- How did paradigms and traditions in science, education, and family problem-solving interact to create the terrible misunderstandings Graziano describes in his final chapter? What lessons can be taken from what happened?