There’s more to humans than biological burps

Through vivid explorations of tears, snot, earwax and blushing, Ray Tallis’ brilliant new book shows us that ‘being human’ is not a simple stimulus-response thing – it is shaped by history, thought, time and space.

Stuart Derbyshire

Topics Books

Who knew that tears, snot and earwax could be so interesting?

The next time you cry because someone poked you in the eye with a stick, it might cheer you up to reflect that your tears would be richer in manganese if you were crying through grief. And when you curse your snotty nose or waxy ears, just consider that both carry invading dirt and bacteria away from the lungs and ear canal to protect breathing and hearing. ‘Some stuff’, as Tallis says.

Tallis’ aim is not to gross his readers out. Not entirely anyway (1). The point is to consider what it is that makes us what we are. Tears, snot and earwax are undeniable facts of human beings but they are not exactly what it means to be human. Grief isn’t something we experience through the manganese content of tears. It is this dissociation between facts and experiences that Tallis aims to explore in The Kingdom of Infinite Space.

Rather than the raw biological facts of bodies defining humanity, Tallis explains how those facts are interwoven into our web of human being. A brilliant example of this is described through the case of Nurse Ryan. Nurse Ryan was describing a patient during a meeting to discuss moving patients out of H1 ward that was about to be painted: ‘In front of the assembled team, Charge Nurse Ryan referred to the second ward as ‘haitch 2’ ward. The superfluous meta-aitch ignited a blush that spread to the roots of his hair.’ Why this sudden charge of blood to the face from a simple misplaced ‘h’?

A typical neuroscientist might approach this question by finding people highly prone to blushing. Subsequently the neuroscientist will record questionnaire data, behavioural responses and brain activity. The neuroscientist might then decide that a personality trait causes blushing mediated by heightened activity of certain brain parts (2).

Tallis’ answer, however, is much different. He begins with speech, which first emerged anywhere between 40,000 and several hundred thousand years ago. Nurse Ryan’s mistake would be impossible without speech. He then moves on to the habit of reporting speech and thus assigning meaning to other beings and introducing the possibility of mistaken meanings. The next step is writing, which is a mere 9,000 years old. Writing is a second-order language that captures meaning in a system of conventional signs that gradually took the form of alphabetisation from about 3,000 years ago. Alphabets mean that spellings will follow a convention and letters will be spelled out loud to indicate that convention. A given letter will have a sound distinct from the sound the letter might make in a word (think of the different way you say ‘t’ in ‘tune’ and ‘the’). Now we are almost there. ‘H’ becomes ‘aitch’ because of the confluence of two naming conventions: the Latin ‘aha’ and the Middle English ‘ache’ were merged by, ironically, dropping the ‘h’ itself and leaving ‘aitch’.

The final step before Nurse Ryan’s blush is the snobbery of ‘h’. Missing an ‘aitch’ off a word reveals a working-class background and an inability to cope with the fineries of language and life. Nurse Ryan inserted an aberrant ‘h’ at the start of ‘aitch’, thus betraying his anxiety at dropping an ‘h’ and his true background. His redundant ‘h’ revealed his deceit of trying to be something he wasn’t and his cheeks flushed red at the prospective shame of being caught out as a wannabe, a great pretender.

The story of blushing that Tallis tells is vastly deeper, richer and more excruciatingly human than any story about the activity of neural centres. At a recent talk in Birmingham, Tallis explained that our biological effluent and burps don’t merely indicate stimulus-response associations mediated by the autonomic and central nervous system but also the long history of humanity (3). That blush is a glass-bottomed boat opening up to the long history of human development. Millions of years and millions of heads were necessary to generate Nurse Ryan’s glowing red face; he simply couldn’t have generated that crimson colour all by himself, and it simply isn’t the kind of thing you can record with an fMRI scanner.

Tallis knows that this isn’t the way that modern science views human beings. The dominant approach within psychology is to view human beings as behaving according to a series of cognitive modules dictated by evolution and coded into the structure of the human brain (4). According to this approach, the brain is a type of Swiss army knife capable of deploying cognitive tools to grab hold of the world. Tallis dismisses such views as, at best, exaggerated and only accepted because we minimise what it means to be human: ‘Neuromythology – which claims that neuroscience can explain far more than it can – seems halfway plausible only if it is predicated upon a desperately impoverished account of [human beings].’

I have tremendous sympathy for Tallis’ boredom with the brain and his annoyance at the attempt to reduce experience to activity in neural centres. This attempt fails because neural activity is just a part of nature that has no beginning and no end and which does not, intrinsically, exist as an independent entity. Thus nervous tissue, and everything to do with nervous tissue, is part of the totality of the world and is merely continuous and coterminous with everything else. Any experience delivered by such a totality will itself be continuous, coterminous, everywhere, everything and, thus, nothing, because consciousness cannot experience everything at once. The totality of being is therefore a content that denies all forms of discrimination, and because discrimination is necessary for discriminate experience, the totality of being denies experience.

But not so fast. Tallis also admits that a head injury is more problematic than a leg injury, with more profound effects on what I am, because what I am is intimately linked with my brain and not my legs (5). He explains, in this new book and elsewhere (6), that what that means is the brain is a necessary condition for what we are (much more necessary than our legs) but is not a sufficient condition. What we are also depends on the collective history of humankind. Because we are each a physically separate entity we do not become that collective history; our individual bodies provide protection against assimilation into a single mass. But we nevertheless share in that collective history to think the thoughts we think; we do not, all by ourselves, create the content of thought from first principles but, instead, we share in the cultural heritage of those who thought before us.

So what, then, is the relationship between being and thought? How does the physical matter of our brains, which is a necessary part of the story, relate to the thought that draws on collective inheritance, which is just as necessary? This is a hard question, maybe the hardest question in the philosophy of mind, and so it is perhaps not surprising that I find some problems with Tallis’ answer.

Tallis makes the strong, but highly plausible, claim that neural tissue first connects to thought because of the unique dexterity of the human hand, our upright stance and strong dependence on vision. Combining these physical facts pushed human beings into a peculiar relationship with themselves and their environment. The dexterity of the hand prevented straightforward stereotypical actions, such as a paw or snout might deliver, and, instead, demanded choice. Our upright stance also meant seeing our hands out in front of us, operating as us and not us at the same time, a proto tool that put us into a subject-object relationship with ourselves. The distance senses, especially vision, were also highlighted by the upright position, literally emphasising that our senses stretch beyond ourselves.

The physical interactions of upright hominids created a gap between being and object that was slowly elaborated during the first four million or so years of hominid existence. To make this work, however, Tallis assumes that sentient feeling automatically fell out of hominid nervous tissue so that our ancient hominid could feel the distance between being and object. Modern humans, argues Tallis, have an explicit relationship with feelings (knowing that you are cold, for example) but ancient humans could still feel (by being cold, for example). In Tallis’ account, the gap between subject and object begins with a first blush of sentient feeling that is connected with action and gradually elaborated into the many-layered experiences of modern humans.

I don’t think assuming sentient feeling works. To feel anything, even a basic sentient sensation of cold, there has to be a person available to do the experiencing. Tallis assumes that pure being, the coldness of cold and so forth, is, and it is merely because it is; this simple immediacy constitutes the truth of its existence.

This feels like an argument that can work but, as Hume noted long ago, fleeting sense perceptions constantly coming and going without any binding or boundary cannot constitute an experiencing ‘self’ (7). Regardless, even fleeting sense perception assumes too much; it assumes experiences isolated in time and space, but isolation is not inherent to time and space. Time and space are continuous, whereas experience is discriminate. Sheer being is continuous and total, whereas particular experiences are discrete and discriminate. Sheer being cannot capture any element or object for particular experience, and so sheer being is empty, vacuous, nothing.

The problem is that only consciousness can provide the necessary structure to both keep things apart and hold them together. Nothing outside consciousness can determine the categorical forms of experience. And that rather leaves me still looking for the moment when consciousness emerges; a moment Tallis assumes rather than explains. It is a frustrating impasse, but I am happy to pause here while waiting for Tallis’ further thoughts in one of his many future books.

Stuart Derbyshire is senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Birmingham.

The Kingdom of Infinite Space: A Fantastical Journey Around Your Head, by Raymond Tallis is published by Atlantic Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) Tallis explains that even though our saliva is definitely ours and even though we definitely swallow lots of our saliva every day, not many of us would be happy to spend the day spitting in a cup and finish the day by drinking the contents. The content of the cup is no longer us. Except perhaps a little. Consider whether you would prefer to drink your own cup or be no more upset to swap with someone else.

(2) The following work is moving in that direction: ‘Do blushing phobics overestimate the undesirable communicative effects of their blushing?’, P De Jong and J Peters, Behaviour Research and Therapy Vol 43(6), 2005; ‘Interpretations for anxiety symptoms in social phobia’, D Roth et al, Behaviour Research and Therapy Vol 39(2), p 129-138, 2001.

(3) Tallis spoke at the Birmingham Book Festival, 22 October 2008

(4) Making up the Mind: How the Brain Creates Our Mental World, Colin Frith, Blackwell Publishing (Malden, MA) 2007; The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Steven Pinker, Viking Publishing, 2002.

(5) Unfortunately, Tallis illustrates the intimate connection between what we are and the integrity of our brains via the case study of Phineas Gage.

In 1848, Gage was a well-liked and highly dependable railway worker in Vermont. Tragically, he was distracted while tamping down gunpowder and sand in preparation for a blast. Hitting rock instead of sand, Gage created a spark that ignited the pack. The tamping iron flew through his left cheek and out above his left eye before falling on the ground over 30 metres away, covered in blood and brains.

Amazingly, Gage lived and returned to his previous job as foreman of the blasting gang, but problems soon occurred. Gage was ill-tempered, prone to swearing, uncaring and socially inappropriate. John Harlow, the doctor who aided Gage’s recovery, described him as ‘fitful’ and ‘irreverent’. His friends muttered that ‘Gage is no longer Gage’. This is how Tallis describes Gage’s transformation: ‘[The accident], as the result of which he lost a lump of his frontal lobes, changed him from a purposeful, industrious worker, even-tempered and impeccably mannered into an evil-tempered drunken drifter.’

Tallis draws a line between Gage’s missing frontal lobes and his sudden intemperate outbursts and newly impetuous behaviour. It is a seemingly reasonable line because the frontal lobes are the supposed seat of behavioural control.

But, at least for Gage, the line is hasty and seriously desecrates Gage’s character. We need to reconsider Gage’s story. He’s 25, strong, healthy, popular. There is no mention of a girlfriend, but we can imagine there was somebody special in Gage’s life. Then bang! A metal rod flies through his head and leaves him permanently disfigured and blind in one eye.

But this is 1848 and there is no health insurance, no incapacity benefit and certainly no trauma counselling. If Gage wants to eat then he has to get over it and get back to work. So he gets back to work, but his workmates don’t talk to him like they used to. They are not so easygoing and are obviously uncomfortable in his presence. The women don’t laugh at his jokes anymore; nobody flirts with him.

As Tallis notes earlier in his book: ‘It takes a special grace, after the blow that created the scar, to resist the further blows of the curious, averted, undesiring, cruel gaze of others.’ Gage doesn’t have that level of grace and catching a friend looking at him awkwardly, he snaps – ‘What are you looking at you fucking bastard?’ Gage is no longer Gage, say his friends with a sigh and his boss asks him to leave.

It would be understandable if Gage now collapsed into self pity and disappeared into the bottom of a whisky bottle but he doesn’t do either. He drifts around, lands in a freak show for a while (at least it pays) and then takes work in a stable. Long hours and early starts seven days a week, mucking out, training and looking after the horses. It’s tough work but at least the horses don’t laugh at him.

After 18 months Gage sets off for a new life in Chile and helps set up a coach line. Gage has built a new life and lives that life for eight years before returning home to San Francisco where he tragically succumbs to epileptic fits and dies.

In the 12 years after his accident Gage was never unemployed or a burden to any friend or family member. Far from ‘Gage not being Gage’, the incredible fact is that Gage quickly and admirably returned to being the hardworking dependable Gage that he was before the accident. Gage dealt with severe disfigurement and disability with a dignity that most of us fail to muster even during a headache. To dismiss him as some drunken riffraff is appalling; he deserves our deepest respect (see ‘The Strange Case of Phineas Gage’, Z Kotowicz, History of the Human Sciences 2007;20, p. 115-131, for further discussion).

(6) The Hand: A Philosophical Inquiry into Human Being, Raymond Tallis, Edinburgh University Press (Edinburgh), 2003; I Am: A Philosophical Inquiry Into First-Person Being, Raymond Tallis, Edinburgh University Press (Edinburgh), 2004; The Knowing Animal: A Philosophical Inquiry into Knowledge and Truth, Raymond Tallis, Edinburgh University Press (Edinburgh), 2005.

(7) A Treatise of Human Nature, David Hume, 1739

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