Philosophy, Psychology and Neuroscience

Re-thinking the body, re-thinking the brain

Human beings show astonishing differences, in personality, memory and attentional skills, and emotional expressions, to name some. However, we all share one feature: we have a unique physical body. This body can be modified in its external appearance (i.e. by changing the skin colour through tanning beds), can be loved or hated, can be used or not by being active sport players or lazy television watchers. In fringe cases, we can also exchange a part of our body with somebody else, as in hand transplantations. Nonetheless, for (almost) all of us, defined features characterize the body, such as the acceptable number of limbs, a skin temperature that we consider normal and the set of movements that we can perform. Regardless, cognitive theories that try to explain how the brain represents this physical body produced a plethora of dichotomic, triadic and even more itemised versions of body representation. During this talk, I will concentrate on recent findings that challenge the idea of a “canonical” body representation divided into components: I will present results on body representation in healthy individuals, patients with spinal cord injuries and individuals suffering from body integrity identity disorder. These results shall convince us that theories on body representation need to apply the Occam razor principle: why decomposing something that works only if united? Importantly, understanding how we represent our bodies could contribute a missing piece to the understanding of how we represent ourselves and could promote a new vision of studying “the brain” instead of its functions singly.