Beyond the Brain: How Body and Environment Shape Animal and Human Minds, Louise Barrett, Princeton University Press, Pp 270, $ 29.95
The author of this book is a psychologist who has studied criminal cognition and behaviour.
Barrett begins with an overview of human cognitive adaptations and how these colour our view of other species, their brains and minds. Considering whether it is worth having a big brain or indeed having a brain at all – she investigates to find out exactly what the brains are good at. Showing that the brain’s evolutionary function guides actions in the world, she looks at how physical structure is related to the cognitive processes and demonstrates how these processes employ materials and resources in specific environments. Arguing that thinking and behaviour constitute a property for the whole body, not just the brain, Barrett explains how the body, brain and cognition are tied to the wider world.
She investigates the brain and mind and offers an alternative approach for understanding animals and human cognition. Drawing on examples from animal behaviour, comparative psychology, robotics, artificial life, development psychology and cognitive science, she provides remarkable insights into how animals and humans depend on their bodies and environment – not just their brains – to behave intelligently.
An interesting chapter is the fourth one, entitled ‘The Implausible Nature of Portia’, which is very interesting as it describes the astonishing behavioural flexibility of the hunting spiders belonging to the genus, Portia. These spiders prey on other spiders. They are capable of all kinds of feats of mimicry (strumming other spider’s webs to simulate or by becoming a prey themselves as a lure) and deception (taking advantage of the wind blowing on webs and moving under cover of this ‘smokescreen’).
The author advises that by taking seriously the manner in which bodies and the environment help to define what it means to be a cognitive animal, we can gain a more interesting and satisfying perspective on animal psychology, including our own.
This is a subject-specific book which would interest scholars of behavioural psychology and zoologists.
(Princeton University Press, 41 William Street, Princeton, New Jersey 08540; press.princeton.edu)