Embodied Cognition A Short Summary – Why You Are Not Just Your Brain
Christopher Philip

Hercules dons The Mask of Vulcan and embodies the symbol of power - the balled fist.

Murtis dons The Mask of Vulcan and embodies the symbol of power – the balled fist.

Embodied cognition is the idea that the mind is not only connected to the body like a computer connected to a printer, but that the body also influences the mind. Therefore, the embodied cognition notion says that body is an integral part of cognition or brain function itself.

In other words, the embodied mind holds that the nature of the mind is determined by the form of the human body. Put another way, “cognition is grounded in bodily experience” and “rationality is greatly influenced by our bodies.”

Embodied cognition is a counter-intuitive idea born out of recent research into cognitive science. Embodied cognition is the sexy new research of the mind. It arises in sharp contrast to dualism, put form by Rene Descartes in the 17th century which claims that “there is a great difference between mind and body, in as much as body is by nature always divisible, and the mind is entirely indivisible… the mind or soul of man is entirely different from the body.” Dualism says that the mind is a whole unit, and the body another whole unit, but one that can be separated into various parts. In other words, it is not an entire unit at all, but is simple a collection of disembodied parts.

Hence, “dualism” says that bodies and minds are disembodied. However, cognitive science calls these ideas into question and proposes that our brains, bodies and bodily experiences create cognition. Additionally, our cognition is not simply contained within our brains.

As George Lakoff and Rafeal Núñez explain:

“Cognitive science calls this entire philosophical worldview into serious question on empirical grounds… [the mind] arises from the nature of our brains, bodies, and bodily experiences. This is not just the innocuous and obvious claim that we need a body to reason; rather, it is the striking claim that the very structure of reason itself comes from the details of our embodiment… Thus, to understand reason we must understand the details of our visual system, our motor system, and the general mechanism of neural binding.”

This implies that our cognition isn’t just a mental construct, but rather is influenced by our experiences in the physical world; our environment and the construct of our bodies.

This is why we construct mental images through metaphor to describe our experiences. For example, we say something is “over our heads” when we can’t “grasp” a concept.

In embodied cognition, we take from the physical world qualities that help describe our mental being.

More Is At Work Than Just Your Brain

Embodied cognition implies that more is at work than just our brain when we solve problems.

Embodied cognition implies that more is at work than just our brain when we solve problems.

Embodied cognition implies that more is at work than just our brain when we solve problems. Take for example, the catching of a fly ball. The brain as computer model says that we catch a fly ball by knowing something about the speed at which it comes off the bat and its direction.

However, this implies that the body takes only commands from the brain and does not independently respond. It also says that the brain predicts where the ball will land given the information it is able to collect, and then simply sends the body over to its predicted landing location.

In the embodied solution, on the other hand, the body as an entire organism functions to solve the problem. It does so by moving toward the line of travel of the ball. The body can exact these instructions by simply assumed that the ball will continue more or less in a straight line at a consistent rate of speed. Along the way, the body can correct itself by making fine adjustments. In this case, there is no need to predict or compute anything at all; the fielder solves the problem by moving in a particular way.

The disembodied method (brain as computer) assumes that the fielder can intuitively perform calculus! The embodied method assumes that the body is an efficient actor, and that it is capable of performing within its environment, in a way that correctly solves the solution it has been presented.

Which do you think is the more likely explanation?

Looking at artificial cognition provides some insight.

Robots And Cognition

Another way to think about embodied cognition is to look at two very different intelligently designed robots to see just how well they imitate our biological design and function. Robots are interesting to study with respect to cognition because we know exactly what has gone into their creation. In other words, there simply is no guesswork involved which is in stark contrast to what we know and understand about the human brain.

The first robot, Honda’s ASIMO, is designed based on the dualistic, traditional, cognitive approach where the mind is the computer to the body and it commands it to perform specific function. ASIMO works well when Honda trots him out, has him dance, run, and climb stairs in a controlled environment. However, in a natural environment, he is quite fragile. For example, even minor errors such as foot placement, creates missteps causing him to falter and fail sending him on a tumble. The program must hit all preset landmark. Even minor unforeseen disruptions that arise can cause failure. For this reason, ASIMO is slow and highly inefficient. If he is knocked, he requires sufficient time to re-compute. If he is not afforded the time, it’s “lights out.”

In contrast, Boston Dynamic’s “Big Dog” was designed to be more efficient and able to navigate complex environments including rough and uncertain terrain while carrying heavy loads. In their design, they realized that they needed to employ a more efficient computational system that responded more rapidly. Therefore, instead of building a robot with brain as command center, they built a robot with springy legs and joints that mimic the dynamic systems seen in living four-legged animals.

It turns out that Big Dog has very little in the way of “brain.” He is designed to move his legs based on the surface he is on, coupled with any other forces acting upon him. If you try to knock him over, he doesn’t need to perform long calculations and adjust, he just moves his anatomy including his legs where they are programmed to go in order to stay upright. It is his body that tells him how to get things right, not a centralized computer system.

Even an uncritical eye can spot the lifelike appearance and action of Big Dog which is in sharp contrast to the appearance of ASIMO.

Now which principle do you think guides human cognition?

History Of Embodied Cognition

In an experiment subjects rated others as more hostile when they were induced to hold up their middle finger.

In an experiment subjects rated others as more hostile when they were induced to hold up their middle finger.

Embodied cognition has a relatively short history, though its roots date back to philosophers Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and John Dewey in the early 20th century. However, only recently, has embodied cognition been studied empirically.

Much of the foundation of embodied cognition is set in linguistics as well as artificial intelligence. This is where the idea was born of the mind as computer, since, at the time, it was the golden age of computational devices. The popular view of cognition, was brain as computer program, whereas the body was general purpose hardware. A simple intuitive look at artificial intelligence and robots leads one, without much effort, toward the mind as control center, and body as the receiver and actor of commands. However, early robot technology, as we previously discussed, has shown that the brain as control center, functions poorly when the body lacks specific independent controls.

Early cognitive scientists were not dualists like Descartes, as they didn’t really believe that the mind and body were separate entities. However, without modern science and its framework they didn’t have much empirical resources to draw upon.

Much work was done by University of California at Berkeley professor George Lakoff who pioneered much of the current thinking about embodiment.

The big tipping point came when Lakoff gave up on the idea of mind as computer through his study of linguistics. In 1978, he began exploring the idea that we think “metaphorically.” This is when he began to gather as many metaphors as he could. He believed that “semantics arose from the nature of the body.” Together, Lakoff and his colleague Mark Johnson, University of California, Berkeley, co-authored the groundbreaking book called “Metaphors We Live By.”

The book “Metaphors We Live By” changed everything. It suggested that reason wasn’t always conscious and passionless, and language is not separate from the body. It suggested that “our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.”

Research in the 1990’s by Christopher Johnson, Joseph Grady and Srini Narayanan led to a neural theory of primary metaphors. They argued that much of our language is born from our early physical interactions in the first years of life. We see this in the metaphor of warmth as affection, as well as up as being in control, and down as being subject of control. Also as anger in terms of heat and loss of control as our physiology changes – our skin increases in temperature, our heart beat rises and we find it difficult to control ourselves.

Lakoff argued that the mind is inherently embodied through largely metaphorical and unconscious and abstract concepts.

Metaphors We Live By

In the book “Metaphors We Live By,” Lakoff and Johnson help describe how the mind and body work together to form cognition. Here are a few examples of metaphors that showcase the connection between mind and body.

a) Our mind understands that UP means we are in control and DOWN as being subject to control: We say, “I have control over him,” “I am on top of the situation,” “He’s at the height of his power,” and, “He ranks above me in strength,” “He is under my control,” and “His power is on the decline.”

b) We understand love as being a physical force: “I could feel the electricity between us,” “There were sparks,” and “They gravitated to each other immediately.”

c) Happy is UP and sad is DOWN: “I’m feeling up today,” and “I’m feel down in the dumps.”

These metaphors show us that it’s no surprise that happy people tend to smile by bringing their mouth corners up and perk their bodies up, whereas people who are sad curl their mouth corners down and droop their shoulders.

Studies In Embodied Cognition

Embodied cognition is more than just metaphors, literary device, and mere language, they are in fact, concepts of the physicality of the brain. By this theory, the circuitry of the brain and body affect behaviour. Other research has tied cognition via nonverbal expression. Here are a few research studies linking facial expression, body posture and environment to underlying cognition.

Holding the hand over the heart primes people to tell the truth more than holding the hand over the shoulder or the stomach.

Holding the hand over the heart primes people to tell the truth more than holding the hand over the shoulder or the stomach.

1. Participants holding a warm versus cold cup of coffee while riding up an elevator judged fictional characters more “warmly.” [Experiencing Physical Warmth Promotes Interpersonal Warmth]

2. Subjects who were asked to remember a time when they were socially accepted versus snubbed, judged the room to be 5 degrees warmer on average i.e. acceptance is warmth, rejection is socially frigid. [Temperature Perceptions As A Ground For Social Proximity].

3. Being excluded in an online ball tossing game leads to lower temperatures (as measured in the fingertips, while the negative affect typically experienced after
such social exclusion is alleviated after holding a cup of warm tea. [Cold-Blooded Loneliness: Social Exclusion Leads To Lower Skin Temperatures]

4. Thinking about the future induced participants to lean slightly forward, and thinking of the past induced participants to lean slightly backwards i.e. future is forward, past is behind. [Moving Through Time]

5. Squeezing a soft ball over a hard ball influenced subjects to perceive gender neutral faces as female i.e. women are soft, men are hard. [Tough and tender: Embodied categorization of gender].

6. Those who held a heavy clipboard judged currencies to be more valuable and rate their opinions as leaders to be more important i.e. important is heavy. [Weight as an Embodiment of Importance]

7. Those asked to recall a moral transgression used more antiseptic cloth at the conclusion of the experiment than those who recalled good deeds i.e. morality is purity. [Hand Washing As Indication Of Moral Threat]

8. Injecting botox into the frown muscles to located in between the eyebrows paralyze them significantly reduces symptoms of depression. [Botox may treat depression]

9. When subjects were instructed to carry dominant expansive postures over submissive postures, they rated felt pain less severely. [Posture Affects More Than Public Perception]

10. When subjects were instructed to hold up their middle finger, it led to more hostile ratings of others. [How Extending Your Middle Finger Affects Your Perception of Others: Learned Movements Influence Concept Accessibility]

11. Forming the hand into a balled fist makes men feel more powerful and esteemed. [The Power Of A Balled Fist – The Embodied Self: Making A Fist Enhances Men’s Power-Related Self-Conceptions]

12. Crossing the arms over the chest, a sign of stubbornness, lead participants to be more persistent on a difficult task [Arm Crossing Effect On Persistence And Performance]

13. Holding an upright posture resulted in participants delivering their message with more confidence than those who delivered it in a slumped posture. [Posture Affects Confidence Of Thoughts]

14. Laying down in a supine body position reduced thoughts of aggression and differentially affected brain processing of aggressive emotion than when the body was in a neutral-upright condition. [Supine Body Posture Reduces Aggression – Supine Body Position Reduces Neural Response to Anger]

15. Holding a powerful dominant posture lead subjects to an increase in thought power than holding a more powerful role (such as an instructor rather than a student). [What’s More Powerful? – NonVerbal Power Or Real Power – Powerful Postures Versus Powerful Roles: Which Is the Proximate Correlate of Thought and Behavior?]

16. Holding the hand over the heart primes people to tell the truth more than holding the hand over the shoulder. [Right Hand Over Heart Nonverbal Expression Primes Honesty]

17. Children learn better when their teachers gesticulate as it adds a different dimension to learning. [Children Learn When Their Teacher’s Gestures and Speech Differ]

Studies such as these help confirm the initial thoughts on embodied cognition; that the body and mind are wholly dependent on each other and do not operate as independent units or as one unit commanding over the other.

Embodied Cognition And Nonverbal Communication

Expanding the body and aiming the fingers at one's center of power not only leads others' to perceive dominance, but also leads to greater feelings of felt confidence.

Expanding the body and aiming the fingers at one’s center of power not only leads others’ to perceive dominance, but also leads to greater feelings of felt confidence.

Embodied cognition promises to be an interesting field of research to advance the field of nonverbal communication. Embodiment shows how interwoven our bodies and minds function within our environment. Recent nuggets of research have neatly tied concepts of the brain and body showing that by adopting certain postures, that certain emotions, thoughts, and feelings are created.

Take for example, seeing a smile in another person. Thinking about that person can cause us to mirror their smile. The sight of a smile works into our cognition forcing our mirror neurons to contract our smile muscles and when we smile, our body assumes that we are happy, thereby created positive cognitive emotions. This is why we understand that the moods and affect of others is so contagious.

When researchers had subjects hold their hands over their hearts, it primed them to tell the truth more often than when they held their hands over their shoulder. In another study, crossing the arms which is linked to stubbornness had subjects work much harder for much longer when trying to solve an impossible task. When subjects were told to hold up their middle finger, a Westernized symbol of aggression, subjects rated others more negatively. Studies like this show us that even learned or cultural gestures prime cognitive processes and what might ordinarily be as simple as a gesture, or posture, becomes something much more profound.

We know that using good posture helps to create feelings of wellbeing, but also by expanding the body and taking on larger forms, we can embody dominance and feelings of pride independent of actual circumstance. This shows just how important the body is to our overall wellbeing. Research shows us that our physical appearance also guides much about ourselves further tying the body and brain.

The examples here are a simple subset of the wide reaching aspects of embodied cognition. We should expect to learn more about the brain and body link as the science matures.

The Future Of Embodied Cognition

The future of embodied cognition is not certain. However, as more research is added, it will likely steer the study of cognition away from behaviorism and computational theories toward a more partnered approach to cognition. What can not be denied is that embodiment is a new paradigm and it holds a promising future.

It is likely that this new theory of cognition will incorporate more than what is contained simply in the cortices. However, most likely, the system in question will be someplace in between the “central planner” – mind-as-computer, and “body as computer,” thus forming body-en-total, a total-unit capable of interacting wholly with its environment.

The new theory might hold that the mind is contained, but not restricted to the area within the skull, but spread out and reaching via neurons throughout the body, acting and being influenced, by the environment – the body as total organism.


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