What is Embodied Cognition? How You Think With Your Body

By on January 16, 2016

iCub2

Embodied cognition is a fascinating concept from psychology and philosophy that challenges the way we think about… well, the way we think. Unfortunately, in many cases it has been adopted by personal trainers and athletes and in some cases, misappropriated. The basic idea behind embodied cognition is often summarized as being that our brains and bodies are not separable and that the connection is not only ‘one way’. That is to say that you couldn’t take your brain out from your body and stick it in a jar and expect it to function just the way that it does now. ‘You’ are your body as much as you are your brain.

What Embodied Cognition Is Not

This is where things start to get a little confusing. If you stop reading at that point, then you may conclude that what’s being said is that some of your brain’s function is spread throughout your body – and indeed this is true. After all, we often refer to the gut as the ‘second brain’ owing to its role in producing numerous important neurochemicals and hormones and likewise our reflexes require input from muscle spindles and other data collected from the environment to work. We often perform complex movements such as catching balls, running, jumping etc. without consciously using our brains at all!

Proprioception, muscle spindles and reflexive strength are all fascinating in their own right and almost allow the body to react on its own. But this is not actually what is meant by embodied cognition.

Mentalese

Rather, embodied cognition is actually a theory used to explain the way we think that dates back to 20th century philosophers such as Martin Heidegger, John Dewey and Maurice Merleau-Ponty and which has only been studied relatively recently. While it is just a theory, it is gradually gaining mainstream acceptance resulting in something of a paradigm shift regarding the way we think about cognition (1).

vitruvian

When you read a story or a passage of text, it is generally agreed by psychologists that you have to ‘translate’ that text into something that the brain can understand. In other words, there is a ‘purer meaning’ beneath said language that allows your body to take action on the ideas that have gone in.

Coders can think of this as being a little bit like binary or machine code versus C#. Language adds a layer of abstraction that allows us to manipulate concepts, but they have to be translated into pure meaning for us to really make any use of them.

Historically a name was given to this ‘brain language’ which was mentalese (which doesn’t sound terribly PC these days).

Embodied cognition though postulates that this ‘mentalese’ is in fact routed in the physical experience of our bodies. In other words, without our bodies, there would be no thought. Our bodies and our senses are what give everything meaning because they let us ground concepts in reality and relate them to our current situations.

How We Think With Our Bodies

At first this might seem unintuitive, until you analyze your own thoughts for a moment. Read this short story and then reflect on what actually happened as you did:

The Bioneer stalked through the darkness, looking for a way out of the thick woods he had found himself in. It was growing dark and he could hear the sounds of footsteps behind him.

If he didn’t get out of here soon, no doubt he would be found by the people who were looking for him and there would be hell to pay. Especially if they found out what he had done…

As you read this, you should find that you actively picture the events unfolding in your brain. More than this though, you probable feel what it’s like to trample through woods. Maybe you hear twigs and branches breaking underfoot. Maybe you feel your legs making the movements even.

You might also feel the emotions associated with guilt and fear and perhaps you’ll even relate it back to a situation you’ve been in before where you’re in trouble. As you’re reading, your body may even hunch.

The theory then goes that even when you’re thinking of more abstract concepts, they are ultimately related back to your physical experiences that originate from your body. This is what then gives them meaning.

We understand math because we understand numbers of objects in the real world. We understand cause and effect because this is what we experience through our bodies. It’s also suggested that embodied cognition explains why so much of our language is metaphorical (you feel me?).

Some theorists take this as far to say that it’s not just our experience of logic that is routed in our physical existence – but actually logic itself. And thus it follows that an AI like ‘Deep Mind’ could never actually acquire consciousness without a body to explore the world with. In fact some researchers are now shifting their focus to research using robots like iCub (2) as a result of this thinking.

Oh hai...

It also has rather big implications for transhumanists who intend on uploading their consciousness. Of course virtual reality may offer an answer here (and how might this be able to alter the nature of our reason?).

What Happens in the Brain When You’re Thinking?

To understand this concept further we can use brain imaging studies. From these, we know that when someone thinks about something, the brain areas associated with that thing fire.

So when you imagine coming home from work later on and turning the key in the door, the areas of your motor cortex that you would use to turn that key will lightly fire in the brain as though you were really doing it. And if someone tells you about a big dog they saw, areas of your visual cortex might light up thus showing you that image of the dog. We understand and sympathise with others by literally simulating what it might be like to be them via the firing of so-called mirror neurons (3).

Thought then is simulation and we simulate with our cortical representations of our senses and our bodies. When you hear or read the English language, your brain takes that meaning and converts it into sensations and experiences. That is how it is able to understand them.

This explains how animals might think without language too – they simply skip the part where the sensations and the simulations are translated into language. They think instead in pure memories and intent. The question is which method is more efficient? And could we design a hybrid method that would be more efficient still?

And could we enhance the efficiency of our thought by learning to better utilize our bodies?

Cognitive Simulation for Brain Training

I actually came up with a unique idea for brain training a while ago before I fully understand what was meant by cognitive simulation.

That idea was that we could simulate situations intentionally in our mind and use them as a tool to ‘practice’ our various mental faculties. For instance, if you were hoping to improve your ability to recall directions and to use a mental map – then there would be nothing to stop you from rehearsing taking certain routes around your neighbourhood in your mind and seeing how much of it you can track.

Likewise, if you wanted to practice being wittier and quicker in conversation, then you can simply practice speaking with an imaginary verbal sparring partner to see if how quickly you can come up with comebacks or one-liners.

This is really only one step on from using visualization – something that has been popular among athletes and high flyers for a long time. Visualizing a gold swing for instance can help you to improve your technique as though you were really practicing and you’d be surprised how accurate your physics engine is at recreating the movement of the ball.

Try visualizing throwing with your left hand and you can see how much more awkward that feels compared to visualizing the same thing with your right hand! (Assuming you’re right handed.)

 

This is all still theory like I said at the start of this post but it’s certainly fascinating and it has a lot of potential implications. If nothing else, it shows once again how important it is that we look after our bodies. You are not ‘just your brain’. You are the whole thing!

 

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

One Comment

  1. Owen Wall says:

    It’s still an oversimplification. Your psyche and thought processes are divided into four parts, which you rapidly cycle between paying attention to. Jung was right. There’s Linguistic rational thought (jung’s thinking), thought in terms of physical sensations (sensing), thought in terms of emotional sensations (feeling), and thought wHich connects related abstract concepts (intuition).

    No one is superior to the others, they all work in tandem.

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