Mind and Body, Body and Mind

I had never even seen the term “embodied cognition” before this past week. It is a topic that is generally part of psychology and philosophy and is one of the new sexy topics in cognitive science. Unfortunately, that makes the topic sound academic, i.e. “boring.” But I don’t think it has to be.

Embodied cognition ties into our social interactions and decision-making. In somewhat fancier terms, embodied cognition argues that the motor system influences our cognition. People pretty much accept the opposite, which in simpler terms would be: the mind influences the body.

A simple example of embodied cognition that has been studied: when you hold a pencil in your teeth, you engage the muscles of a smile. In experiments, participants doing that comprehend pleasant sentences faster than unpleasant ones. A smile effect. But if they are holding a pencil between their nose and upper lip (which engages the muscles of a frown) it has the reverse effect. Body influences mind.

This has psychologists and philosophers paying more attention to the physical aspects of scientific
models and the idea that cognition (the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses) is more distributed than we once believed.

Any parent or teacher who has worked with children or adults knows that a physical model helps learning (cognition). Writing down your ideas and taking notes on a lecture is more effective that just “thinking about it.” Building a model with plastic bricks or drawing it on paper changes how we think about something. Seeing physical models of a building or a landscape or even looking at plans and maps changes how we visualize what they represent.

These ideas are not new, but the formal study of what is being called embodied cognition is new.

NYY Matsui catching fly ball

I read a paper about this (if you want to go deeper it’s online). One simple example of this is known as “the outfielder problem.’

This is a study looking at how a baseball outfielder catches a fly ball. It’s not that easy, so how does someone put themselves in the right place at the right time? Too easy to explain it as lots of practice, talent, or muscle memory.

This is an overly simplified look at this topic, but my interest in this topic is simple: the body and the physical world influences the mind.

Take a look at why you are not your brain:

  “… our cognition isn’t confined to our cortices. That is, our cognition is influenced, perhaps determined by, our experiences in the physical world. This is why we say that something is “over our heads” to express the idea that we do not understand; we are drawing upon the physical inability to not see something over our heads and the mental feeling of uncertainty. Or why we understand warmth with affection; as infants and children the subjective judgment of affection almost always corresponded with the sensation of warmth, thus giving way to metaphors such as “I’m warming up to her.”

Daniel Eizans asks I”f you try to recall your earliest memory, what comes to mind?” he has his own answer (a pleasant one that is connected to sitting on a washing machine in his first home as his parents painted the walls listening to Steely Dan’s Can’t Buy A Thrill. Hearing that album gets him right back to that time and place.

He says that “No matter what your earliest recollection is, chances are it’s not a memory that’s tied to language. We’re wired to recognize movement and sound before we ever start to process language: anyone who watches an infant’s interactions with the world can see they are guided largely by embedded behaviors and sensory inputs, which in turn become part of an individual’s embodied cognition.”



Published by

Ken Ronkowitz

Random by design. Predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente. A lifelong educator.

2 thoughts on “Mind and Body, Body and Mind”

  1. The questions you seem to be really reaching for is, “Who am I?” Am I right about this? So, are you some perceived assemblage of synaptic connections firing away in the brain or are you your body? What you perceive in a mirror? Are you the sum total of your bodily reactions? What is doing the perceiving? Mind, body, both? Not sure about smiles or frowns dictating attitude. We know quite well, that “the false face shall hide with the false heart doth know” (Macbeth, more or less). So, we can smile but hold hatred or any number of emotions in our hearts. Great topic. Keep it coming.


    1. No, not Who Am I. I’m really more interested in paying greater attention to how the physical affects my mind (the physical being my body and my surroundings). I don’t find this to be so extraordinary as I have known for a long time that the physical affects my mind in a temporary way, but I wondering if the effects are more permanent.
      As far as the mind affecting the body – that’s a given as far as I’m concerned.
      The smiles and frowns experiments are experiments but I’m sure that facial expressions affect attitudes in the person doing it and in those perceiving it.
      Keep commenting!


Add to the conversation about this article

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.