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.”