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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.”

 

 

Michael Pollan has had several bestselling books including In Defense of Food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and The Botany of Desire. His seven books have been quite influential in the ways we view food from global and personal perspectives.

On his podcast, Tim Ferris talked with Pollan about his new book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. From the title alone, it would seem to be a departure from his other work.

I am just getting started with the book. The general topic is one I have read about in the past, but my firsthand knowledge is very limited.

“Psychedelics” is a term that still has 1960s baggage attached to it, though their use goes back centuries. Psilocybin, mescaline, and others have been in and out of the news. They have been legal and used for medical purposes, and also illegal, controlled and banned depending on the time period.

Pollan set out to research how LSD and psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) are being used to provide relief to people suffering from difficult-to-treat conditions such as depression, addiction and anxiety. But apparently the book got more personal than he expected.

He decided to explore himself altered states of consciousness as he was researching the brain science and psychedelic therapies being used today for depression, anxiety, alcohol/nicotine dependence, OCD, PTSD, and others.

From what I have heard and read about the book, he does address the risks of psychedelics too.

Studies into the “entropic brain” are getting serious attention in universities again, though on a limited basis.

Tim Ferris is very much aligned with Pollan’s newest project and is putting a million dollars into the scientific study of psychedelic compounds. This is by far the largest commitment to research and nonprofits I’ve ever made, and if you’d like to join me in supporting this research, please check out.

Pollan’s book has been described as a blend of science, memoir, travel writing, history, medicine and participatory journalism. Though the book is certainly a deep dive into psychedelic drugs, he also explores human consciousness and how we might use the drugs “to be fully present and find meaning in our lives.”

Chinese Characters

Chinese characters for Love, Happiness, Tranquility, Loyalty, Prosper, Harmony

Hogen was a Chinese Zen teacher. He lived alone in a small temple in the country.

One day, four traveling monks appeared and asked if they might make a fire in his yard to warm themselves. He allowed them to do so.

While they were building the fire, Hogen heard them arguing about subjectivity and objectivity. He joined them and said, “Look over there. There is a big stone. Do you consider it to be inside or outside your mind?”

One of the monks replied,  “From the Buddhist viewpoint, everything is an objectification of mind, so I would say that the stone is inside my mind.”

“Your head must feel very heavy,” observed Hogen, “if you are carrying around a stone like that in your mind.”

 

 

“If you want to be happy, be” – Leo Tolstoy

“The best way to make yourself happy is to try to cheer somebody else up” – Mark Twain

There have been a good number of books on happiness the past few years. Maybe that’s a factor of the economic downturn.

One that is currently in the spotlight is by Gretchen Rubin who wrote The Happiness Project which is currently at the top of the best-sellers list.

Rubin was not an author. She was an attorney and law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. She says that one day she just realized that she “wasn’t as happy as I could be, and my life wasn’t going to change unless I made it change.”

Her Happiness Project began as a yearlong experiment in the pursuit of happiness. She started with looking at what has been tried and suggested before from Aristotle to modern gurus like Oprah Winfrey.

Another take on this is in The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living by a physician, Russ Harris.  His book follows something called “acceptance and commitment therapy” (ACT) would seem to go against the modern (and very American) pursuit of happiness mantra. Happiness is not a normal state of being.

What is inevitable is suffering (see: Buddhism) and what we should really be concerned with is how to deal with the suffering.

Though not a particularly philosophical book, mindfulness of negative thoughts and emotions is key to Harris’ approach.  The techniques he discusses trying includes “diffusion” or trying to decrease the impact of self-defeating thoughts without actually making them go away. Meditators will recognize that as a practice of clearing thoughts from your mind. But, his approach is not a form of meditation. It’s not a religion or a spiritual path to enlightenment. It’s much more in line with therapy and counseling and focuses on taking action.

That also connects with Rubin’s Happiness Project. She doesn’t so much try to eliminate unhappiness from her life as she tries to be mindful of the unhappiness as an alert to take action to avoid things that make sad, angry or dissatisfied.

She took a year to try a bunch of possible ways. She quit her job to write the book.  She approached the book and project as a “social experiment.”  She tried to blog about it on a daily basis.

Russ Harris makes the point that we have built cultural mechanisms of unhappiness. Isolation, overwork and other parts of our modern world fly in the face of our obsession with being happy.

Psychologists would probably say that you were being unrealistic to think that happiness is the natural state of human beings.  Being unhappy is not necessarily a problem.

Another book, Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, by Eric G. Wilson, a professor of English, makes the argument that Americans today are too interested in being happy. Look at all the antidepressants we use!

He promotes melancholia as a necessary part of being innovative and inventive and making art. Artists have to suffer, right? He writes that to “suffer melancholy is also to understand its polar opposite, joy.”

“Yah can’t have one without the other,” says the song.

I’m sure many people view Rubin’s project as self-centered and borderline pop-psychology and self-help book. Aspects like  her Twelve Happiness Commandments (#1 is “Be Gretchen”) probably encourage that view. And, having a best-selling book doesn’t actually help her seriousness quotient. If she professed these ideas in poverty from a mountaintop retreat, she would have a new set of followers. It’s tough to be happy and tougher to be taken seriously when you are and when you try to tell others how to be happy.

But, writing the book does get the word out. How do you share your revelations without coming off commercial?  Put it all on a blog where it’s available for free?

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