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A Brief Guide to Embodied Cognition: Why You Aren’t Your Brain

My latest over at the Scientific American guest blog. I was fortunate enough to interview professors George Lakoff (Berkeley) and Joshua Davis (Barnard) who were very helpful and took me through what it means for the mind to be “embodied.”

Embodied cognition, the idea that the mind is not only connected to the body but that the body influences the mind, is one of the more counter-intuitive ideas in cognitive science. In sharp contrast is dualism, a theory of mind famously put forth by Rene Descartes in the 17th century when he claimed that “there is a great difference between mind and body, inasmuch 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.” In the proceeding centuries, the notion of the disembodied mind flourished. From it, western thought developed two basic ideas: reason is disembodied because the mind is disembodied and reason is transcendent and universal. However, 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.”

What exactly does this mean? It means that 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.”

15 Comments Post a comment
  1. So if we aren’t our brains, are we our minds?

    November 4, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      We are our bodies, we are everything, including the mind.

      Either that or we are in the Matrix.

      November 4, 2011
  2. Kerri Wachter #

    I really enjoyed the Sciam guestblog. I still struggle with observing a system, of which you are a part, i.e. my mind observing my mind. It’s a little too close to Schrodinger’s cat maybe.

    November 4, 2011
  3. To say we are our bodies because they are the primary means of developing our minds is like saying we are our parents, or we are society; is it not? I do not dissagree with this idea, I just feel the rationale is a little shaky. I find the Vedic basis of Yoga to be a very useful explanation of the relationship between the body and mind.

    November 4, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      It is not like saying we are our parents or society. The brain is influenced by the body in a much different way than it is influenced by external forces.

      The Vedic explanation is mostly metaphoric and not grounded in science. I wouldn’t look there for scientific answers.

      November 4, 2011
  4. Jordan #

    Great article, I’m a grad student in medical anthropology and there is a considerable literature on embodiment and embodied metaphors in that field as well – check out Thomas Csordas and Nancy-Scheper Hughes who is also at Berkeley

    November 5, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      Thanks Jordan, I will.

      November 5, 2011
  5. laz #

    a new vista opens up…I have ordered the book on metaphors from Amazon based on the article. …to anyone who has carefully observed human behavior (or listened to Bjork’s song, ‘Human Behavior’) it is a fact that our ‘reason’ is anything but reasonable…all those tendrils of emotions, holding reason up as a marionette, are evident but to the most oblivious to the material gained by self-examination…

    …capitalist note: put a link on your page to the book$$ you reference…

    November 5, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      I’m glad that I’ve motivated you to buy the book, Laz. I think you will really like it. It is actually an easy read – and interesting the whole way through.

      And I normally provide links to amazon when I mention a book, I will continue to do so.

      November 5, 2011
  6. Andrew C #

    I’m a little puzzled by your explanations for some of the chosen metaphors.

    we equate up with control and down with being controlled because stronger people and objects tend to control us

    That does not even follow – we equate up with control because stronger things control us? Stronger things are up because up are strong things? Why not metaphors related to physical overpowering then – e.g. “my boss carries me or pushes me around”? Personally I suspect a recollection of parents being physically larger and strong, and we being small and physically ineffectual.


    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.

    Surely this is relating to the panicky feeling of being in water and not being able to touch ground – very scary for non-swimmers and related to being out of control (given how many people can swim now, it seems a little surprising that it still persists) but not for things being out of our vision. That would be more like being swooped by an angry bird. As before, it could easily be seen as a metaphor relating to our fears as small children, when we couldn’t swim and being thrust into a pool caused unpleasant sensations of panic.

    So why not approach the metaphor-personal experience relationships as being ones that are set in early childhood rather than trying to relate them to the adult physical experience?

    November 5, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      Andrew, if you read the whole article you would have seen that I mentioned research done in which metaphors were explained by primary experiences during childhood.

      “In the 1990s dissertations by Christopher Johnson, Joseph Grady and Srini Narayanan led to a neural theory of primary metaphors. They argued that much of our language comes from physical interactions during the first several years of life, as the Affection is Warmth metaphor illustrated.”

      As for the Control Is Up metaphor (e.g, Don’t worry, I’m on top of the situation). This comes from the experience of finding that it is easier to control another person or exert force on an object from above, where you have gravity working with you.

      November 5, 2011
  7. Andrew C #

    Thanks for your reply sam.

    You are correct that you mentioned the childhood source of the metaphors (and I did read the whole article and the comments). However, you were making the links in your writing. That other researchers mentioned in passing may offer the solution is not really an answer – it is what you (the writer) are writing as the primary participant in the dialogue. It was really about making an unsupported assertion in your writing.

    As for warmth being associated with comfort…if you live in a hot country like I do, then cool is associated with comfort. Where cold means 18 C, it has a different meaning to -10. Yet I still use the metaphors the same way you use them in your article. Isn’t then more likely that the metaphors have more cultural resonance and meaning than physical?

    November 5, 2011
  8. sammcnerney #


    I’m unsure of your criticism. What exactly did I not make clear? Or, what did I not answer explicitly?

    There certainly are metaphors specific to cultures, but the point of the article is that brains and rationality are influenced by our sensorimotor experiences. Also, note that I am claiming that warmth is associated with affection, not comfort. I take it you wouldn’t associate cooler whether with affectionate feelings.

    November 5, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      And maybe you could clarify this statement, because I am having trouble understanding it:

      “Isn’t then more likely that the metaphors have more cultural resonance and meaning than physical?”

      November 5, 2011
  9. I’m more of a Chomskian thinker, and I firmly believe that we have to understand language in mathematical terms, and to some extent, we have been able to do so. Of course, Chomsky restricted himself to the domain of context free languages (CFLs), which is why Chomsky is so very important in computer science. Computer science would have never been where it is today had we not understood systematically the structure of CFLs, and Chomsky contributed a lot to it (refer Chomsky Normal form). Natural languages are not context free, however, the interesting phenomenon is that we have had some amount of success in which computers can interpret natural languages and even create content. Which suggests that at least a CFL can be used to interpret a Context sensitive languages, at least in a limited way (IBM’s challenge to jeopardy).

    I agree to some of the points raised in the article, but not the general trend the article tends to advocate. I agree that the mind is not separate from the body, that our brains are not us itself. But my agreement stems not from the unverifiable philosophical stand-point literary theorists tend to take. My belief stems from the point of view that our bodies consist of several chemical factories producing hormones which influence the way we think. After all, we are just a machine, albeit a complicated one. There are triggers in the environment that affect these chemical factories. So cognition should take into account the affects of the environment, and other contexts.

    What I don’t agree is the way this is proceeding. From a firm scientific and mathematical background, we seem to have taken a step backward back into the realm of vagueness where there is nothing that can be proved or disproved. I could sit back in my armchair and give thousands of such theories which can neither be proved or disproved, and it will do no good to anyone other than filling sheafs of papers of journals. What we really need are theories that we can either prove right or prove wrong. Its OK if a theory is wrong, as long as there is a way to prove experimentally that it is wrong. You can’t do that when you start becoming vague.

    November 8, 2011

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