I’ve been hearing it for years now – the brain is “embodied“. It’s a strange concept. I understand that brains aren’t disembodied, and Descartes was horribly wrong to suggest that, “there is a great difference between mind and body, inasmuch as body is by nature always divisible, and the mind is entirely indivisible.” But what do cognitive scientists really mean when they say that brains are embodied?
Luckily, things started to make sense to me after reading a study originally published last year. Researchers from the University of Aberdeen ran an experiment to test if thinking about the future and past caused individuals to physically move forward and backward. They hypothesized that “if chronesthesia (mental time travel) entails a coupling of thought and action, episodes of retrospection and prospection may be accompanied by backward and forward motion, respectively.” To test their hypothesis, researchers fitted twenty participants with a movement sensor that measured the lateral part of the leg just above the knee. Then, they blindfolded the participants and asked them two questions:
- Recall what your everyday life circumstances had been like 4 years previously and envisage the events of a typical day at that time
- Imagine what your everyday life circumstances might be like 4 years in the future and envisage the events of a typical day at that time
They found that when the participants thought about the past, they tended to lean backwards, and when they thought about the future, they tended to lean forward.
It means that our cognition isn’t confined to our cortices. That is, our cognition is influenced, perhaps constituted 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 equate warmth with affection; physical experiences with warmth are almost always accompanied by mental experiences of affection.
Consider another study that highlights embodiment. Researchers from Tufts University and the University of Denver and Toronto asked participants to determine the gender of sex-ambiguous individuals, which were randomly generated on a computer screen, while continuously squeezing a soft or hard ball. They found that squeezing the soft ball influenced participants to perceive the faces as female while squeezing the hard ball influenced participants to perceive the faces as male. Researchers concluded that the “experience of toughness or tenderness, seems to influence the social categorization of gender,” reinforcing the idea that our physical experience in the world influences our mental conceptions of the world.
Then there is the embodiment of weight, which the researchers of one study believe exist “not only on a linguistic but also on a conceptual level.” In this study, they had participants hold either a heavy or light clipboard and judge the importance of something. In the first case, researchers asked participants (who were from Dutch University) to estimate the value of six foreign currencies:
For each currency, a number of monetary units (e.g., 100 Japanese yen, 1 Swiss franc) that could be purchased for the counter value of h2 or less (according to actual exchange rates) was listed. Participants were to guess how many euros were needed to purchase each stated quantity of foreign currency, indicating their guess on a line consisting of 20 dashes. The left end of the line was labeled h0, and the right end was labeled h2. Each dash thus represented a value of 10 cents, so scores could vary between 0 and 200 cents. Participants also indicated how satisfied they were with the euro, using a scale from 1 (not at all satisfied) to 7 (very much satisfied; grand M = 4.56).
They found that participants who held heavy clipboards estimated the currencies to be more valuable than participants who held light clipboards (The same study also conducted three similar tests, which all produced similar results). They concluded that their “research demonstrates that the experience of weight is an integral part of the abstract conceptualization of importance.”
Put simply, then, the embodied mind, or embodied cognition holds that the nature of the brain is largely determined by the physical form of the human body. Experience, therefore, is not just an, “epiphenomenal side issue, but central to any understanding of the mind.”
What are the implications of things like time, tenderness, and weight being “embodied.”
For one, it erases centuries of philosophical thought that treated our intellect as somehow being separate from our bodies. Descartes was guilty of this, as was virtually every philosopher until Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Martin Heidegger. And for another, it pushes the cognitive sciences to learn more and more incredible things about the brain. I look forward to more embodied cognition studies.