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Posts tagged ‘Embodied Mind’

The Embodiment of Height: Why You Give More To Charity When You Are Elevated

Do you ever wonder why we associate good things with up and bad things with down? Think about it. We say that , “things are looking up today,” and “I’m down in the dumps,” to express how we are feeling. We say that “he’s at the peak of his career,” and “she fell is status,” to describe social hierarchies. And almost always heaven is up in the sky while hell is down in the Earth. The more you think about it, the more obvious it becomes. These examples are merely linguistic and mental, though. How do our conceptions of up and down affect us physically?

In a recent study, Lawrence Sanna et al studied how elevation influences people’s charitable donations. To do this, three research assistants posed as salvation army bell ringers, went to a local mall and placed their contribution buckets in three locations: at the top of an escalator (high-condition), at the bottom of an escalator (low-condition) and in an area away from escalators (control-condition). Unaware of what the study was testing, the research assistants rang bells for two thirty minute sessions as over a thousand “participants” passed by and donated. The results were as predicted. In the researchers words, “shoppers who rode the up escalator (high-condition) contributed more often than those who rode down (low-condition) and the control condition… In short, experiencing elevated physical height – in this case by riding up vs. down mall escalators – increased the virtuous act of making real charitable contributions.” They followed up this experiment with three more that demonstrated that elevation influences people to be more helpful, compassionate and cooperative (you can read about those here).

Sanna’s work is part of a growing body of literature that examines how elevation influences people. In a 2009 study, Pablo Brinol et al found that “the direction of thoughts (positive/negative) on self-related attitudes” depended on how participants sat. This means that participants tended to evaluate themselves more positive when they sat with an erect back and pushed their chest out as opposed to when they sat slouched forward with their back curved. Moreover, Daniel Casasanto and Katinka Dijkstra found that when participants moved marbles upward they retrieved positive memories faster than negative ones. And, conversely, when they moved marbles downward they retrieved negative memories faster than positive ones. This finding demonstrates that there is a casual link between motion and emotion. 

These studies are saying that we think of up as good and important and down as bad and not important. This seems obvious. But we forget that we were not born with up coupled with good/important and down coupled with bad/not important. So where did it come from?

One answer is grounded in the idea of the conceptual metaphor. Conceptual metaphors are “mappings across conceptual domains that structure our reasoning, our experience, and our everyday language.” In other words, metaphors constitute our physical and mental experience. Here’s an example I gave a few posts ago. When 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. According to Srini Narayanan, conceptual metaphors can be traced back to subjective judgments and primary experiences, and this is how we explain why we equate up with big and important (and the other way around): When we were young we found that “big things, e.g., parents, are important and can exert major forces on [us] and dominant [our] visual experience.” Over time, this relationship was reinforced and now it comes naturally to us, as if it was there all along.

Another, more general answer, is that the mind is embodied. This point, which I also made a few posts ago, means that our mental experiences are not confined to that lump of flesh between our ears. As I said 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.” This is why our experience with big and important things is tied with up and small and unimportant things is tied with down.

So the takeaway isn’t just a nifty charity strategy, it is the simple lesson that your mental life is constituted by your physical experience; you are not your brain, in other words.

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The Embodiment of Time, Tenderness, and Weight

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:

  1. Recall what your everyday life circumstances had been like 4 years previously and envisage the events of a typical day at that time
  2. 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.

So what exactly does this mean?

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.

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