Embodied Cognition: You Are Not a Brain in a Vat

‘Smartness’ of the body, and how our sensory and motor systems shape our reality

Embodied cognition

You are not a brain floating away in a vat (well, most probably). You are as many as 100 billion neurons connected to hundreds of nerves running through a body with the most complex cortical organisation, and therefore most complex sensory and motor systems of any creature on earth (Kaas 2008).

One type of cranial nerve, of which you have twelve, enables you to move your eyes to scan the vistas before you, another allows you to smell, and yet another to taste. Thirty-one pairs of spinal nerves branch off into hundreds of peripheral nerves allowing you to pick up objects and feel their roughness, their smoothness. And unlike the humble sea squirt which devours its rudimentary brain upon finding a permanent home on the seafloor, you move through, interact with, and act upon your environment in pursuit of your goals.

You are far from a passive recipient of sensory information. Thus, your behaviour emerges from a complex interaction of mind, body, and environment (Wilson & Foglia, 2011). Fortunately, your brain is not the sole cognitive resource at your disposal — there is a ‘smartness’ to the body. For example, walking is facilitated by our body mechanics rather than requiring brainpower to calculate the ‘timing and magnitude of our strides’ (Wilson & Golonka, 2013).

For all of this, reality is like the light filtering in through a small, warped and darkened window. You are limited by form and function; deaf to the scurrying of tiny insects, blind to ultraviolet light, indifferent to the paths of magnetic fields*, and so you do not inhabit the reality of the bat, the bluebottle butterfly, or the migratory eel. The very structure of your body, the constraints and opportunities it affords, encodes information about how to navigate your environment to ensure your survival (Godfrey-Smith, 2016).

This is known as embodied cognition.

Metaphor? I barely know her!

Concepts are sensorimotor in nature (Mahon, 2015a). For this reason language, the means by which we organise our understanding of the world, relies heavily on metaphor (Boroditsky & Ramscar, 2002).

Metaphors are used to express abstract concepts such as fluctuating emotional states and the passage of time by grounding them in the tangible and concrete. Thus, we think of people as cold or warmhearted, and conceptualise time as distance travelled or quantity accrued.

Emotion and morality

Come out, damned spot!

Is there an emotion more grounded in the body than disgust?

Even moral disgust manifests in the flesh. An action that is morally repugnant induces in us the same nauseated, stomach-churning feeling as if we’d been exposed to spoiled food or decay. We even wrinkle our noses in disapproval of heinous acts, as if we’d just caught a whiff of something malodorous (Wilson & Foglia, 2011).

The relationship works in both directions, such that exposure to unpleasant odours increases negative bias and harsh moral judgments made of others (Schnall et al. 2008a; Inbar et al. 2009). Furthermore, it appears that the very act of cleaning one’s body serves to cleanse one’s mind following immoral actions (Schnall et al. 2008b).

Posturing

When you’re upset, your head hangs low, the corners of your mouth droop, your gaze is downcast, and there is a tendency to slouch. However, the reverse is also true, changing your body language can change your mood. Hence, we are often advised to adopt a confident stance when giving a speech.

Research has shown that enacting poses associated with positive mood (straight-backed rather than stooped) helps with mood recovery. However, it may be in your best interests to slouch and slump when trying to remember something sad as mood-congruent posture has been shown to aid in memory recall (Veenstra, Schneider, & Koole, 2017).

Fake it, till your body makes it.

Consciousness

I act, therefore I am

A sense of self requires interacting with the world and acting upon it whilst being sure that you, and no one else, were responsible for knocking your mug of tea to the floor. Therefore, embodied cognition is vital to self-agency which is in turn a prerequisite for consciousness (Wilson & Foglia, 2011).

Self-agency works thusly, every action we take is distinguishable from an externally generated one because its sensory consequences can be anticipated and therefore attenuated. For example, if you press down into your arm you’ll feel it less keenly than if another person were to touch you with the same amount of force (Buhrmann & Di Paolo, 2017). The ability to discern the difference grants you that vital sense of being a distinct entity, separate from others and the environment around you. It tells you: I act, therefore I am.

There you have it, bodily experience has a profound effect on cognition. If you’d like to learn more, this is a good place to start.

Footnote

*Actually, we can sense magnetic fields although it escapes our conscious notice; changes in magnetic fields induce slow-wave brain activity (Wang et al., 2019).

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Further Reading

Blakemore, S. J., Smith, J., Steel, R., Johnstone, E. C., & Frith, C. D. (2000). The perception of self-produced sensory stimuli in patients with auditory hallucinations and passivity experiences: evidence for a breakdown in self-monitoring. Psychological Medicine, 30(5), 1131–1139.

Boroditsky, L., & Ramscar, M. (2002). The roles of body and mind in abstract thought. Psychological Science, 13(2), 185–189.

Godfrey-Smith, P. (2016). Other minds: The octopus and the evolution of intelligent life. London: William Collins.

Kaas, J. H. (2008). The evolution of the complex sensory and motor systems of the human brain. Brain Research Bulletin, 75(2–4), 384–390.

Mahon, B. Z. (2015a). The burden of embodied cognition. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology/Revue Canadienne de Psychologie Expérimentale, 69(2), 172.

Schnall, S., Johnson, D. J., Cheung, F., Brent Donnellan, M., Arbesfeld, J., Collins, T., … & Dunsmore, L. (2014). Disgust as embodied moral judgment. Social Psychology, 45(4), 315–320.

Schnall, S., Benton, J., & Harvey, S. (2008). With a clean conscience: Cleanliness reduces the severity of moral judgments. Psychological Science, 19(12), 1219–1222.

Veenstra, L., Schneider, I. K., & Koole, S. L. (2017). Embodied mood regulation: the impact of body posture on mood recovery, negative thoughts, and mood-congruent recall. Cognition and Emotion, 31(7), 1361–1376.

Wang, C. X., Hilburn, I. A., Wu, D. A., Mizuhara, Y., Cousté, C. P., Abrahams, J. N., … & Kirschvink, J. L. (2019). Transduction of the geomagnetic field as evidenced from alpha-band activity in the human brain. Eneuro.

Wilson, R. A., & Foglia, L. (2011). Embodied cognition.

Wilson, A. D., & Golonka, S. (2013). Embodied cognition is not what you think it is. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 58.