Embodied cognition is a theory from psychology and philosophy that changes the way we think about our inner experience and the way we experience the world around us. It’s also an idea that has been somewhat misappropriated and misunderstood by a number of fitness bloggers and athletes, so let’s put the record straight.
What Embodied Cognition Really Means
Embodied cognition tells us that the brain cannot really be separated from the body. In other words, the brain isn’t only responsible for controlling our limbs, but the reverse is also true.
What many take this to mean is that we ‘think with our bodies’ and in some ways that is actually fairly accurate. After all, the gut is often described as being the ‘second brain’ and is responsible for producing a number of hormones and neurotransmitters that impact our mood and even our memory. Likewise, our ‘reflexive strength’ allows us to balance and coordinate our movements without needing to think about it.
But this isn’t what embodied cognition is talking about. Rather, embodied cognition addresses the question of how we ‘experience’ ideas and language.
When you hear a story or someone talks to you, you understand that because they will hopefully be communicating in a language you know. But in order to interpret that information, it’s generally agreed that something else has to happen. In order for our brains to make use of the language, it needs to be converted into language – or essentially ‘pure meaning’.
Historically, theorists described this language as ‘mentalese’ but didn’t have much of a working idea of how it might work. Embodied cognition though postulates that what is actually happening is that we are converting all the information into physical experiences that we can understand at a base level.
How Our Bodies and Experiences Help Us to Think
So when someone tells you a story of how they were walking through the woods, you’ll understand this with your body by recalling what it’s like to walk through the woods. Thus you might visualize a picture of some woodlands, you might feel some cold air on your skin, or you might feel damp dew in the air. Your understanding of what they’re saying is thus grounded in your physical experiences.
Likewise, when someone tells you that they were shouted at, you might recall the time you were shouted at and how that felt. You might picture an unknown person red faced and pointing at you and you may recall the feeling of shame and guilt that followed. You may even start to take on more of a hunched over stance – even as you just think of what it’s like to be reprimanded.
Even in math we can trace back to our physical experiences – when we count with numbers we’re thinking of the number of something. Even if we can remove ourselves largely from this reality, we ultimately still are thinking of this as a quantity of something.
When you remind yourself that you need to take out the washing, you probably picture yourself walking outside with a big load and feeling the cold, wet fabric against your arms as you take the washing out. And when someone explains how they’ve always dreamed of being a CEO, you probably picture your ‘schema’ of what that looks and feels like based on your experiences and on all the TV and movies you’ve watched.
Even the most abstract concept is essentially ‘routed’ in physical experiences to give it meaning, which essentially means that your ‘brain’ wouldn’t have evolved to be able think were it not for our bodies.
This also explains how animals can ‘think’ without needing a language to form an inner monologue. They would think in pure concepts and experiences and the question we should maybe ask is which is actually more efficient?
What Happens in the Brain When We Think?
So what actually happens in the brain when we think or when we hear a story?
Generally, it is believed that the brain areas associated with what we would be doing fire as though we were really using them. Listen to someone talk about how they got home from work and the areas of your brain you’d use to turn the key in the lock might fire. This is sometimes described as being akin to ‘echoes’ rippling through the brain. Likewise, when someone tells you they saw a dog, areas of your visual cortex might fire, helping you to visualize that dog.
Really then, thought is very much created by physical experiences and our ability to ‘simulate’ based on those experiences.
This has fascinating consequences in terms of the limitations of our thinking. It also has fascinating implications for AI as it begs the question of whether a purely software-based AI could ever really approach human-level cognition.