The brain is often envisioned as something like a computer, and the body as its all-purpose tool. But a growing body of new research suggests that something more collaborative is going on – that we think not just with our brains, but with our bodies. A series of studies, the latest published in November, has shown that children can solve math problems better if they are told to use their hands while thinking. Another recent study suggested that stage actors remember their lines better when they are moving. And in one study published last year, subjects asked to move their eyes in a specific pattern while puzzling through a brainteaser were twice as likely to solve it.
“It’s a revolutionary idea,” says Shaun Gallagher, the director of the cognitive science program at the University of Central Florida. “In the embodied view, if you’re going to explain cognition it’s not enough just to look inside the brain. In any particular instance, what’s going on inside the brain in large part may depend on what’s going on in the body as a whole, and how that body is situated in its environment.”
Or, as the motto of the University of Wisconsin’s Laboratory of Embodied Cognition puts it, “Ago ergo cogito”: “I act, therefore I think.”
This shouldn’t be too surprising. If you just look at the layout of the brain, you’ll notice that the premotor cortex – the part of the brain that controls bodily movement – is right behind the prefrontal cortex, the bit of tissue responsible for deliberate thought and problem solving. From the perspective of natural selection, intelligence is all about action. We didn’t evolve to be armchair philosophers.
And here is Walt Whitman, a poet who appreciated embodied cognition way back in the 19th century:
Was somebody asking to see the soul?
See, your own shape and countenance…
Behold the body includes and is the meaning, the main
Concern, and includes and is the soul.