The Frontal Cortex

Embodied Cognition

It took a few centuries, but it looks as though psychology and neuroscience are finally moving beyond the dualisms of Descartes. Here is the always interesting Boston Globe Ideas section:

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Anon
    January 14, 2008

    And cognitive science gradually is catching up to B. F. Skinner.

    Cognitive psychologists like to say that “the mind is what the brain does,” but surely the rest of the body plays a part. The mind is what the body does. It is what the person does. In other words, it is behavior, and that is what the behaviorists have been saying for more than half a century. To focus on an organ is to rejoin the Homeric Greeks.

    “Whatever happened to psychology as the science of behavior?” Skinner, 1987.

  2. #2 Dunc
    January 14, 2008

    I’m reminded of an old Norse story, in which Loki loses his head in a bet. He gets out of it by pointing out that when he bet his head, he meant all of it, but that his neck is still his own.

  3. #3 Rachael
    January 14, 2008

    Perhaps when we activate motor areas of the brain it makes it easier for nearby cells to be activated due to increased availability of signaling molecules? I have no idea what the source of such a phenomenon could be, especially since signaling molecules don’t diffuse very far in the brain unless actively transported, but it’s very interesting. Somehow our self, our perspective, always resides near the anatomical location of our eyes – I assume this is true for a person that has been blind since birth, but I wonder.

    We do already know some of this to be true in the specific instance of walking, for example, or other complex motor tasks that take up neighborhood in the spinal cord and require both active problem solving (avoid that rock) and supposed “thoughtless” physical movement (keep that rhythm). There are many neurological tasks that occur in the spinal cord. Do they ever occur in the peripheral nervous system? Certainly we have a very complex neurological system in our stomach. It does seem that starting a particular movement can result in recall of other movements, memories or feelings. Personally, I have found that the act of duplicating a forgotten movement (like ice skating, or dancing) can be kind of like Proust’s Madeline.

    Of course this, this all make sense unless you’re Stephen Colbert, in which case you think from your gut anyway.

  4. #4 Dizzlski
    January 14, 2008

    This may explain why, when in a conversation, I pace back and forth (driving many people crazy). Or, when I need to type something after sitting for a while, I get up and walk around for a bit. I was hoping there would be some info on why I find it almost impossible to not do at least two things at once, it can be quite annoying at times.

  5. #5 mrae
    January 14, 2008

    My intro to biopsychology professor encouraged me to use finger-spelling for unfamiliar terms, it works very well for me. i like to think of it as leaving notes in several rooms of the house instead of only on the refrigerator… just in case i can’t or don’t go into the kitchen, its good to have a backup.

  6. #6 Andrea Grant
    January 15, 2008

    I read an article once (which I now can’t put my hands on) that discussed the necessity of physical activity for brain development in children. Not just for the brain to learn to control the body, but also for overall cognitive development. I was just struck by the image of recess being a more important part of school than anyone had thought! I find the trend to increasingly sedentary education is worrisome for this and many other reasons.

  7. #7 amybuilds
    January 16, 2008

    I love it when science catches up.

    Teachers have known this for years. Have you seen the movie Akeelah and the Bee? It’s a great example of this idea in action.

  8. #8 Pat
    February 1, 2008

    Hmmm. The Japanese have thought for centuries that you learn by repetition, so that the BODY remembers. Many people are familiar with martial arts kata but the concept applies to many subjects and areas. Pretty much the teaching method of preference in Japan even today.

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