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Embodied cognition

Embodied cognition

Dominant views in the philosophy of mind and cognitive science have considered the body as peripheral to understanding the nature of mind and cognition. Proponents of embodied cognitive science view this as a serious mistake. The nature of the dependence of cognition on the body opens new ways to conceptualize and explore cognitive processes.

In general, dominant views in the philosophy of mind and cognitive science have considered the body as peripheral to understanding the nature of mind and cognition. Proponents of embodied cognitive science view this as a serious mistake. Sometimes the nature of the dependence of cognition on the body is quite unexpected, and suggests new ways of conceptualizing and exploring the mechanics of cognitive processing.

Traditional cognitive science has conceptualized central cognitive processing, what we will call cognition in the narrow sense, in abstraction from bodily mechanisms of sensory processing and motor control. Research programs within artificial intelligence exemplify this view of cognition in the narrow sense, and they have been one of the clearest targets of embodied cognitive science. Embodied cognitive science aims to understand the full range of perceptual, cognitive, and motor capacities we possess, cognition in the broad sense, as capacities that are dependent upon features of the physical body.

The working hypothesis of embodied cognitive science is that this thesis is true either because of the significant causal or the significant physically constitutive role of the body in cognitive processing. Proponents of embodied cognitive science have advocated both the causal and the constitutive claim about the role of the body in cognition. While the ascription of a physically constitutive role to the body in cognition has been taken to challenge traditional cognitive science in a more radical way than does that of a significant causal role to it, both versions of the Embodiment Thesis mark a departure from views of the mind dominant in traditional cognitive science.

To summarize this section: we have distinguished three ways to articulate the Embodied Cognition Thesis, each specifying a particular way in which cognition depends on the body. There are three distinctive functions or roles for the body that embodied cognitive science might ascribe: as a constraint on cognition, as a distributor for cognitive processing, and as a real-time regulator of cognitive activity. Such determinate forms of the Embodiment Thesis can ascribe the body either a significant causal role, or a physically constitutive role, in cognition.

Although prima facie it might be thought that embodied cognition has no distinctive implications for the ongoing debate between "nativism" and "empiricism", one contribution of embodied cognitive science here lies in its specific exploration of the roles that the body plays in cognitive processing. These roles often pose challenges to strong nativist and strong empiricist views alike. As such, embodied cognitive science does not simply assume, with empiricists, that cognitive processing depends to a great extent on environmental exposure, and that cognition is a causal reflection of it. Further, while empiricists typically conceive of the world as something objectively given to a subject, who thus forms a static representation of it that then guides action, embodied cognitive science addresses how the dynamic interplay between embodied agent and the world generates cognition. It is this focus on dynamic, worldly interplay that provides one link from embodied to embedded cognition within situated cognitive science.

Embodied cognition is a fascinating concept from psychology and philosophy that challenges the way we think about... well, the way we think. In many cases it has been adopted by personal trainers and athletes and in some cases, misappropriated. The basic idea behind embodied cognition is often summarized as being that our brains and bodies are not separable and that the connection is not only 'one way'. That is to say that you couldn't take your brain out from your body and stick it in a jar and expect it to function just the way that it does now. 'You' are your body as much as you are your brain.

Embodied cognition though postulates that this 'mentalese' is in fact routed in the physical experience of our bodies. In other words, without our bodies, there would be no thought. Our bodies and our senses are what give everything meaning because they let us ground concepts in reality and relate them to our current situations.

The theory then goes that even when you're thinking of more abstract concepts, they are ultimately related back to a persons physical experiences that originate from your body. This is what then gives them meaning.

To understand this concept further we can use brain imaging studies. From these, we know that when someone thinks about something, the brain areas associated with that thing fire.

Thought then is simulation and we simulate with our cortical representations of our senses and our bodies. When you hear or read the English language, your brain takes that meaning and converts it into sensations and experiences. That is how it is able to understand them.




Further reading


Documentaries, videos and podcasts


137. Embodied Cognition | THUNK

Prof. Lawrence Shapiro on embodied cognition (full interview)




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