Psychologists and philosophers have long thought of the brain as the primary tool for all abstract thinking, like reasoning or judgment. But recently, science has been changing its mind on this.
Over the last decade researchers have produced striking evidence that the body, and its relationship to the environment, is completely intertwined in the thinking process. For instance, simply sitting in a wobbly chair makes us judge others’ relationships to be unstable. Wearing a white lab coat, thought to be a doctor’s coat, helps our concentration and focus. Literally washing our hands rids us of guilty feelings.
So seemingly inconsequential events have a huge influence over our emotions, thoughts, and decisions. And this, scientists say, is because our abstract knowledge comes not from some disembodied reasoning within the brain but rather from our concrete experiences interacting with the world from the moment we are born. The very structure of reason itself comes from our visual and motor systems.
It was the philosopher Rene Descartes in the 17th Century who famously wrote: I think, therefore I am. But with embodied cognition on the rise in mainstream Western thought it might be time to supplant that statement with: I move, therefore I think.
Our awareness of this phenomenon will have a profound impact on our day-to-day behavior. We now know that our facial expressions can absolutely change our moods. And that children are more successful in math if they use their hands and bodies to guide themselves through algebraic problems. In fact, a new study suggests that the number one thing we can do to preserve our brain function is to be physically active — regardless of any intellectual enrichment.
SmartPlanet spoke with one of the founding fathers of the embodied cognition field, Art Glenberg, professor of psychology at Arizona State University, to talk about this turn of events in how we consider mind and body.
SmartPlanet: So how do you define embodied cognition?
Art Glenberg: I define it as all cognitive processes — from high-level processes like language, to more basic levels like perception — are based on neural and bodily systems of action, perception and emotion. Even when we’re thinking complex thoughts, those thoughts are grounded in our perception and emotional systems.
Do you have an example of embodied cognition at work?
Absolutely. Let me tell you my favorite from my lab, and that’s the Botox experiment.
The question that we were asking was: To what extent do the neural and bodily systems of emotion play a role in understanding language about emotional experiences.
We created sentences that either tapped into happy experiences or sad experiences, or angry experiences. One of the angry sentences is something like, “After talking with the bigot you slammed the car door as hard as you could.”
And a sad one is “It’s your birthday and when you open your email, your inbox is empty.”
We had people reading these sorts of sentences, and we measured how long it takes them to read and understand them.
OK, and how does Botox work into this?
Here’s the key: We measure how long it takes before and after these women get injections of Botox into their corrugator muscle, that’s the muscle in your forehead that you use for frowning.
The Botox is used to relax the muscle and then eventually get rid of frown lines.
Right. So there’s a connection between facial expression and understanding emotional sentences?
Our hypothesis that frowning is not just an expression of an emotion, but it also intensifies the emotion. We wanted to know: If we could block that expression of the emotion, would we then slow the understanding of these emotional sentences?
And did you?
That’s exactly what we found. Before the Botox — when people could frown — they were faster to understand the angry and sad sentences than after the Botox.
And their understanding of the happy sentences was completely unaffected by the Botox. So this sort of peripheral bodily mechanism seems to be having an effect on very higher order cognitive activity — in this case, understanding language about emotions.
As I understand it, this is a major transition in psychological science, to move away from what was thought of as brain as a “central processing unit” — much the way a computer might work — to one where our bodies are central to cognitive processes. What are the implications of embodied cognition for us on our day-to-day? How might this transition in thinking ultimately affect us and our culture?
Well, one example of its impact is understanding how we interact with one another and how we understand what other people are thinking.
For the longest time, the hypothesis was that we understood other people’s thinking, other people’s goals, other people’s intentions through a high-level reasoning process.
More recently, particularly with the discovery of mirror neurons, the hypothesis has changed drastically.
We better explain what mirror neurons are.
Mirror neurons were discovered in monkeys, in the mid-1990s by Giacomo Rizzolatti and his lab in Parma, Italy. And their finding was that brain cells in the monkey’s motor system were active when the animal was making a particular action, like reaching for a peanut — but that’s obvious. The astounding thing was that the same cell was active to virtually the same extent when the animal saw the experimenter reach for the peanut.
So, it was as if the animal was literally feeling or experiencing what the experimenter might have been feeling, even though the monkey was just watching and not performing the action?
The animal is understanding the experimenter’s action of reaching for the peanut in terms of its own action. The animal assumes that that experimenter’s goal is its own goal.
The data is very clear in showing that, yes, we understand other people’s actions via our own motor system. You can also find this in the emotional domain. For instance, when we see other people being disgusted, retching, we feel sort of sick. And it turns out that the reason we are feeling disgusted upon seeing another person disgusted is that certain parts of the brain are active when a) we feel disgusted and b) we see somebody else being disgusted.
These sensory, motor and emotional processes are playing an important role in out understanding of others.
I also understand you are using the ideas of embodied cognition to help children learn to read. So there are implications for education?
Yes we’ve been developing a technique for teaching elementary school children how to read. The idea is to get the children to appreciate that when they’re reading it requires a simulation of what they’re reading.
Can you give us an example?
Yes, let’s say the child is reading a story about activities on a farm and they read a sentence like “Then the farmer drives the tractor to the barn.”
Well it’s not just being able to say the word. The idea of reading is being able to emulate or imagine the situation of the farmer getting into the tractor and driving the tractor to a particular location.
The way we teach the children to do that is by having them read, but with toys available so that after they read a sentence like that they literally take the toy farmer and put the farmer into the toy tractor and move the toy tractor to the barn.
And what we find is that by helping children to envision what they’re reading that their reading comprehension doubles.
Wow, that is significant.
It’s important to remember that when children are learning to read it’s really hard because the first thing they have to do is learn the sounds of the letters and that’s completely arbitrary.
Right. That is very hard.
And they need to learn how to blend those sounds together just so they can pronounce the words. And those processes in learning to decode the words — to go from what’s on the page to saying them — is so difficult that some children don’t take the next step. They never get to the meaning behind those words. And our intervention is meant to help them take the last step.