Embodied and embedded cognition are two hot new topics in the world of psychology and have been getting a lot of attention lately in the media, across blogs and pretty much everywhere else for that matter.
That’s because these are such radical and exciting ideas: essentially stating that our thinking doesn’t just take place in our heads but across our bodies and throughout our environments. Woah… right? Only the downside is that a lot of people have gotten a little carried away with these ideas, jumped to some conclusions and basically missed most of the science that explains why all of this isn’t magic. So let’s take a proper look at these terms, at what the experts are actually saying.
What This Doesn’t Mean
Firstly, it’s important to recognise that this isn’t evidence for some kind of supernatural view of the universe. Our cognition may extend to the environment in certain senses, but not in the kind of ‘we’re all one consciousness’ way that many people are claiming. Likewise, although our cognition is spread throughout our body in some ways, that doesn’t mean that transplant patients are going to start remembering things from their donor’s lives. And no, that’s not what muscle memory is either before you ask…
So What’s Going On?
So if this isn’t evidence for voodoo, how can your thinking possibly take place anywhere other than your brain? How can it even take place in more than one location for that matter?
Well in the case of embodied cognition, what’s essentially being said is that some of our behaviours and reactions can take place without having to go through our brains. Our nervous system is spread throughout our body and in some ways that works just like the brain.
Granted, most of the time these systems are still at the mercy of our brains, but in some cases they are capable of acting and even learning without help from that grey matter. A perfect example is what’s known as a ‘stretch reflex’ or a myotatic reflex. This is an automated reflex that occurs in response to stretching within a muscle and which is designed to regulate the length of said muscle. In other words, if you were to stretch the arm out of someone who was unconscious, their body would try to fight back on its own. This is what’s going on when you tap the patellar ligament (just above the knee) when undergoing an examination at the doctors. This is also why clinically dead patients can sometimes scare nurses by going through a range of very alive-looking motions.
Okay so that may come as a disappointment – it’s hardly an example of your body having a mind of its own – but more interesting are some recent studies and theories on the matter.
For instance, consider your ability to catch a ball – to quickly determine the angle, velocity, height etc. and to put your hand in the right place at the right time. This is particularly impressive among fielders in sports like cricket and baseball, but it appears that the brain isn’t working alone.
Rather than actually calculating these factors you see, a fielder will instead use a combination of their brain and their bodies to ensure success. They do this by running while watching the ball; if they run at such a speed as to make the ball appear stationary then they will be likely to arrive in the right place at the right time and that requires zero thought.
Likewise, in order to ensure they run to the right spot, all the players have to do is to run in such a way that the trajectory appears to be moving in a straight line. Again there’s no need for maths, just an innate understanding of lining things up.
As the fielder runs then, they will be watching the ball with their visual system while moving their body to correct course. There’s relatively little involvement of the brain here – rather the computation is carried out by a combination of the eyes and the body. The movement of your muscles is necessary for you to come to the right conclusion. Likewise, the environment is a crucial factor in performing the maths. Studies by McBeath and Shaffer & Kaiser both seem to support this more complex view of thinking across the body and terrain. More fundamentally, the shape and muscle reactions of our legs are largely responsible for our ability to coordinate ourselves while walking. Very little ‘processing’ goes on throughout the brain, but instead muscle twitches and reactions enable us to stay upright, react to changes in the terrain and generally stay upright while our brain deals with other matters.
Robotic engineers at Boston Dynamics have taken this concept on board in creating their ‘Big Dog’ robot. This is a robot designed to haul heavy equipment across rough terrain for use in the military. The machine walks on four legs and is able to adjust itself if it starts to fall or even if you try to kick it over.
Rather than using complex equations to do this, Boston Dynamics were inspired by embodied cognition concepts in order to use dynamic systems within the joints that would ‘spread’ the problem throughout the body. The movement of the legs are partly down to the algorithms it’s running, but also partly down to the engineering inside the legs.
There are many other examples of how environment and our bodies shape our thinking. Interesting studies show how wearing a white coat can influence your decision making, and how the regions in our brains for gestures and language are closely tied together. Want to see someone’s personality change almost entirely? Just put them in a room filled with people who they wouldn’t normally associate with. Another interesting concept being studied is how we use our bodies in order to structure and then internalise abstract concepts. When learning maths, we begin by counting our fingers and using them almost as abacuses. Is it a coincidence that we use a number system with base ten?
There are many challenges in studying such phenomena though, with it being difficult to separate natural reactions in the brain and those in the muscles. Likewise it’s hard to say how much a white coat is really an example of embedded cognition versus a learned response/placebo. Whatever the distinction, it is certainly interesting to consider that more goes into our thought process than just thoughts…
The Mind-Body Connection
All this also places more importance still on the body and our health. It shows once again that neglecting to look after the body can change the way we behave and think. A recent study has even demonstrated that obesity in men can dampen intelligence. It’s thought this is partly due to the effect of weight on blood-flow to the brain, but this doesn’t explain why the same finding was not found in women…
So look after your body and consider your environment. They are both more closely tied to who you are than we currently understand.