Arizona State University
It has become commonplace in neuroscience - and even in everyday conversation - to compare human cognition to that of computers. We know that computers work by using rules to manipulate symbols composed of zeros and ones. According to this metaphor, people also use rules to manipulate abstract and arbitrary symbols. The brain, in other words, was a computer that processed data largely independently of the body. A newer theory that is gaining ground among neuroscientists, embodied cognition, departs from the "computer-as-mind" metaphor. Instead, the body is seen as playing an important role in cognitive processes. Cognition evolved to guide real bodies in the real world, argue the researchers in favor of this idea. Our thoughts are constrained and influenced by the details of our flesh. How you move your arm or leg actually shapes the way you perceive, think and remember.
The latest research in embodied cognition demonstrates just how entangled the body and brain are. Holt and Beilock's
research plays the embodiment card in two ways. First, they show that when trying to understand written language, people invoke perceptual and action experiences. The words we use when reading (and perhaps also when listening) point to particular shared bodily experiences, and these experiences, in turn, are used by the reader to understand sentences. In the second important advance, Holt and Beilock also show that when people have had different personal experiences they will understand the same sentences differently.
A Picture vs. A Thousand Words
How did they show this? Holt and Beilock had people read sentences (for instance, "The child saw the balloon in the air") and then determine whether a picture that they were shown depicted an object named in the sentence. Sometimes the picture depicted an object as it would look in the context described by the sentence (an inflated balloon), and sometimes the picture depicted the object differently (a deflated balloon). The scientists demonstrated that people had a faster response time when the picture corresponded to real world scenarios, as in the first sentence. (Deflated balloons don't float.) This suggests that, when trying to comprehend the sentence, people were invoking their actual experiences with real balloons.
Holt and Beilock then looked at more specialized domains of body knowledge. They demonstrated that athletes bring to bear their sport-specific knowledge when comprehending written sentences about that sport. In other words, hockey players rely on their bodily experiences playing hockey when reading about hockey.
At first glance, this might not sound very surprising. But the implications of embodied cognition extend far beyond balloons and hockey plays. Consider what happens to your thought process when you wiggle your hand. Most of us learned to count using our fingers. It turns out that we rely on these early bodily experiences
when we make rudimentary mathematical judgments, such as whether a number is even or odd. Or consider the act of smiling. If we are smiling, it is actually easier
for us to understand sentences that describe pleasant events. We have even been able to demonstrate that fatiguing a particular action system (for example, the system that controls the arm when it moves in a "giving" motion) changes the way we understand language about giving and receiving both concrete objects (say, a pencil) and abstractions (such as responsibilities). Apparently, the same neural systems used in guiding action are also used in comprehending language about these actions. This research has numerous applications.
Look, for instance, at the field of education. If thinking requires bodily experiences and bodily action, it might be possible to take advantage of embodied cognition in order to facilitate the learning process.
Consider the following possibility. When children are learning a language orally, parents frequently demonstrate the relation between words and the experiences those words represent. A mother says, "Here is your bottle" and hands the infant a bottle. A father says, "Wave bye-bye" and the father waves his hands to demonstrate. When a child is learning to read, however, the child must focus on translating the written letter into a sound. All of sudden, the relevant experiences that made the word meaningful are nowhere to be found. For example, when reading the word "dog," it is unlikely that a real dog is actually present. If children aren't forming the connections between written words and experiences, then reading a book will be about as enjoyable as listening to a foreign language. Perhaps this is why so many children don't like to read.
We tested this possibility by ensuring that children make the connection between written words and experiences. We had children read stories about a particular location, such asa farm. All of the children were given toys corresponding to objects found at that location, such as a toy barn, tractor, farm animals, and so on. In one part of the experiment, after the child read a sentence (such as "The farmer drove the tractor to the barn") the child would move the toys to act out the sentence. In the control condition, other children would read and then reread the sentences. The children who acted out the sentences remembered much more about the stories than those who simply reread
Although she didn't know it by that name, the great educator Maria Montessori
recognized the importance of embodied cognition a long time ago. In 1967 she wrote, "Watching a child makes it obvious that the development of his mind comes about through his movements ... Mind and movement are parts of the same entity." Scientists are only now discovering just how right she was.