Embodied cognition and the content of our minds

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This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Doctrinal Insights from Embodied Cognition

This article includes some conceptual contributions from Nathaniel Givens.


Part 1. We briefly explored how the Restored Gospel emphasizes the importance of divine embodiment and what that might mean for us in an eternal perspective. We argued that our divine destiny has always been to become embodied beings of flesh and bone in the eternities. We also stated that, even with this restored understanding of divine embodiment, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints often don’t fully understand the importance of physical embodiment

Part 2. We introduced the idea of mind-body dualism, the idea that the mind is wholly separate and distinct from the body. Many have questioned mind-body dualism, but some have done so in a way that reduces human thought and activity to mere biological processes, which eliminates the possibility of agency and morality. Instead, we suggest talking about human action holistically as something that requires and is informed by physiology, but can never be adequately reduced to mere biology.

Part 3. We discussed some of the “plot holes” of mind-body dualism, such as how ghosts can still see and hear despite not being able to interact with the surrounding world. We then launched into a number of the ways in which we depend on flesh and bone to engage meaningfully with the world, including things like seeing color, understanding art, taking meaning from scribbles on a page, understanding verbal speech, and detecting patterns and norms in human activity.

Embodied Cognition

An alternative to mind-body dualism can be found in insights offered in what has come to be known as “embodied cognition.” This refers to a perspective that arose in response to the assumptions and theories of cognitive psychology. At least since the 1950s, cognitive psychology has operated on (broadly speaking) a metaphor that the human mind essentially functions like a computer. In this metaphor, the brain is treated as hardware and the mind is taken to be software. Cognitive theories often assume that the body is simply an input/output mechanism for the mind, with signals from the external world entering through our physical senses and providing the mind with information, while signals going out with instructions directing the body (i.e., movement, etc.).

Embodied cognition describes at least two closely related strands of research and thought:  One that rejects the idea that the “mind” and its activities can be understood as distinct from our physicality and physiology, and another that rejects the idea that what we typically refer to as “mental activity” can be adequately studied in isolation from its in-the-world context (e.g., the person’s physiological, social, moral, and cultural contexts). Both of these views assume that how we think is inextricably connected with and enmeshed in our embodied context and experience.

The central insight of embodied cognition is not just that we need functioning brains to think — which would be, admittedly, a fairly pedestrian insight in most respects. Rather, embodied cognition’s key contribution is the claim that the nature of our physiological, environmental, historical, and cultural contexts help give shape to the contents of our thoughts. Let’s explore how.

Our language Is built on embodied metaphors

In their landmark treatise on the subject, Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argued that metaphors drawn from embodied experience structure the way we describe and make sense of our world. As beings living in and through a physical world, we directly experience and “live out” such concepts as up, down, front, back, in, out, near, far, bright, dark, hard, soft, light, heavy, and so on. These are things we only understand by direct, embodied and situated experience. But from these basic concepts we are able to build up a world of metaphors.  For example, two people in love are “close”; someone who is non-communicative is “distant”; emotions have “ups and downs”; difficult times are “rough”; confusion is “darkness”; burdens are “heavy”; understanding is “enlightening,” and so forth. We understand and communicate these abstract concepts by direct metaphor to our basic physiological and situated experience.

For example, the very idea of a mental or spiritual “burden” presupposes some experience of the brute physicality of carrying a weight. Would the concept of a “burden” even mean anything to someone who had never exerted themselves to carry something, or who had never witnessed another person do the same? Imagine, for example, an artificial intelligence existing in a tablet computer and which has never had to weary itself lifting or carrying a heavy object (and, in fact, never even had access to actuators or rotors capable of doing so) — and, even more, has never had the physiological experience of being depleted of energy or in pain from its exertions. Would such an artificial intelligence have any understanding of what a “burden” might be, or even what “weight” is — much less the exhaustion that can come from carrying one?

As we explore the nature of human language and expression, it is startling to see how deeply and thoroughly it is grounded in metaphors just like these. In fact, take just a moment to consider the previous sentence:  we “explore” language and expression. Could this sentence mean the same thing to someone who has never envisioned uncharted physical topography, the revealing and unveiling of unfamiliar terrain, and the dangers and thrills of discovery? “Startling” — this is certainly a metaphor referencing the physiological reaction of surprise at a sudden encounter in our environment. “See” — we analogize conceptual understanding to sight. “Deeply” reflects the physical reality of being far below our usual or “ground” level. Likewise, “grounded” connotes the sturdiness of being on solid, unshifting ground, or perhaps the laying of a foundation to hold up an edifice. All of these are based in and take meaning from embodied experience.

Even abstract thought is grounded in embodied metaphor

We all recognize that there are skills and practices that are inherently embodied. For example, we intuitively know that we cannot learn to ride a bike by reading a textbook; we must actually straddle a bike and experience the physicalities of bike riding. Such skills do not reside in any sort of “abstract mind,” but have a physical dimension to them. They are known, realized, and rehearsed only in contexts of physiological activity and exertion. Embodied cognition holds that it is more than just this class of physical skills that have this dimension. We picture “running” as a physical activity in a way that thinking is not. But we explored in the previous article how this is not wholly true — various dimensions of thinking and perception may involve different aspects of our physiology than running does, but are just as physiological.

But more than that, conceptual knowledge as a whole relies on physiological activity for its shape and form. Even thinking about physical activity can involve physiological action. For example, thinking about a cup “might involve sensorimotor preparation for grasping or drinking,” and this sensorimotor preparation is part and parcel with our “concept” of a cup.((See Hall & Nemirovsky, 2012.)) Without ever having brought a cup to our mouths, and without brains that process and rehearse the physicality of the act, or the experience of thirst and its quenching by water, the concept of a “cup” might be entirely different to us, if it has any meaning at all. Our embodied experiences give shape and meaning to these concepts.

In similar ways, some researchers conclude that “rather than being input and output to a general information-processing system, perception and motor activity encompass all thought and behavior, our grasp of abstract ideas, and our engagements in cultural processes.”((Nemirovsky, et al, 2014, p. 286)) In other words, we best understand the abstract to the extent that we can translate it into metaphors that we can express in physical terms, or in terms derived from physical experience.

Consider, for example, the imagination. When we imagine a painting, we are creating a sort of “visual” picture in our mind — a mental image, so to speak. This reflects a skill that involves the same parts of the brain that process sight. When we remember a book we have read, we can imagine the words on the page (or the mental image they conjured as we read them), both of which involve visual processes in the brain. When we imagine a speech we once heard, we often do so by rehearsing the voice of the speaker using the same parts of the brain that process sound. When we remember a song we’ve heard, we are in a sense “replaying” that song using the auditory centers of the brain. When we win imaginary arguments in the shower, we might — without even realizing it — be imagining the movements of our mouth, lungs, and hands as we debate, all of which involve sensorimotor parts of the brain.

Even our most abstract thinking — mathematics — is often grounded in spatial and tangible metaphors. Children learn to add by moving two separate sets of objects together and counting the result. This sensorimotor activity, the process of combining two groups of objects, becomes a foundation that informs their conceptual understanding. We might think about various mathematical functions by plotting them on an imaginary Cartesian plane that has up and down dimensions, as well as a left and a right. Large numbers are “high,” while small numbers are “low.” Some learning scientists have explored how to tap into this fact by teaching children abstract mathematics using physical activities (such as mapping a Cartesian plane on the floor of the classroom and having students move about it as they plot mathematical concepts).

But even beyond that, we underestimate the extent to which abstract thought and reasoning involves physiological engagement. Many of us have said something like, “I can’t tell where it is, but put me in the room, and I’ll take you right there.” We are remembering in embodied, contextual ways; it is in the context of action that we “remember.” Similarly, some people “think” by talking. Others “think” by writing. (Side note from Jeff: this is definitely how I think — ideas often take form only as my fingers dance across the keyboard.) Others “think” by diagramming. Others “think” by drawing. Others “think” by crafting. Thinking is not something done merely in the recesses of the mind. We often use our physical environments to “think,” or reason through physiological engagement. It is an activity done within a physical context, using the physicality of that context to express, connect, and articulate ideas. Even as the content of our reasoning is grounded in embodied metaphors, we so often articulate and structure those ideas through physical action (speech, writing, illustrating, etc.).

History and culture are part of mortal embodiment

This all leads us to the next step of our argument:  We came to earth not merely to learn to touch and feel, but to be given the building blocks to think and reason and to construct our world using a vast array of embodied, cultural, and historical metaphors that may not have been available to us before (at least, not to the same extent that they are now). These building blocks give us whole dimensions for persuasion and influence, for both good and evil. Physical experiences give rise to the specificities of history and culture, which in turn give rise to further dimensions for allegorizing our world through second-order embodied metaphors.

Lakoff and Johnson explore how much of how we think of the world is shaped by metaphors. They use the example of the conceptual metaphor “argument is war.” We say things like, “Your claims are indefensible,” or “He attacked every weak point in my argument,” or “I’ve never won an argument with him.” When we analogize arguments and counterarguments as attacks and parries in a “battle” of wits and words, it conjures a visceral, physical imagery that is grounded in our experience of physical warfare (either first-hand, second-hand, or imagined).

This is just one example of a large conceptual and semantic world that relies on lived-experience in a culture and language shaped by the history of physical experience. Someone with far less embodied experience — or, perhaps more precisely, embodied experience of a far more limited nature — is going to have far fewer metaphors to draw upon to understand and articulate their experiences, and be far more limited in understanding the language and worldviews of those with more embodied experiences. For example, someone who has spent their entire life alone in the small confines of an interstellar generation ship — with no access to the vast literature that describes the whole of human experience and culture and no experience of conflict with another — might genuinely have no concept “argument is war” and no grounding for the varieties of metaphors that flow out of it.

Or, look at it this way: How are we to understand the relief and grace of deliverance without at least some cultural and historical awareness of oppression, slavery, or tyranny? How can we understand oppression, slavery, or tyranny without some historically-grounded sense of national identity, a prior history of national independence, a recognition of two separate political bodies in conflict with each other (with one immensely more powerful than the other)? How are we to understand indebtedness without the experience of scarcity and want, an economic system that permits borrowing, and personal experience with debt (or at least experiences vicariously handed down through others)? How are we to understand restoration without any cultural experience of institutional decay, which is itself a metaphor grounded in the observation of physical decay? How are we to understand peace absent some experience of strife?

These second-order embodied metaphors — which rely not just on direct physical experience, but the facticities of historical and personal experience as well — demonstrate more ways in which mortal embodiment and experience is vitally important to our eternal development. In other words, the contours of our mental world are shaped not just by the structure of our bodies and the breadth of our physical experiences, but also the specific features of our culture and history. Thus, we want to suggest that we came to earth to take up not merely the physiology of the human body, but also (every bit as much) the social and cultural immersion that comes with being embodied in a particular sociohistorical context. This is how we populate our semantic world with a rich and vibrant array of concepts and metaphors.

Our physiology influences the contents of our cognitive world

Let’s explore some more examples to illustrate:

Sentient nebulas. Imagine that we encounter gaseous life-forms living in space; perhaps a “sentient nebula” such as those found on Star Trek. Would such creatures understand the world in the same sorts of ways that we do? Does the concept of “down” have any meaning at all without the visceral experience of gravity, much less the concept of “up” (the direction against the pull of gravity)? Would “left” and “right” make any sense without a body with eyes that face forward? Would “rough” and “smooth” be meaningful distinctions to a life form without skin with nerve endings?

And would such a being find anything but gibberish in the claim that our journey through life includes ups and downs, is sometimes rough, sometimes smooth, and will hopefully find fruition at the right hand of God, as we taste the fruit of the tree of life? Nearly every concept in that sentence uses direct metaphor to embodied experience that a sentient nebula could not take meaning from.

Most of our semantic world would be indecipherable to such creatures, except insofar as we are able to translate them into physical metaphors it can understand. But such metaphors would be things that we have an equally hard time relating to. For example, perhaps such a creature might have metaphors grounded in volume (sparse versus dense). It might have metaphors related to heat; not related to touch, but rather to the energy imparted to its particles by stars. We can repeat such speculative thought experiments with other examples (such as an intelligence distributed across nanobots, or a sentient amoeba) with similar results.

Mantis shrimp. Similarly, our physical bodies ground the ways in which we understand the world in more ways than linguistic metaphor. The distance between the eyes, in conjunction with moving the head, makes objects in the foreground appear to move with respect to objects in the background, which is how we understand and process the concept of “depth”. In this way, physically moving the head can be a way of processing the world, a way of revealing what is before us in new ways. Vision is in fact a “paradigm case” of embodied cognition theory.

Consider how the visual receptors of our eyes both enable and constrain the way we experience and process color. Most human beings have three color receptor cones in their eyes. This allows us to see the range of colors that we currently do, and to make qualitative distinctions between them. In contrast, dogs only have two cones (blue and green), and thus can only see the colors that those cones make available to them. Butterflies, however, have five color receptors, which implies that butterflies can see colors we can’t even imagine. But amazingly, the mantis shrimp has sixteen color receptors. This means that the mantis shrimp can see perhaps hundreds of colors that we cannot, as these color receptors work in various combinations. Their physical capacities shape the way they perceive and understand the world. (Thanks, Nathaniel Givens, for this example!)

Dogs and smell. Dogs have vision more similar to us than to mantis shrimp, but scent matters to them much more than it does to us. Scent has different properties than vision. It is residual and layered. When a dog sniffs a lampost, he is sampling a cross-section of time in a way that sight often cannot. They walk into a room and experience not merely the present but also to some extent the past. Would this lead dogs to have a fundamentally different understanding of time than we do? In other words, not only does physiological embodiment allow us to engage with the world in more meaningful ways, the particular ways in which we are embodied — as opposed to a dog, for example — lead to different ways of perceiving, understanding, and engaging with the world.  (Thanks, Nathaniel Givens, for this example too!)

Physiology adds depth and richness to our emotional experiences

We often think of emotions in pretty abstract ways, as mental states of one sort or another that cause (or are caused by) certain physical/biological events, but which themselves are not physiological at all. But, in reality, there are physiological components intrinsic to almost all emotions. For example, excitement involves an increased heartbeat or physiological arousement. Sadness and loss are tied intimately with tears. The experience of clinical depression illustrates that our affective state is deeply connected with physiological factors, and in ways that traditional mind-body dualism has tremendous difficulty explaining. Emotional experience is a powerful example of embodied cognition.

Does this mean that premortal (or postmortal) spirits don’t feel emotions? Certainly not in the same ways we currently do. Our physiology gives a range and depth to emotional experience that simply cannot by experienced in non-physiological ways. However, there are some experiences that we sometimes classify as “emotions” that are certainly non-physiological. Some of these might include charity, pride, humility, guilt, resentment, peace, hate. But consider:  most of these are not “emotions” in the strictest sense of the term. They are relational states that are sometimes bound up with — but are separate from — accompanying emotions such as infatuation, embarrassment, anger, fear, anxiety, etc. These latter emotions involve an arousal of our physiology in some way. It may be that this is the distinguishing factor between “emotion” and “relational state” — the former clothes the latter with physiological dimensions.

In other words, we can experience the guilt of betraying our convictions without the corresponding physiological states of “embarrassment” or “anxiety” that accompanies guilt in mortality. We can experience peace of conscience without the accompanying reduced anxiety that we experience with it in mortality. We can despise or resent another soul without the aroused physiological experience of “anger” (which, in the Hebrew language, refers to the “flaring of the nostrils” — visceral, embodied imagery). We can seek the genuine welfare of other souls without the “pitter patter” of the proverbial butterflies of romantic infatuation, the hormonal richness of parental affection, or other physiological experiences that accompany various forms of love.

However, these physiological experiences deepen and broaden how we experience these relational states, and give us language and metaphors we can use to articulate and express our relational experiences in a physiological context. Metaphorically, mortal embodiment (with its swirl of emotional capacities) can bring an otherwise black and white picture into vivid color. So it may be that postmortal spirits can carry with them their relational states (charity, enmity, pride, humility, etc.), but find themselves without the emotional, physiological accoutrements (hormonal affection, anger, embarrassment, etc.) that give these experiences their variety and color here on earth. (More on this in a future installment.)

Mortal embodiment and gender

When the Proclamation on the Family states that “gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose,” most Latter-day Saints (rightly) take this to mean that gender is more than a social construct or personal preference — it reflects something essential about our natures as sons and daughters of God. Further, embodied cognition hints that the lived experiences of being male and female are rooted not merely in different social norms and constructs, but also in differences in embodied experience and what those entail in the social world.

When we strip away historically situated social norms and conventions (many of which may be important), most of what we know and experience about gender is somehow related to our physiology. If we take embodied cognition seriously, it might be that mortality is an important step towards more fully realizing gender — as in, making real or bringing to fruition what was before more of an expectation, anticipation, or foreordination. It may be that physical embodiment is a way of becoming gendered. And as such, at birth, we are stepping into, realizing, or taking up our eternal identity as sons and daughters of God.

Some Latter-day Saints have argued that gender dysphoria may be due to a mismatch of spirit and physical gender; it is possible (they argue) that a “female spirit” to be trapped in a “male body”, or vice versa. This legitimizes gender dysphoria by treating it as a signal that a person’s biological sex is a defect that does not match their eternal gender identity. We have observed this idea spread and take root among some corners of Latter-day Saint thought, as a way of legitimizing the idea of gender transition and transgender identity — it is seen as a way of changing one’s physical sex to match the gender of their spirit.

Embodied cognition may bring some clarity on that issue. What does it mean, we might wonder, for a man to say he “feels like a woman”? Prior to alterations done to his body, does he have any idea what it feels like when his breasts began to firm up, what it was like to have that first period (especially when it came on unexpectedly in class one afternoon), what it felt like to worry about whether or not he was pregnant the morning after, what it means to feel vulnerable in the presence of sexually aggressive males? All of these are physiological experiences, or psychological / social experiences that have roots in physiological differences. What would a pre-embodied spirit know (or correctly anticipate) of physical embodiment, such that it can later conclude that its gendered experience is “wrong”?

The primary takeaway — which is wholly uncontroversial from a doctrinal point of view — is that, as male and female, our world of experience is shaped in part by the physiological possibilities and constraints of our gendered bodies, and the social and societal norms which arise from those differences. Gender is an essential component of our eternal identity at least in part because it is intrinsic in the experience of mortal (and resurrected) embodiment. Our entrance into this world as male and female is full of divine purpose, and not mere happenstance. Furthermore, physiological embodiment gives vast new dimensions to gender that were certainly not available to premortal spirits (at least, not fully).

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