What Is Embodied Cognition?

This is a short discussion paper to help locate a big topic. It was generated in the Grad Studies Elective class ‘Creative Insight; Arts/Science/Design collaboration’ with Chris Rose.

The human body has nothing more than its various surfaces and other sensibilities*, more or less well understood, with which to comprehend, to act, to relate to and to project, to imagine and live within this environment.

Embodied Mind Theory holds that even our most abstract or grand concepts are in some ways founded upon the biological and electromagnetic phenomena underpinning the sensory procedures upon which we so completely depend in order to ‘act’ in the world. The roots of our expressions of experience and knowledge have certain common ground in this embodiment of process, however different their ultimate expression may become within differing types of work for different individuals. This concept can be useful in exploring endeavours that are effectively (i.e., actually) interdisciplinary.

* ‘other sensibilities’ in one sense refers to the essential mystery of consciousness, i.e., such questions as ‘what is it for?‚’ ‘where does it reside?’ ‘what are its connections with neuroscience?’ ‘are animals conscious?’ etc. This is a contested subject with interesting tensions and paradoxes. Concepts range from the extremes of scientific materialism as claimed by Francis Crick and others, (a cultural development recently critiqued well by, e.g., Marilynne Robinson in ‘Absence of Mind’ where she shows how contemporary scientific materialism tends to deny the validity of an inner life) to the wild reaches of quantum entanglement in which the brain is seen as a non-passive interface to a quantum environment containing all possibilities. (‘You are Not Your Brain’ author Alva Noe, ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ documentaries etc)

A good basic reference is Consciousness by Rita Carter. A good source work on diverse aspects of embodied cognition is Philosophy in the Flesh; the Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought by Lakoff and Johnson. For a discussion on how this way of thinking applies to an arts installation, see the paper listed below from the ‘Breathing City’ project. You will not be surprised that there are critics of Lakoff and Johnson who say their claims are exaggerated. To help begin thinking about where this connects to a bigger picture, here are two sets of three-point comparisons of related subjects;
‘Embodied’, ‘Situated’, and ‘Distributed‚’ Cognition;

1. Embodied= relationships of mind, body experience and tacit knowledge (haptics). ‘We need a body to think’. ‘I think therefore I am‚’ may just as well be re-stated as ‘I am therefore I think’.

2. Situated= the cognitive skills of a skilled surfer are ‘situated’ in and on the water surface and in the weather; they may not apply to the tennis court (situated differently).

3. Distributed= team play is necessary where multiple and differing skills connect up into a whole, think a ships crew, the totality of a hospital etc. In this case no one person has the whole picture. One person alone may have concepts of the whole, or even over a period of time have done each of the separate jobs in turn, but not all of them at the same time, hence the complex action in real time is distributed over, and dependent upon, the group.

Three kinds of science;
- The science of ‘what is out there’
- The processes of science
- The science of Politics and Society.

Ken Robinson
Marilynne Robinson
Alva Noe
Consciousness Rita Carter
Philosophy in the Flesh; the Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought Lakoff and Johnson
From the Sensory to the Rational — Between Embodied Experience and Disembodied Knowledge/Theory Rose, Zschenderlein 2009 (PDF) | (Zip File)

See Also :
Wild Chair Workshop »
Ice-Traffic from The Breathing City Group »
Making the Geologic Now »

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