How Embodied is Your Cognition? What is Principle?
April 30, 2018 Written by: W.B. “Bud” Kirchner
“The embodiment of mind leads us to a philosophy of embodied realism. Our concepts cannot be a direct reflection of external, objective, mind-independent reality because our sensorimotor system plays a crucial role in shaping them. On the other hand, it is the involvement of the sensorimotor system in the conceptual system that keeps the conceptual system very much in touch with the world.” ― George Lakoff, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought
I am willing to bet that the majority of business people feel that all their ideas originate in the brain and that the behavior of their colleagues does so as well. Actually, this seems like a safe bet since the unofficial/unscientific survey I’ve conducted verifies this.
What if that was not the case? How would we reflect on behavior and biases within ourselves and others? What could give rise to a more complex/complicated context in which we do our work?
As it turns out, we are operating under the influence of our brain in consort with our body which is reacting to its environment. To put it another way – bodily experiences are capable of influencing information processing, judgements, goals etc. – often without our awareness. Seem overly complicated? As a caveat – with this article I am (intentionally) simplifying a complicated (and in some circles controversial) topic. If you doubt this ask Plato, Descartes etc.
This article is in a sense – an extension of two previous articles (Augmented Cognitive Performance Part 1 & 2) since an understanding of the nature of cognition (at least the main principles) is important if not essential to performance and therefore embodied cognition is a concept that every businessperson needs to not only understand but exploit in all its contexts. This article also builds on a much earlier one Body & Brain: Part One – Did You Know You Have Two Brains?.
By way of full disclosure – I acknowledge definitive (cause/effect) evidence can be a challenge in this area and the concept that a problem might be resolved or behavior could be influenced etc. by more than the brain is clearly threatening to some! However, going back to my introduction to areas such as this How Did I Get Here from There?, I have an empirical based belief in the interconnectivity of environment/body/mind.
As always, let’s start with an introduction to the concept in real terms. Basically the premise centers on the relationship of bodily sensation and their influence on what we think/perceive and therefore our actions and emotions. This, also, extends to the interconnection of different brain areas.
The essence of embodied cognition is that in addition to the mental representations originating in our minds there are perceptual representations originating from our body via our senses.
Obviously this flies in the face of historic views that all the responsibility is with the brain. In other words, the brain is not the only influencer on behavior including decision making etc.
Sticking with my approach of “just the stuff that matters” here are a few salient points from the world of neuroscience/psychology.
According to an article (The Scaffolded Mind: Higher mental processes are grounded in early experience of the physical world) from the European Journal of Psychology:
- “It has long been a staple of psychological theory that early life experiences significantly shape the adult’s understanding of and reactions to the social world.”
- “It is proposed that via the process of scaffolding, these early sensorimotor experiences serve as the foundation for the later development of more abstract concepts and goals. Experiments using priming methodologies reveal the extent to which these early concepts serve as the analogical basis for more abstract psychological concepts, such that we come easily and naturally to speak of close relationships, warm personalities, moral purity, and psychological pain.”
(Take note of the reference to “analogy” it will be important in a future article.)
One reason for why this might be: “This is because the corticospinal (motor) system develops first in humans, and other functions develop on top of its foundation.” (How reading makes us move – Lorena Anderson, UC Merced)
Case Study: Touch
For the uninitiated this might be a strange concept so let’s go with an example – let’s look at some perspectives from the sense of touch. Let’s start with a quote from Ackerman et al.
“Physical touch experiences may create an ontological scaffold for the development of intrapersonal and interpersonal conceptual and metaphorical knowledge, as well as a springboard for the application of this knowledge.”
(Once again, you will note here and below the linguistic tool of comparison (analogy/metaphor).)
So the theory is our childhood method of gathering information creates a “mental scaffold” upon which we establish a knowledge base in later years.
- “A person’s exposure to objects of different weight, texture and hardness sends unconscious but powerful cues to the brain.” (How Things You Touch Influence the Way You Think)
- Lakoff and Johnson have described that physical-to-mental scaffolding is, in fact, reflected in the use of shared linguistic descriptors, such as metaphors.
A few excerpts from the Ackerman et al work:
- “These six experiments showed that physical interactions with three fundamental dimensions of touch influence our impressions and decisions, even when the people and events those impressions and decisions concern are entirely unrelated to what is being touched.”
- “Across studies, these findings emphasize the power of that unique adaptation, the hand, to manipulate the mind as well as the environment.”
If you would like some circumstantial evidence of the mutual dependence of brain and body – look no further than the octopus. Sokol who describe the octopus as “famously smart” reports: “Two-thirds of the roughly 500 million neurons in an octopus (nervous system) are found in its arms.” (Even if you can’t make the reasoning leap to humans – it is still a great cocktail party item.)
If you really want to get still deeper into the weeds read:
- Does a Spider Use Its Web Like You Use Your Smartphone? – Joshua Sokol
- “A spider’s web is at least an adjustable part of its sensory apparatus, and at most an extension of the spider’s cognitive system.”
Further evidence of this phenomenon is evidenced by our linguistic description and how we interpret environmental stimuli.
- “I am on top of the situation”
- “He is under my control”
- “There were sparks”
- “I’m feel down in the dumps”
- “He is over his head.”
- “It is out of my hands.”
There are no shortage of illustrations that our sensory input influences our perceptions and therefore actions and decisions:
- Physical warmth (e.g. coffee) leads to social warmth re feelings
- Viewing a photo of a partner = reduced pain
- Judge a book to be heavier if told subject is important
- A resume on heavy clipboard is more impressive
- Watching video of chess game – description
- Warm room – described with emotions and anecdotes
- Cold room – empirical terms
- Concrete language = social closeness
- Abstract language = social distance
- Importance of environment you create and participate in
- Compared with people perched on cushions, those sitting on wooden seats drove a much harder bargain
- Leaning slightly left caused participants to believe the tower lower in height
- Assuming a ‘power posture’ enables you to endure more pain
It is not hard to imagine how some of these could be translated into business context!
Having introduced the concept and illustrated it with a case study let’s put it in context the business world.
Details to follow but here are some general considerations that illustrate the relevance of embodied cognition to business people. Understanding opens a plethora of “tools” both proactive and interpretive.
Excerpts from an almost endless list:
- Enhance your cognition (thinking)
- Recognize (source of) bias in others
- Using sensory experience to create copasetic meeting environment
- Sensory perceptions impact on thoughts
- Emotional tone can be influenced beyond words
- Changing body posture – change state of mind
I would be remiss if I did not comment on ‘priming’ which implies a non-conscious memory based on perceptions of words and object and is a well-known negotiating ‘aid’.
Hopefully, you will think of others as you read on and you can go back to an earlier article. (Are you Creating Environments Designed to Enhance Relationships?)
A theme (message) you will note in the article here centers on metaphors – a vehicle that we ‘naturally’ resort to – as an aid for understanding our world (and as we will discuss in a future article on energy – efficient mechanism to leverage the known and/or understood). For example the aforementioned “scaffolding” is accessed via metaphorical thinking.
This article has focused on introducing the idea of embodied cognition and how it might be used in business. The following article will build on the relationship of metaphors – both to explain (insinuate) embodied cognition and how this makes them a unique tool to enhance individual’s creativity.
- Joshua M. Ackerman, Christopher C. Nocera, John A. Bargh – Incidental Haptic Sensations Influence Social Judgments and Decisions
- Gregory N. Bratman, Gretchen C. Daily, Benjamin J. Levy, James J. Gross – The benefits of nature experience: Improved affect and cognition
- Emily Cummins – Embodied Cognition: Definition, Theory & Experiments
- George Lakoff, Mark Johnson – Metaphors We Live By
- George Lakoff – Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought
- Samuel McNerney – A Brief Guide to Embodied Cognition: Why You Are Not Your Brain
- Joshua Sokol – Does a Spider Use Its Web Like You Use Your Smartphone?
- Sora Song – How Things You Touch Influence the Way You Think
- Jeff Thompson, Ph.D – Embodied Cognition: What It Is & Why It’s important
- Lawrence E. Williams, Julie Y. Huang, and John A. Bargh – The Scaffolded Mind: Higher mental processes are grounded in early experience of the physical world
Relevant Business Brain Model Articles
- Body & Brain: Part One – Did You Know You Have Two Brains?
- How Did I Get Here From There?
- Are you Creating Environments Designed to Enhance Relationships?
- Lorna Anderson – How reading makes us move
About the Author: W.B. “Bud” Kirchner is a serial entrepreneur and philanthropist with more than 50 years of business success. He is not a scientist or an academic but he does have a diversified exposure to neuroscience, psychology and related cognitive sciences. Generally speaking, the ideas he expresses here are business-angled expansions of other people’s ideas, so when possible, he will link to the original reference.