A (Situationist) Body of Thought
Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 7, 2008
In a Boston Globe article last month, Drake Bennett summarized some of the recent research suggesting “that we think not just with our brains, but with our bodies.” The entire piece is well worth reading; we’ve excerpted a few highlights below.
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The brain is often envisioned as something like a computer, and the body as its all-purpose tool. But a growing body of new research suggests that something more collaborative is going on — that we think not just with our brains, but with our bodies. A series of studies, the latest published in November, has shown that children can solve math problems better if they are told to use their hands while thinking. Another recent study suggested that stage actors remember their lines better when they are moving. And in one study published last year, subjects asked to move their eyes in a specific pattern while puzzling through a brainteaser were twice as likely to solve it.
The term most often used to describe this new model of mind is “embodied cognition,” and its champions believe it will open up entire new avenues for understanding — and enhancing — the abilities of the human mind. Some educators see in it a new paradigm for teaching children, one that privileges movement and simulation over reading, writing, and reciting. Specialists in rehabilitative medicine could potentially use the emerging findings to help patients recover lost skills after a stroke or other brain injury. The greatest impact, however, has been in the field of neuroscience itself, where embodied cognition threatens age-old distinctions — not only between brain and body, but between perceiving and thinking, thinking and acting, even between reason and instinct — on which the traditional idea of the mind has been built.
“It’s a revolutionary idea,” says Shaun Gallagher, the director of the cognitive science program at the University of Central Florida. “In the embodied view, if you’re going to explain cognition it’s not enough just to look inside the brain. In any particular instance, what’s going on inside the brain in large part may depend on what’s going on in the body as a whole, and how that body is situated in its environment.”
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. . . [T]oday, neuroscientists, linguists, and philosophers are making much bolder claims. A few argue that human characteristics like empathy, or concepts like time and space, or even the deep structure of language and some of the most profound principles of mathematics, can ultimately be traced to the idiosyncrasies of the human body. If we didn’t walk upright, for example, or weren’t warm-blooded, they argue, we might understand these concepts totally differently. The experience of having a body, they argue, is intimately tied to our intelligence.
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Embodied cognition upends several centuries of thinking about thinking.
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In the 1980s, . . . a group of scholars began to contest this approach. Fueled in part by broad disappointment with artificial-intelligence research, they argued that human beings don’t really process information the way computers do, by manipulating abstract symbols using formal rules. In 1995, a major biological discovery brought even more enthusiasm to the field. Scientists in Italy discovered “mirror neurons” that respond when we see someone else performing an action — or even when we hear an action described – as if we ourselves were performing the action. By simultaneously playing a role in both acting and thinking, mirror neurons suggested that the two might not be so separate after all.
“You were seeing the same system, namely the motor system, playing a role in communication and cognition,” says Arthur Glenberg, a professor of psychology and head of the embodied cognition laboratory at Arizona State University.
This realization has driven much of the recent work looking at how moving and thinking inform and interfere with each other. For example, a pair of studies published in 2006 by Sian Beilock, now an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, and Lauren Holt, one of her former students, examined how people who were good at certain physical activities thought about those activities.
In one study, Beilock and Holt had college hockey players, along with a non-hockey-player control group, read a sentence, sometimes hockey-related, sometimes not. Then the subjects would be shown a picture and asked if it corresponded with the sentence. Hockey players and non-hockey players alike almost invariably answered correctly, but on the hockey-related sentences the response times of the hockey players were significantly faster than the nonplayers. . . . According to Beilock, the difference in response time wasn’t a matter of knowledge – after all, all of the subjects in the study got the vast majority of the questions right. What it suggested, Beilock argues, is that the athletes’ greater store of appropriate physical experiences served as a sort of mental shortcut.
“People with different types of motor experiences think in different ways,” she argues.
These sorts of results aren’t simply limited to thinking about sports, or other highly physical activities. A 2003 study by Michael Spivey, a psychology professor at Cornell, and his student Elizabeth Grant, found that people who were given a tricky spatial relations brainteaser exhibited a distinctive and unconscious pattern of eye movements just before they arrived at the answer. The subjects seemed to unconsciously work through the problem by enacting possible solutions with their gaze.
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Other studies have looked at non-spatial problems and at memory. Work led by Susan Goldin-Meadow, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, has found that children given arithmetic problems that normally would be too difficult for them are more likely to get the right answer if they’re told to gesture while thinking. . . .
The body, it appears, can subtly shape people’s preferences. A study led by John Cacioppo, director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, found that subjects (all non-Chinese speakers) shown a series of Chinese ideographs while either pushing down or pulling up on a table in front of them will say they prefer the ideographs they saw when pulling upward over the ones they saw while pushing downward. Work by Beilock and Holt found that expert typists, when shown pairs of two-letter combinations and told to pick their favorite, tend to pick the pairs that are easier to type – without being able to explain why they did so.
What’s particularly interesting to neuroscientists is the role that movement seems to play even in abstract thinking. Glenberg has done multiple studies looking at the effect of arm movements on language comprehension. In Glenberg’s work, subjects were asked to determine whether a string of words on a computer screen made sense. To answer they had to reach toward themselves or away from themselves to press a button.
What Glenberg has found is that subjects are quicker to answer correctly if the motion in the sentence matches the motion they must make to respond. If the sentence is, for example, “Andy delivered the pizza to you,” the subject is quicker to discern the meaning of the sentence if he has to reach toward himself to respond than if he has to reach away. The results are the same if the sentence doesn’t describe physical movement at all, but more metaphorical interactions, such as “Liz told you the story,” or “Anne delegates the responsibilities to you.”
The implication, Glenberg argues, is that “we are really understanding this language, even when it’s more abstract, in terms of bodily action.”
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“I think these findings are really fantastic and it’s clear that there’s a lot of connection between mind and body,” says Arthur Markman, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas. He remains skeptical, though, that the roots of higher cognition will be found in something as basic as the way we walk or move our eyes or arms.
“Any time there’s a fad in science there’s a tendency to say, ‘It’s all because of this,”‘ Markman says. “But the thing in psychology is that it’s not all anything, otherwise we’d be done figuring it out already.”
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To read the entire article, click here. To read related Situationist posts, go to “A Closer Look at Interior Situation,” “The Unconscious Situation of our Consciousness – Part IV,” “The Body Has a Mind of its Own,” and “Brainicize: The Situational Malleability of our Brains.”