Friday, 7 March 2014

Embodiment & Abstract Thought

Within traditional models of cognition the body is viewed as an output system governed by the brain's cognitive system, essentially implying that cognition controls the body. The embodiment perspective argues that the brain is not the only resource for solving problems; the body can also guide cognition. It is through the active exploration of our environment, which is permitted by the capabilities of the body, that cognition can develop. From an evolutionary perspective this claim carries great appeal. Additionally, the embodied perspective is plausible: the brain cannot possibly govern every cell and so it is sensible to consider behaviour as being distributed throughout the body.

It is acknowledged that some forms of embodiment can still align with ideas of representationalism. This is achieved by distributing cognitive work through areas of the body other than the head while maintaining that this cognitive work is a computational process that makes use of representation. In contrast, radical embodiment advocates a position that is severely non-representationalist. 

But how can a perspective that looks to eradicate the notion of representation cope with abstract thought? Abstract thinking is a form of higher order cognition that includes counterfactual thought, reasoning and future planning and is regarded as the most sophisticated form of cognition. As it often relies on moving away from real-world events it is difficult to reconcile with the tenets of embodiment.

Embodiment poses convincing evidence as to how a person can come to develop an understanding of physical concepts. Through real-world exploration a person can come to develop a thorough knowledge of the concepts of weight, depth or hardness through a physical exploration of objects with these qualities. But how can a person attain knowledge of abstract entities, concepts that have no real-world correlate? Some examples of abstract concepts include kindness, integrity, childhood, bravery, justice and loyalty. These are concepts that permeate thought and language but cannot be explained by any tangible correlate in our environment. In my opinion it is here that a radical embodied perspective faces a huge obstacle, these internal representations cannot be regarded as superfluous.

A study by Casasanto (2009) provides a middle-ground explanation on how people may come to embody abstract concepts. The study examined the effect of handedness on how people represent positive and negative abstract concepts. Participants who were right-handed were inclined to associate space to their right with positive abstract concepts and space to their left with negative concepts. This pattern was inversed for left-handed participants. Another study by Jostmann et al (2009) has linked the abstract concept of importance with the bodily experience of weight.  These results are taken as evidence that abstract concepts can have an embodied origin and that their mental representation relies on the specifics of the body of the user. 

Embodiment’s core principle of using the body to shoulder some of the cognitive load and to gain information through experiencing the environment is not entirely controversial. Rather, it appears to be an intuitive ideology to pursue. However at a more radical level, the extent of explanation provided by embodiment for cognition is quite contentious. Perhaps the middle ground wins again.


  1. Would advocates of the Embodied approach not argue though that the development of a understanding of physical concepts, forms a basic foundation level upon which abstract concepts are built? For example the 'attachment theory' experiments done by Harry Harlow on baby Rheus monkeys, where when frightened they sough comfort from the soft to touch but non-food providing mother figure as opposed the iron mesh covered but food giving mother figure, could be seen via the embodied approach as touch leading to higher concepts.

  2. That's what they're saying in the Jostmann study, people understand importance as somthing 'that carries weight'. This kind of angle would fit well with Piagetian developmental theory as it's essentially a move from concrete to abstract thought, and there's lots of room for lovely representation there. It's the neglect of abstract thought by radical perspectives that I find hard to get on board with.