The idea that our bodies affect how we think isn’t as controversial as the idea that they don’t, but psychologists are still figuring out what that means. One radical theory—called embodied cognition—argues that we literally think with our bodies, using physical sensation to subconsciously reach conclusions that we had previously attributed to abstract thought. As Leeds Metropolitan University’s Andrew Wilson puts it:
“Embodied cognition is not about letting the body nudge the contents of cognition – it’s about treating the body (and the environment, through our embodied perceptual explorations of that environment) as critical elements in a broader cognitive system, and the shape of that system is different from anything we’ve thought about before in cognitive science.”
There have been a large number of studies over the past year that explore the body-mind connection and seem to document aggregate cognitive biases that seem to be brought on by sensation; the most well known is the coffee mug study, but there have been many others. The question is the degree to which this data, which documents how the body affects cognition, actually reinforces the theory of embodied cognition.
Tel Aviv University psychologist Thalma Lobel has dedicated much of her work over the past few years to documenting these studies and puzzling out what it all means. Here she talks to Google, summing up the research and what she regards as its implications:
Her book Sensation: The New Science of Physical Intelligence (2014) explores these ideas in more detail. But theorists of embodied cognition have a challenge to confront: they have yet to present a clear description of exactly how embodied cognition works. The basic principle behind embodied cognition—that the experiences of the body feed into our brain’s cognitive process—is easily proven, the basic principle reinforced by thousands of years of human ritual and dance, by daily habits, by sexuality, by food. But it would be rare to find a psychologist who doesn’t hold the view that the body feeds into our cognitive processes. Proving that sensation actively participates in these cognitive processes is a much higher bar to clear.