Thinking with your body
The article below suggests that our brain and bodies are more closely linked than we think. From the Boston Globe:
New research suggests that we think not just with our brains, but with our bodies
By Drake Bennett January 13, 2008
Or, as the motto of the University of Wisconsin’s Laboratory of Embodied Cognition puts it, “Ago ergo cogito”: “I act, therefore I think.”
The emerging field builds on decades of research into human movement and gesture. Much of the earlier work looked at the role of gestures in communication, asking whether gesture grew out of speech or exploring why people gestured when they were talking on the telephone.
In the 1980s, however, 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.
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. And studies by Helga Noice, a psychologist at Elmhurst College, and her husband Tony Noice, an actor and director, found that actors have an easier time remembering lines their characters utter while gesturing, or simply moving.
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.”
Some linguists, cognitive scientists, and philosophers go further – arguing that the roots of even the most complex and esoteric aspects of human thought lie in the body. The linguist George Lakoff, of the University of California, Berkeley, along with Rafael Nunez, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, San Diego, have for several years advanced the argument that much of mathematics, from set theory to trigonometry to the concept of infinity, derives not from immutable properties of the universe but from the evolutionary history of the human brain and body. Our number system, they argue, and our understanding of addition and subtraction emerge from the fact that we are bipedal animals that measure off distances in discrete steps.
“If we had wheels, or moved along the ground on our bellies like snakes,” Lakoff argues, “math might be very different.”
These ideas have met intense opposition among mathematicians, but also among some cognitive scientists, who believe they reflect an overreaching reading of a promising but still sketchy set of experimental results.
“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.”
While embodied cognition remains a young field, some specialists believe that it suggests a rethinking of how we approach education. Angeline Lillard, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, says that one possibility is to take another look at the educational approach that Italian educator Maria Montessori laid out nearly 100 years ago, theories that for decades were ignored by mainstream educators. A key to the Montessori method is the idea that children learn best in a dynamic environment full of motion and the manipulation of physical objects. In Montessori schools, children learn the alphabet by tracing sandpaper letters, they learn math using blocks and cubes, they learn grammar by acting out sentences read to them.
To Lillard, the value of embodied cognition in education is self-evident.
“Our brains evolved to help us function in a dynamic environment, to move through it and find food and escape predators,” she says. “It didn’t evolve to help us sit in a chair in a classroom and listen to someone and regurgitate information.”
Drake Bennett is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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