Embodied cognition

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Embodied cognition is the theory that many features of cognition, whether human or otherwise, are shaped by aspects of the entire body of the organism. The features of cognition include high level mental constructs (such as concepts and categories) and performance on various cognitive tasks (such as reasoning or judgment). The aspects of the body include the motor system, the perceptual system, bodily interactions with the environment (situatedness), and the assumptions about the world that are built into the structure of the organism.

The embodied mind thesis challenges other theories, such as cognitivism, computationalism, and Cartesian dualism.[1][2] It is closely related to the extended mind thesis, situated cognition, and enactivism. The modern version depends on insights drawn from recent research in psychology, linguistics, cognitive science, dynamical systems, artificial intelligence, robotics, animal cognition, plant cognition and neurobiology.

Embodiment thesis[edit]

Proponents of the embodied cognition thesis emphasize the active and significant role the body plays in the shaping of cognition and in the understanding of an agent's mind and cognitive capacities. In philosophy, embodied cognition holds that an agent's cognition, rather than being the product of mere (innate) abstract representations of the world, is strongly influenced by aspects of an agent's body beyond the brain itself.[1] Thus, the embodiment thesis intends to reintroduce an agent's bodily experiences into any account of cognition. It is a rather broad thesis and encompasses both weak and strong variants of embodiment.[3][4][5][6] In their attempt to reconcile cognitive science with human experience, Varela et al.'s enactive approach to cognition defines "embodiment" as follows:[3]

"By using the term embodied we mean to highlight two points: first that cognition depends upon the kinds of experience that come from having a body with various sensorimotor capacities, and second, that these individual sensorimotor capacities are themselves embedded in a more encompassing biological, psychological and cultural context."
Francisco J. Varela, Evan Thompson, Eleanor Rosch : The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience pages 172–173

This double sense that Varela et al. attribute to the thesis of embodiment emphasizes the many aspects of cognition that researchers in different fields —such as philosophy, cognitive science, artificial intelligence, psychology, and neuroscience— are involved with. This general characterization of embodiment faces some difficulties: a consequence of this emphasis on the body, experience, culture, context, and the cognitive mechanisms of an agent in the world is that often distinct views and approaches to embodied cognition overlap. Indeed, for example, the theses of extended cognition and situated cognition are usually intertwined and not always carefully separated. Similarly, since each of these aspects of the embodiment thesis is endorsed to different degrees, embodied cognition should be better seen as a research program rather than an unified well-defined theory.[5]

Some authors explain the embodiment thesis by arguing that cognition depends on an agent's body and its interactions with a determined environment. Accordingly, cognition in real biological systems, is not an end in itself but is constrained by the system's goals and capacities. However, they argue, such constraints do not mean cognition is set by adaptive behavior (or autopoiesis) alone, but rather that cognition requires “some kind of information processing... the transformation or communication of incoming information”. The acquiring of such information involves the agent's "exploration and modification of the environment".[7]

"It would be a mistake, however, to suppose that cognition consists simply of building maximally accurate representations of input information...the gaining of knowledge is a stepping stone to achieving the more immediate goal of guiding behavior in response to the system's changing surroundings."
— Marcin Miłkowski: Explaining the Computational Mind, p. 4

Another approach to understand embodied cognition comes from a narrower characterization of the embodiment thesis. The following narrower view on embodiment not only avoids any compromises to external sources other than the body, but also allows differentiating between embodied cognition, extended cognition, and situated cognition. Thus, we can specify the embodiment thesis as follows:[1]

Embodiment thesis: Many features of cognition are embodied in that they are deeply dependent upon characteristics of the physical body of an agent, such that the agent's beyond-the-brain body plays a significant causal role, or a physically constitutive role, in that agent's cognitive processing.
—RA Wilson and L Foglia, Embodied Cognition in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

This thesis points out the core idea that an agent's body plays a significant role in shaping different features of cognition such as perception, attention, memory, reasoning among others. Accordingly, these features of cognition depend on the kind of body an agent has. Furthermore, the thesis omits direct mention of some aspects of the "more encompassing biological, psychological and cultural context" included by Varela et al. and, therefore, makes possible to separate embodied cognition, extended cognition, and situated cognition.

The Extended mind thesis, in contrast to the Embodiment thesis, limits cognitive processing neither to the brain nor even to the body, but extends it outward into the agent's world.[1][8] Situated cognition emphasizes that this extension is not just a matter of including resources outside the head, but stresses the role of probing and modifying interaction with the agent's world.[9]

Philosophical background[edit]

In his Universal Natural History and Theory of Heaven (1755),[10] philosopher Immanuel Kant advocated a view of the mind–body problem with parallels to the embodied view.[11] Some difficulties with this interpretation of Kant include (i) the view that Kant holds the empirical, and specific knowledge of the body, which cannot support a priori transcendental claims,[12] and (ii) the view that Kant holds that transcendental philosophy, although charged with the responsibility of explaining how we can have empirical knowledge, is not itself empirical.[13]

José Ortega y Gasset, George Santayana, Miguel de Unamuno, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and others in the broadly existential tradition have proposed philosophies of mind influencing the development of the modern 'embodiment' thesis.[14]

The embodiment movement in artificial intelligence has fueled the embodiment argument in philosophy and a revised view of ethology:[15]

"Species-typical activity patterns must be thought of as emergent phenomena in three different senses of the word. They have emerged...through natural selection, ....by a process of maturation and/or learning, ...and from interactions between the creature's low-level activities and its species-typical environment."
—Horst Hendriks-Jansen Catching Ourselves in the Act, p. 10

These developments have also given emotions a new status in philosophy of mind as an indispensable constituent, rather than a non-essential addition to rational intellectual thought. In philosophy of mind, the idea that cognition is embodied is sympathetic with other views of cognition such as situated cognition or externalism. This is a radical move towards a total re-localization of mental processes out of the neural domain.[16]


The theory of embodied cognition, along with the multiple aspects it comprises, can be regarded as the imminent result of an intellectual skepticism towards the flourishment of the disembodied theory of mind put forth by René Descartes in the 17th century. According to Cartesian dualism, the mind is entirely distinct from the body and no aspect of the later is indispensable for a successful explanation of the former.[17]

Research has been done to identify the set of ideas that would establish what could be considered as the early stages of embodied cognition around inquiries regarding the mind-body-soul relation and vitalism in the German tradition from 1740 to 1920.[18] However, embodied cognition, as it is conceived nowadays, has a relatively short history.[19] We can trace back the intellectual underpinnings of embodied cognition to the influence of philosophy, and more specifically, the phenomenological tradition, psychology, and connectionism in the 20th century.

Phenomenologists such as Edmund Husserl (1850 – 1938), Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976), and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908 – 1962) were a great source of inspiration for what would later be known as the embodiment thesis. They stood up against the mechanistic and disembodied approach to the explanation of the mind by emphasizing the fact that there are aspects of our human experiences (consciousness, cognition) that cannot simply be explained by a model of the mind as computation of inner symbols. From a phenomenological standpoint, such aspects remain unaccountable if we deny the fact—as dualism does—that they “are deeply rooted in the physical nuts-and-bolts of the interacting agent”.[20] Maurice Merleau-Ponty in his Phenomenology of Perception (French: Phénoménologie de la perception), for example, rejects the cartesian idea that our primary mode of being in the world is “thinking” (English: I think, therefore I am, Latin: cogito ergo sum) and proposes corporeity (French: corporéité), that is, the body itself as the primary site for knowing the world, and perception as the medium and the pre-reflective foundation of experience.

“The body is the vehicle of being in the world, and having a body is, for a living creature, to be intervolved in a definite environment, to identify oneself with certain projects and be continually committed to them.” [21]

So stated, the body is the primary condition for experience, it “is my point of view upon the world” which opens up multiple possibilities for being, it “is a knot of living significations”.[21]

The appreciation of the phenomenological mindset allows us to not overlook the influence that phenomenology's speculative but systematic reflection on the mind-body-world relation had in the growth and development of the core ideas which embodied cognition comprises. From a phenomenological perspective “all cognition is embodied, interactive, and embedded in dynamically changing environments”.[22] These constitute the set of beliefs which proponents of embodied cognition such as Francisco Varela, Eleonor Rosch, and Evan Thompson will later on revise and seek to reintroduce in the scientific study of cognition.[23]

Ever since the late 20th century and recognizing the significant role the body plays for cognition, the embodied cognition theory has gained (an ever increasing) popularity, it has been the subject of multiple articles in different research areas, and the mainstream approach to what Shapiro and Spaulding call the “embodied make-over”.[22]

The scope of embodied cognition[edit]

Embodied cognition argues that several factors both internal and external (such as the body and the environment) play a role in the development of an agent's cognitive capacities, just as mental constructs (such as thoughts and desires) are said to influence an agent's bodily actions. For this reason, embodied cognition is considered as a wide-ranging research program, rather than a well-defined and unified theory.[24] A scientific approach to embodied cognition reaches, inspires, and brings together ideas from several research areas, each with its own take on embodiment yet in a joint effort to (methodically) investigate embodied cognition.

George Lakoff (a cognitive scientist and linguist) and his collaborators (including Mark Johnson, Mark Turner, and Rafael E. Núñez) have written a series of books promoting and expanding the thesis based on discoveries in cognitive science, such as conceptual metaphor and image schema.[25] Irina Trofimova around the same time experimentally confirmed the phenomena "projection through capacities", as a prototype of the embodiment theory [26]

Robotics researchers such as Rodney Brooks, Hans Moravec and Rolf Pfeifer have argued that true artificial intelligence can only be achieved by machines that have sensory and motor skills and are connected to the world through a body.[27] The insights of these robotics researchers have in turn inspired philosophers like Andy Clark and Horst Hendriks-Jansen.[28]

Neuroscientists Gerald Edelman, António Damásio and others have outlined the connection between the body, individual structures in the brain and aspects of the mind such as consciousness, emotion, self-awareness and will.[29] Biology has also inspired Gregory Bateson, Humberto Maturana, Francisco Varela, Eleanor Rosch and Evan Thompson to develop a closely related version of the idea, which they call enactivism.[30] The motor theory of speech perception proposed by Alvin Liberman and colleagues at the Haskins Laboratories argues that the identification of words is embodied in perception of the bodily movements by which spoken words are made.[31][32][33][34][35] In related work at Haskins, Paul Mermelstein, Philip Rubin, Louis Goldstein, and colleagues developed articulatory synthesis tools for computationally modeling the physiology and aeroacoustics of the vocal tract, demonstrating how cognition and perception of speech can be shaped by biological constraints. This was extended into the audio-visual domain by the "talking heads" approach of Eric Vatikiotis-Bateson, Rubin, and other colleagues.

Cognitive psychology[edit]


It is widely thought that when an internal representation of the outside world is activated somewhere in the brain, it leads to a perceptual experience. Although cortical maps do exist, they themselves cannot explain our subjective experience of perception.[36] For example, they cannot sufficiently explain the apparent stability of the visual world despite eye movements, the filling-in of the blind spot and “change blindness”, and other (supposed) visual defects.[36] From an embodied cognition perspective, perception is not a passive reception of sensory inputs. The brain interprets the input based on an individual's memory, emotion, and environment. Furthermore, perception does not simply take in input visual stimuli and outputs actions, but rather, it is influenced by bodily states and the interaction between an agent's body and the environment around it.

One example of such active interaction between perception and the body is the case that distance perception can be influenced by bodily states. The way we view the outside world can differ depending on the physical resources that individuals have such as fitness, age or glucose levels. For instance, in one study, people with chronic pain who are less capable of moving around perceived given distances as further than healthy people did.[37] Another study shows that intended actions can affect processing in visual search, with more orientation errors for pointing than for grasping.[38] Because orientation is important when grasping an object, the plan to grasp an object is thought to improve orientation accuracy.[38] This shows how actions, the body's interaction with the environment, can contribute to visual processing of task relevant information.

Perception also influences the perspective individuals take on a particular situation and the type of judgments they make. For instance, researchers have shown that people will significantly more likely take the perspective of another person (e.g., a person in a picture) instead of their own when making judgements about objects in a photograph. This means that the presence of people (as compared to only objects) in a visual scene affects the perspective a viewer takes when making judgements on, for example, relations between objects in the scene. Interestingly, researchers claim that these results suggest a “disembodied” cognition given the fact that people take the perspective of others instead of their own and make judgements accordingly.[citation needed]


Some researchers extend embodied cognition to include language.[39][40] They describe language as a tool that aids in broadening our sense of body.[40] For instance, when asked to identify “this” object, participants most often choose an object near to them.[40] Conversely, when asked to identify “that” object, participants choose an object further away from them.[40] Language allows us to distinguish between distances in more complex ways than the simple perceptual difference between near and far objects.[40]

The change in "relative phase shift" for different conditions in the study. Participants had a significantly larger change for "performable" sentences than "inanimate" sentences and swinging only.

The motor system is involved in language comprehension, in this case when sentences were performable by a human, there was a change in participants' overall movement of a pendulum.[41] Researchers performed an experiment in which college undergraduate participants swung a pendulum while completing a "sentence judgement task." Participants would swing the pendulum with both hands for 10 seconds before a prompt and then a sentence would appear on the screen until the participant responded. In the control condition, participants swung the pendulum without performing the "sentence judgement task." Each trial had half "plausible" and half "implausible" sentences. The "plausible" sentences made sense semantically, while the "implausible" ones did not. The "performable" sentences could be performed by a human, while the "inanimate" sentences could not. Participants responded by saying "yes" to the "plausible" sentences.[41]

Results show a significant "relative phase shift," or overall change in movement of the swinging pendulum, for the "performable" sentences.[41] This change did not occur for "inanimate" sentences or the control condition.[41] The researchers did not expect an overall phase shift, instead they expected a change in the variability of movement, or the "standard deviation of relative phase shift."[41] Although not entirely expected, these results support embodied cognition and show that the motor system is involved in the understanding of language.[41] The researchers suggest that the nature of this relationship needs to be further studied to determine the exact correlation this task has to bi-manual motor movements.[41]

Embodiment effects emerge in the way in which people of different sex and temperament perceive verbal material, such as common adjectives and abstract and neutral nouns. Trofimova, who first described this phenomenon in her experiments, called it "projection through capacities". This phenomenon emerges when people's lexical perception depends upon their capacities to handle the events; when their information processing registers mostly those aspects of objects or of a situation that they can properly react to and deal with according to their inherent capacities.[26][42][43] For example, in these studies males with stronger motor-physical endurance estimated abstractions describing people-, work/reality- and time-related concepts in more positive terms than males with a weaker endurance. Females with stronger social or physical endurance estimated social attractors in more positive terms than weaker females. Both male and female temperament groups with higher sociability showed a universal positive bias in their estimations of neutral words, especially for social and work/reality-related concepts, in comparison to participants with lower sociability. Capacities related to the tempo of activities also appeared to impact the perception of lexical material: men with faster motor-physical tempo estimated neutral, abstract time-related concepts significantly in more positive terms than men with slower tempo.


The body has an essential role in shaping the mind. So, the mind must be understood in the context of its relationship with a physical body that interacts in the world. These interactions can also be cognitive activities that we find in everyday life, such as driving, chatting, imagining the placement of items in a room. However, these cognitive activities are limited by memory capacity.[44] The relationships between memory and embodied cognition have been demonstrated in studies in different fields and through a variety of tasks. In general, studies on embodied cognition and memory investigate how manipulations on the body cause changes in memory performance, or vice versa, manipulations through memory tasks subsequently lead to bodily changes.[45] In one study, Glenberg drew attention to the relationship between memory and action in his embodied cognition approach. In particular, he defines memory as integrated patterns of action that are limited by the body. Embodied cognition sees action preparation as a fundamental function of cognition. Memory plays a role in tasks that do not occur in the present but involve remembering actions and information from the past and imagining events that may or may not happen in the future. Also, he states that there is a reciprocal relationship between memory, action and perception. That is, manipulations that can take place in the body or movement can lead to various changes in memory.[45][46]

In another study, Dijkstara and et al. investigated the influence of body position on ease of recall in an autobiographical memory study to examine the effect of embodied cognition on memory performance. In the study, participants were asked to take positions compatible or incompatible with their original body position of the remembered event during a recall event, and participants given compatible body positions compared to incompatible body positions showed faster responses in recalling memories during the experiment. Thus, researchers conclude that body position facilitates access to autobiographical memories.[45][47] In another research that emphasized the relationship between memory and body, Wilson explains that memory systems depend on the body's experiences with the world. This is particularly evident in episodic memory due to the fact that episodic memories in the episodic memory system are defined by their content and are remembered as experienced by the one who does the remembering.[44] Another study focused on the recalling of personal memories and embodied memory, Culbertson, evaluated embodied memory through the recalling of personal traumas and violent memories and reported that people who have experienced trauma or violence re-feel their experiences in their narratives throughout their lives. In addition, he emphasizes that memories that threaten the life of a person by having a direct effect on the body, such as injury and physical violence, create similar reactions again in the body whilst remembering the event. Similarly, Culbertson stated that he felt smells, sounds, and movements in some of the remembered memories from his childhood trauma memories. Then he proceeded to evaluate those memories and the corresponding physical and physiological phenomena associated with them through his own childhood memories. At the end, Culbertson pointed out that the set of memories to be recalled and brought back to memory are embodied.[48]

Wilson introduced new perspectives on the neural structure and memory processes underlying embodied cognition, episodic memory, recall, and recognition. As experiences are received, neural states are reenacted in systems of action, perception, and introspection. Perception includes sensory modalities, motor modalities include movement, and introspection includes emotional, mental, and motivational states. All of these modalities altogether constitute different aspects that shape our experiences. Therefore, cognitive processes applied to memory support the action that is appropriate for a particular situation, not by remembering what the situation is, but by remembering the relationship of the action to that situation.[44] For example, Bietti argues that remembering and identifying the party one attended the previous day is related to the body because the sensory-motor aspects of the event that is being recalled (i.e., the party), along with the details of what happened, are being reconstructed.[45][49]


Embodied cognition can give us an explanation about the process through which infants attain spatial knowledge and understanding.[50] Most infants learn to walk in the first 18 months of life, which draws on a lot of new opportunities for exploring things around them. For example, they may learn the affordance of “transportability” when they start exploring and carrying objects from place to place.[51] Thereafter, new phases in exploration may occur, and through these phases, children can discover other, even more elaborate affordances.[50] According to Eleanor Gibson's theory, exploration itself takes an essential place in the cognitive development. For example, infants explore whatever is in their vicinity by seeing, mouthing, or touching it before learning to reach to objects nearby. Then, infants learn to crawl, which enables them to seek out objects beyond reaching distance, but also to learn about basic spatial relations between themselves, objects and others including basic understanding of depth and distance.[50] Hence, through exploration, infants get to know the nature of the physical and social world around them. Achievement of motor skills seem to play a central rule as to visual spatial cognition.[50]

Ideas stemming from embodied cognition research have been applied to the field of learning. It has been shown that bodily activity can be used to enhance learning in several studies.[52] Research on embodied learning often utilizes educational technology in the form of virtual reality, mixed reality, or motion capture to transform learning activities into immersive experiences.[53] There are theoretical approaches that define the level of embodiment of these learning platforms based on factors such as their capabilities for immersion and sensorimotor activity.[54] Other theoretical systems analyze embodied learning in terms of the degree of bodily engagement and whether the embodiment is integrated into a learning task.[52]


A series of experiments demonstrated the interrelation between motor experience and high-level reasoning. For example, although most individuals recruit visual processes when presented with spatial problems such as mental rotation tasks[55] motor experts favor motor processes to perform the same tasks, with higher overall performance.[56] A related study showed that motor experts use similar processes for the mental rotation of body parts and polygons, whereas non-experts treated these stimuli differently.[57] These results were not due to underlying confounds, as demonstrated by a training study which showed mental rotation improvements after a one-year motor training, compared with controls.[58] Similar patterns were also found in working memory tasks, with the ability to remember movements being greatly disrupted by a secondary verbal task in controls and by a motor task in motor experts, suggesting the involvement of different processes to store movements depending on motor experience, namely verbal for controls and motor for experts.[59]


Table showing response times for the positive, negative, and neutral valence conditions in the approach and avoidance experiment. Participants were significantly faster for the "positive toward" condition regardless of the central word's valence.

Embodied cognition theories have provided rigorous accounts of emotion and the processing of information about emotion.[60][61] In this respect, experiencing and re-experiencing an emotion involve overlapping mental processes. When re-experiencing an emotion, through the interconnections of the neurons that were active during the original experience, a partial multimodal reenactment of the experience is produced.[62][63] One of the reasons why only parts of the original neural populations are reactivated is that attention is selectively focused on certain aspects of the experience that are most salient and important for the individual.

Re-experience of emotion is produced in the originally implicated sensory-motor systems, as if the individual were there in the very situation, the very emotional state, or with the very object of thought.[64] For example, the embodiment of anger might involve muscle tension used to strike, the enervation of certain facial muscles to frown, etc. Such simulation is backed by specialised “mirror neurons” or a “mirror neuron system,” which maps the correspondences between the observed and performed actions.[65] However, there is no consensus about the exact location of the mirror neurons, whether these neurons constitute a system, and whether there actually are mirror neurons.

According to Niedenthal's (2007) research, which causally examines how emotional information is processed and embodied emotions through stimulation of facial expressions and posture manipulations, embodied perspective applies particularly well to thinking about emotion.[65][66] Theories of embodiment propose that the processing of emotional concepts is partly based on one’s own perceptual, motor, and somatosensory systems.[67] For instance, Well & Petty showed that nodding the head while listening to persuasive messages led to more positive attitudes toward the message than shaking the head.[68] Duclos et al. led participants to adopt various bodily positions associated indirectly with fear, anger, and sadness and found that these postural states modulated experienced affect.[69]

A study focusing on the approach and avoidance effect on embodied cognition examined people moving positive and negative words presented on the center of a screen. And the results show that participants moved the presented positive words towards the center of the screen while moving the negative words away from the center of the screen. In other words, they showed an approach effect for positive words and avoidance effects for negative words.[70] In a recent study on emotional priming, the approach and avoidance task was used to demonstrate the interaction between emotions and visual exploration, after which pictures of news pages were presented to the computer screen and eye movements were measured from these. According to the research findings, the participants' harmonious bodily interaction during the emotional preparation process shows that their interest in the content of the image displayed on the computer screen increased. These findings show the effect of the approach and avoidance behavior in the emotional priming[71]


The basic idea underlying findings on embodied cognition is that cognition is composed of experiences that are multimodal and spread throughout the body, not in a way that amodal semantic nodes are stored purely in the mind. In line with this idea of embodied cognition, the body itself can also be involved in self-regulation.[72]

Self-regulation can be defined as the capacity of organisms to successfully implement goal-consistent responses despite distracting or countervailing influences.[73] Most people undergo a dilemma when they encounter immediate pains to gain long-term benefits.[74][75] When facing this dilemma, the body can help augment willpower by evoking nonconscious willpower-strengthening goals that boost people's ongoing conscious attempts to facilitate their pursuit of long-term goals.[72]

In a study, the effect of muscle-firming on donating money to Haiti was investigated. The participants either held the pen to fill out the donation sheet in their fingers (“control conditions”) or in their hand (“muscle-firming” condition). Significantly more participants of the “muscle-firming” group donated money than of the control group. One can therefore deduce that firming one's muscle can help to get over their physical aversion to viewing the devastation in Haiti and spend money.[72] Similarly, physical or environmental cues signal the energetic costs of action and, subsequently, influence willingness to engage in additional volitional action.[76] According to a set of studies by Shalev (2014),[77] exposure to physical or conceptual thirst or dryness-related cues reduces perceived energy and in turn, decreases self-regulation These studies suggest that embodied cognition can play a role in self-regulation.

Some suggest that the embodied mind serves self-regulatory processes by combining movement and cognition to reach a goal. Thus, the embodied mind has a facilitative effect. To navigate the social world, one must approach helpful resources such as friends and avoid dangers like foes. Facial expression can be a signal for evaluation whether a person is desirable or dangerous. While the emotional signal might be ambiguous, embodied cognition can aid in clarifying others’ emotions.[78] In a study by Niedenthal, Brauer, Halberstadt, & Innes-Ker (2001),[79] participants were able to identify expression shifts faster when they mimicked them in contrast to participants holding a pen in their mouths that froze their facial muscles, therefore, unable to mimic facial expressions. Other goal-relevant actions may be encouraged by embodied cognition, as evidenced by the automated approach and avoidance of certain environmental cues. Embodied cognition is also influenced by the situation. If one moves in a way previously associated with danger, the body may require a greater level of information processing than if the body moves in a way associated with a benign situation. The studies above may suggest that embodied cognition could serve a functional purpose by assisting in self-regulatory processes.

Social cognition[edit]

Results from a social embodied cognition study that illustrate the relationship between positive emotions, observed behavioural synchrony, and embodied rapport.[80]

In social psychology and, and more specifically in social cognition, research focuses on how people interact and influence one another. In the context of embodiment, research in social cognition investigates how the presence of people and the interactions with them affects thoughts, feelings and behaviour.[81] More precisely, social cognition in accordance with the embodiment thesis proposes that thoughts, feelings and behaviour are grounded in sensory experiences and bodily states.[82]

In the field of phenomenology, Merleau-Ponty's intercorporéité means that when meeting a person, one initially experiences the other person via his/her bodily expressions, which has an impact before cognitive reflections.[83] This phenomenon is investigated in social psychology and is known as nonverbal synchrony.[84] Synchrony during social interaction arises spontaneously and is often independent of conscious information processing.[85]

In a dyadic social interaction study by Tschacher et al. (2014), same-sex participants interacted verbally in cooperative, competitive and ‘fun task’ conditions. The focus of this study was to investigate the connection between the participants’ affectivity and nonverbal synchrony. Results showed that positive emotions were associated with positive synchrony while negative emotions were associated negatively. Furthermore, the findings point towards a causal relation between synchrony and emotions with synchrony leading to affect rather than vice versa.[84] In a similar study, same-sex participant pairs were instructed to alternate asking certain questions and to progressively self-disclose. Results show that people spontaneously move together in space and synchronize their movement which enhances the quality of interaction (embodied rapport). Self-disclosure and behavioural synchrony correlate with positive emotions towards another person.[80]

These two exemplary studies both revealed that nonverbal, behavioural synchrony of bodily movements influence the psychological experience of the interaction between two people. These findings support the embodiment thesis idea of bodily experiences influencing people's psychological and emotional states.

Evolutionary view[edit]

Embodied cognition may also be defined from the perspective of evolutionary psychologists.[86] Evolutionary psychologists view emotion as an important self-regulatory aspect of embodied cognition, and emotion as a motivator towards goal-relevant action.[86] Emotion helps drive adaptive behavior. The evolutionary perspective cites language, both spoken and written, as types of embodied cognition.[86] Pacing and non-verbal communication reflect embodied cognition in spoken language. Technical aspects of written language, such as italics, all caps, and emoticons promote an inner voice and thereby a sense of feeling rather than thinking about a written message.[86]

Cognitive science and linguistics[edit]

George Lakoff and his collaborators have developed several lines of evidence that suggest that people use their understanding of familiar physical objects, actions and situations (such as containers, spaces, trajectories) to understand other more complex domains (such as mathematics, relationships or death). Lakoff argues that all cognition is based on knowledge that comes from the body and that other domains are mapped onto our embodied knowledge using a combination of conceptual metaphor, image schema and prototypes.

Conceptual metaphor[edit]

Lakoff and Mark Johnson[87] showed that humans use metaphor ubiquitously and that metaphors operate at a conceptual level (i.e., they map one conceptual domain onto another), they involve an unlimited number of individual expressions and that the same metaphor is used conventionally throughout a culture. Lakoff and his collaborators have collected thousands of examples of conceptual metaphors in many domains.[87][88]

For example, people will typically use language about journeys to discuss the history and status of a love affair, a metaphor Lakoff and Johnson call "LOVE IS A JOURNEY". It is used in such expression as: "we arrived at a crossroads," "we parted ways", "we hit the rocks" (as in a sea journey), "she's in the driver's seat", or, simply, "we're together". These metaphors involving the concept of love are tied to the physical embodied experience of traveling and the emotions associated with a journey.

Image schema[edit]


Prototypes are "typical" members of a category, e.g. a robin is a prototypical bird, but a penguin is not. The role of prototypes in human cognition was first identified and studied by Eleanor Rosch in the 1970s.[89] She was able to show that prototypical objects are more easily categorized than non-prototypical objects, and that people answered questions about a category as a whole by reasoning about a prototype. She also identified basic level categories:[90] categories that have prototypes that are easily visualized (such as a chair) and are associated with basic physical motions (such as "sitting"). Prototypes of basic level categories are used to reason about more general categories.

Prototype theory has been used to explain human performance on many different cognitive tasks and in a large variety of domains. George Lakoff argues that prototype theory shows that the categories that people use are based on our experience of having a body and have no resemblance to logical classes or types. For Lakoff, this shows that traditional objectivist accounts of truth cannot be correct.[91]

A classic argument against embodiment in its strict form is based on abstract meaning. Whereas the meanings of the words ‘eye’ and ‘grasp’ can be explained, to a degree, by pointing to objects and actions, those of ‘beauty’ and ‘freedom’ cannot.[92] It may be that some common sensorimotor knowledge is immanent in freeing actions or instantiations of beauty, but it seems likely that additional semantic binding principles are behind such concepts. So might it be necessary, after all, to place abstract semantics in an amodal meaning system? A remarkable observation has recently been offered that may be of the essence in this context: abstract terms show an over-proportionally strong tendency to be semantically linked to knowledge about emotions.[93][94] This additional embodied–semantic link accounts for advantages in processing speed for abstract emotional terms over otherwise matched control words.[94] In addition, abstract words strongly activate anterior cingulate cortex, a site known to be relevant for emotion processing[95] Thus, it appears that at least some abstract words are semantically grounded in emotion knowledge.

If abstract emotion words indeed receive their meaning through grounding in emotion it is of crucial relevance[96][97] Therefore, the link between an abstract emotion word and its abstract concept is via manifestation of the latter in prototypical actions. The child learns an abstract emotion word such as 'joy' because it shows JOY-expressing action schemas, which language-teaching adults use as criteria for correct application of the abstract emotion word[95][96][97] Thus, the manifestation of emotions in actions becomes the crucial link between word use and internal state, and hence between sign and meaning. Only after a stock of abstract emotion words has been grounded in emotion-expressing action can further emotion terms be learnt from context.


The concept of embodiment theory has been inspired through research in cognitive neuroscience, such as the proposals of Gerald Edelman concerning how mathematical and computational models such as neuronal group selection and neural degeneracy result in emergent categorization. From a neuroscientific perspective, the embodied cognition theory examines the interaction of sensorimotor, cognitive and affective neurological systems. The embodied mind thesis is compatible with some views of cognition promoted in neuropsychology, such as the theories of consciousness of Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, Gerald Edelman, and Antonio Damasio.

Historically, the view of cognition inherited by most of contemporary cognitive neuroscience is internalist in nature. An agent's behaviour along with his capacity to maintain (an accurate) representation of the environment around him are the product of “powerful brains that can maintain the world models and devise plans”.[98] From this perspective, cognizing is something that an isolated brain does. In contrast, accepting the role the body plays during cognitive processes allows us to account for a more encompassing view of cognition. Successful behaviour in real-world scenarios demands the integration of several sensorimotor and cognitive (as well as affective) capacities of an agent. Thus, it is in the relationship between an agent and his environment, rather than in the brain alone, where cognition emerges.

By examining brain activity with neuroimaging techniques, researchers found indications supporting the embodiment thesis. In an Electroencephalography (EEG) study, researchers showed, in line with the embodied cognition, sensorimotor contingency and common coding theses, that sensory and motor processes in the brain are not sequentially separated but are strongly coupled.[99] Considering the interaction of the sensorimotor and cognitive system, Rohrer (2005) stresses how crucial sensorimotor cortices are for semantic comprehension of body-action terms and sentences.[100] A functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study by Hauk et al. (2004) showed that passively read action words, such as lick, pick or kick, led to a somatotopic neuronal activity in or adjacent to brain regions associated with actual movement of the respective body parts.[101] Using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), Buccino et al. (2005) revealed that the activity of the motor system is coupled to auditory action-related sentences. When the participants listened to hand- or foot-related sentences, the motor evoked potentials (MEPs) recorded from the hand and foot muscles were reduced.[102] These two exemplary studies indicate a relationship between cognitively understanding words referring to sensorimotor concepts and activation of sensorimotor cortices. Neuroimaging techniques therefore serve to show interactions of the sensory and motor system.

Next to neuroimaging studies, behavioural studies point towards the embodied cognition theory. Abstract higher cognitive concepts such as the “importance” of an object or an issue also seem to stand in relation to the sensorimotor system. People estimate objects to be heavier when they are told that they are important / hold important information in contrast to unimportant information.[103] From another perspective, more importance is assigned to decision-making procedures when people are, at the same time, holding heavier clipboards.[104] In the sense of embodied cognition, the authors Jostmann et al. (2009) [104] theorise that physical effort invested in objects leads to more cognitive effort when dealing with abstract concepts.

The modeling work of cognitive neuroscientists such as Francisco Varela and Walter Freeman seeks to explain embodied and situated cognition in terms of dynamical systems theory and neurophenomenology, but rejects the idea that the brain uses representations to do so (a position also espoused by Gerhard Werner).

All in all, multiple methods such as neuroimaging techniques, behavioural experiments and dynamical models can be employed to support and further investigate from a neuroscientific perspective the embodied cognition thesis.

Sensorimotor Contingencies[edit]

As a part of the theory of embodied cognition, the concept of sensorimotor contingencies (SMCs) claims that the quality of perception is determined by the knowledge of how sensory information changes when one acts in the world. As an example, to look underneath an object, one has to bend down, shift one's head and change the gaze direction.[105] Every stimulus modality / sensory modality such as light, sound pressure, etc. follow specific rules, i.e. sensorimotor contingencies,[106] that govern those changes of sensory information. Consequentially, since those rules differ between modalities, also the qualitative experience of them differ. An instance of a SMC distinct for the visual percept is the expansion of the flow pattern on the retina when the body moves forward and the analogue contraction when the body moves backwards.[106] Auditory SMCs are affected by head rotations which change the temporal asynchrony of a received signal between the right and the left ear. This movement mainly affects the amplitude but not the frequency of the sensory input.[106] These examples highlight differences between SMCs of different modalities.

Support for this theory of sensorimotor contingencies is brought forward by studies on sensory substitution, sensory augmentation and by the field of robotics. Research on sensory substitution and sensory substitution devices examine the replacement of one modality by another (e.g. visual information replaced by tactile information [107]). Sensorimotor contingencies of one modality are therefore transmitted via another modality. Sensory augmentation aims for the perception of a new sense via already existing perceptual channels. In the case of sensory augmentation, new sensorimotor contingencies are formed. In the field of robotics, one can investigate how visual SMCs are learned on a neural level with the help of a robotic arm and dynamic neural fields.[108]

Artificial intelligence and robotics[edit]

History of artificial intelligence[edit]

The experience of AI research provides another line of evidence supporting the embodied mind thesis. In the early history of AI successes in programming high-level reasoning tasks such as chess-playing led to an unfounded optimism that all AI problems would be relatively quickly solved. These programs simulated intelligence using logic and high-level abstract symbols (an approach called Good old-fashioned AI). This "disembodied" approach ran into serious difficulties in the 1970s and 80s, as researchers discovered that abstract, disembodied reasoning was highly inefficient and could not achieve human-levels of competence on many simple tasks.[109] Funding agencies (such as DARPA) withdrew funding because the field of AI had failed to achieve its stated objectives, leading to difficult period now known as the "AI winter". Many AI researchers began to doubt that high level symbolic reasoning could ever perform well enough to solve simple problems.

Rodney Brooks argued in the mid-80s that these symbolic approaches were failing because researchers did not appreciate the importance of sensorimotor skills to intelligence in general, and applied these principals to robotics (an approach he called "Nouvelle AI"). Another successful new direction was neural networks—programs based on the actual structures within human bodies that gave rise to intelligence and learning. In the 90s, statistical AI achieved high levels of success in industry without using any symbolic reasoning, but instead using probabilistic techniques to make "guesses" and improve them incrementally. This process is similar to the way human beings are able to make fast, intuitive choices without stopping to reason symbolically.

Moravec's paradox[edit]

Moravec's paradox is the discovery by artificial intelligence and robotics researchers that, contrary to traditional assumptions, high-level reasoning requires very little computation, but low-level sensorimotor skills require enormous computational resources. The principle was articulated by Hans Moravec (whence the name) and others in the 1980s.

As Moravec writes:

Encoded in the large, highly evolved sensory and motor portions of the human brain is a billion years of experience about the nature of the world and how to survive in it. The deliberate process we call reasoning is, I believe, the thinnest veneer of human thought, effective only because it is supported by this much older and much powerful, though usually unconscious, sensorimotor knowledge. We are all prodigious olympians in perceptual and motor areas, so good that we make the difficult look easy. Abstract thought, though, is a new trick, perhaps less than 100 thousand years old. We have not yet mastered it. It is not all that intrinsically difficult; it just seems so when we do it.[110]

Approach to artificial intelligence[edit]

Solving problems of perception and locomotion directly[edit]

Many artificial intelligence researchers have argued that a machine may need a human-like body to think and speak as well as a human being. As early as 1950, Alan Turing wrote:

It can also be maintained that it is best to provide the machine with the best sense organs that money can buy, and then teach it to understand and speak English. That process could follow the normal teaching of a child. Things would be pointed out and named, etc. (Turing, 1950).[111]

Embodiment theory was brought into artificial intelligence most notably by Rodney Brooks who showed in the 1980s that robots could be more effective if they 'thought' (planned or processed) and perceived as little as possible. The robot's intelligence is geared towards only handling the minimal amount of information necessary to make its behavior be appropriate and/or as desired by its creator.

Others have argued for including the architecture of the human brain, and embodiment: otherwise we cannot accurately replicate language acquisition, comprehension, production, or non-linguistic actions.[112] They suggest that while robots are unlike humans, they could benefit from strengthened associative connections in their optimization. Also robots could improve through reactivity and sensitivity to environmental stimuli, human-machine interaction, multisensory integration and linguistic input.[112]

The embodied approach to AI has been given several names by different schools of researchers, including: Nouvelle AI (Brooks' term), Situated AI, Behavior based AI and Embodied cognitive science.


Research on embodied cognition is extremely broad, covering a wide range of concepts. Methods to study how our cognition is embodied vary from experiment to experiment based on the operational definition used by researchers. There is much evidence for this embodiment, although interpretation of results and their significance may be disputed. Researchers continue to search for the best way to study and interpret the theory of embodied cognition.[113]

Infants as examples[edit]

Some[114] criticize the notion that pre-verbal children provide an ideal channel for studying embodied cognition, especially embodied social cognition.[115] It may be impossible to know when a pre-verbal infant is a "pure model" of embodied cognition, since infants experience dramatic changes in social behavior throughout development.[114] A 9-month old has reached a different developmental stage than a 2-month old. Looking-time and reaching measures of embodied cognition may not represent embodied cognition since infants develop object permanence of objects they can see before they develop object permanence with objects they can touch.[114] True embodied cognition suggests that children would have to first physically engage with an object to understand object permanence.[114]

The response to this critique is that infants are "ideal models" of embodied cognition.[115] Infants are the best models because they utilize symbols less than adults do.[115] Looking-time could likely be a better measure of embodied cognition than reaching because infants have not developed certain fine motor skills yet.[115] Infants may first develop a passive mode of embodied cognition before they develop the active mode involving fine motor movements.[115]


Some criticize the conclusions made by researchers about embodied cognition.[116] The pencil-in-teeth study is frequently cited as an example of these invalidly drawn conclusions. The researchers believed that the quicker responses to positive sentences by participants engaging their smiling muscles represented embodied cognition.[117] However, opponents argue that the effects of this exercise were primed or facilitated by the engagement of certain facial muscles.[116] Many cases of facilitative movements of the body may be incorrectly labeled as evidence of embodied cognition.[116]

Six views of embodied cognition[edit]

The following "Six Views of Embodied Cognition" are taken from Margaret Wilson:[118][119]

  1. "Cognition is situated. Cognitive activity takes place in the context of a real-world environment, and inherently involves perception and action." One example of this is moving around a room while, at the same time, trying to decide where the furniture should go.
  2. "Cognition is time-pressured. We are 'mind on the hoof' (Clark, 1997), and cognition must be understood in terms of how it functions under the pressure of real-time interaction with the environment." When you're under pressure to make a decision, the choice that is made emerges from the confluence of pressures that you're under. In the absence of pressure, a decision may be made differently.
  3. "We off-load cognitive work onto the environment. Because of limits on our information-processing abilities (e.g., limits on attention and working memory), we exploit the environment to reduce the cognitive workload. We make the environment hold or even manipulate information for us, and we harvest that information only on a need-to-know basis." This is seen when people have calendars, agendas, PDAs, or anything to help them with everyday functions. We write things down so we can use the information when we need it, instead of taking the time to memorize or encode it into our minds.
  4. "The environment is part of the cognitive system. The information flow between mind and world is so dense and continuous that, for scientists studying the nature of cognitive activity, the mind alone is not a meaningful unit of analysis." This statement means that the production of cognitive activity does not come from the mind alone, but rather is a mixture of the mind and the environmental situation that we are in. These interactions become part of our cognitive systems. Our thinking, decision-making, and future are all impacted by our environmental situations.
  5. "Cognition is for action. The function of the mind is to guide action and things such as perception and memory must be understood in terms of their contribution to situation-appropriate behavior." This claim has to do with the purpose of perception and cognition. For example, visual information is processed to extract identity, location, and affordances (ways that we might interact with objects). A prominent anatomical distinction is drawn between the "what" (ventral) and "where" (dorsal) pathways in visual processing. However, the commonly labeled "where" pathway is also the "how" pathway, at least partially dedicated to action.
  6. "Off-line cognition is body-based. Even when decoupled from the environment, the activity of the mind is grounded in mechanisms that evolved for interaction with the environment – that is, mechanisms of sensory processing and motor control." This is shown with infants or toddlers best. Children utilize skills and abilities they were born with, such as sucking, grasping, and listening, to learn more about the environment. The skills are broken down into five main categories that combine sensory with motor skills, sensorimotor functions. The five main skills are:
    1. Mental Imagery: Is visualizing something that is not currently present in your environment. For example, imagining a future activity, or recalling how many windows are on the first floor of a house you once lived in (even though you did not count them explicitly while living there).
    2. Working Memory: Short-term memory
    3. Episodic Memory: Long-term memory of specific events.
    4. Implicit Memory: means by which we learn certain skills until they become automatic for us. An example of this would be an adult brushing his/her teeth, or an expert race car driver putting the car in drive.
    5. Reasoning and Problem-Solving: Having a mental model of something will increase problem-solving approaches.

Criticism of the six claims[edit]

Margaret Wilson adds: "Some authors go so far as to complain that the phrase 'situated cognition' implies, falsely, that there also exists cognition that is not situated (Greeno & Moore, 1993, p. 50)."[120] Of her six claims, she notes in her abstract, "the first three and the fifth claim appear to be at least partially true, and their usefulness is best evaluated in terms of the range of their applicability. The fourth claim, I argue, is deeply problematic. The sixth claim has received the least attention, but it may in fact be the best documented and most powerful of the six claims."[121]

See also[edit]


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