Which embodied cognition?

Andrew Gelman has a post up noting that the upcoming APS conference will feature a Presidential Symposium on embodied cognition (“Sense and Sensibility: How Our Bodies Do – and Don’t – Shape Our Minds”). He’s troubled by the inclusion of Amy Cuddy, whose work on “power posing” has not held up well to replication attempts, and whose co-author has questioned the findings and the methods used.

It’s worth noting, however, that research on what is called “embodied cognition” encompasses some very different approaches and assumptions.

One view, closely related to priming, focuses on the effects of bodily cues on thinking, often non-consciously and often via metaphors.  This kind of research suggests, for example, that people holding a heavy clipboard would find the information more important (e.g, conflating physical weight with the metaphor of “weighty information”).

Another view is based more on an association between mental states and bodily states, so that the things we do as a response to a mental state can then also independently cause that mental state.  The classic example here is the idea that inducing or preventing a smile-like facial expression can increase or reduce feelings of happiness.  Cuddy’s hypotheses fall within this framework.

A third view is based on the observation that we use our bodies when engaging in abstract reasoning. Behaviors like gesturing when speaking, doing mathematics using an abacus, or sign-language all involve physical hand movements in mental reasoning processes. The idea is that over time, those physical movements then become an important part of the reasoning process. Kids who learn math on the abacus, for example, will make abacus-like hand movements even when doing mental arithmetic, and some research suggests that encouraging the use of gesture helps children learn mental arithmetic.

The concerns about non-replication have been focused on findings in the first two areas, as far as I know (e.g., here and here).  That could be because findings in those areas were more dramatic and got a lot more press and replicator attention, or because the findings supporting the third view are actually more robust.

I will say that the third view accords with my own experience in a way that the first two don’t.  I have moderate right-left confusion. I often make mistakes when I need to say “right” or “left”, which is a problem when I’m a passenger giving directions.  I find that I’m a lot more accurate if I point physically, rather than try to say it verbally.  So, the physical movement actually seems to help with a conceptual task, at least in my case.

Getting back to the APS session, it’s worth noting that several of the speakers in the session study what I’ve called the third kind of embodied cognition (gestures and sign language). This area of research actually has a long history, predating the more attention-getting recent stuff. Sometimes when more speculative findings in an area don’t hold up, the reaction is to then throw out related findings, even those that make more sense. If this session is a step towards the field sorting through which theories have more or less empirical support, debating when bodily states do and don’t impact thinking, and mapping out a sensible way forward, that would be a good thing.


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