The brain is often envisioned as something like a computer, and the body as its all-purpose tool. But a growing body of new research suggests that something more collaborative is going on - that we think not just with our brains, but with our bodies.
by Drake Bennett - Boston.com
WHEN YOU READ something confusing, or work a crossword puzzle, or try to remember where you put your keys, what do you do with your body? Do you sit? Do you stand? Do you pace? Do you do anything with your hands? Do you move your eyes in a particular pattern?
The brain is often envisioned as something like a computer, and the body as its all-purpose tool. But a growing body of new research suggests that something more collaborative is going on - that we think not just with our brains, but with our bodies. A series of studies, the latest published in November, has shown that children can solve math problems better if they are told to use their hands while thinking. Another recent study suggested that stage actors remember their lines better when they are moving. And in one study published last year, subjects asked to move their eyes in a specific pattern while puzzling through a brainteaser were twice as likely to solve it.
The term most often used to describe this new model of mind is "embodied cognition," and its champions believe it will open up entire new avenues for understanding - and enhancing - the abilities of the human mind. Some educators see in it a new paradigm for teaching children, one that privileges movement and simulation over reading, writing, and reciting. Specialists in rehabilitative medicine could potentially use the emerging findings to help patients recover lost skills after a stroke or other brain injury. The greatest impact, however, has been in the field of neuroscience itself, where embodied cognition threatens age-old distinctions - not only between brain and body, but between perceiving and thinking, thinking and acting, even between reason and instinct - on which the traditional idea of the mind has been built.
"It's a revolutionary idea," says Shaun Gallagher, the director of the cognitive science program at the University of Central Florida. "In the embodied view, if you're going to explain cognition it's not enough just to look inside the brain. In any particular instance, what's going on inside the brain in large part may depend on what's going on in the body as a whole, and how that body is situated in its environment."
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.
But today, neuroscientists, linguists, and philosophers are making much bolder claims. A few argue that human characteristics like empathy, or concepts like time and space, or even the deep structure of language and some of the most profound principles of mathematics, can ultimately be traced to the idiosyncrasies of the human body. If we didn't walk upright, for example, or weren't warm-blooded, they argue, we might understand these concepts totally differently. The experience of having a body, they argue, is intimately tied to our intelligence.
"If you want to teach a computer to play chess, or if you want to design a search engine, the old model is OK," says Rolf Pfeifer, director of the artificial intelligence lab at the University of Zurich, "but if you're interested in understanding real intelligence, you have to deal with the body." READ MORE
Photo: René Descartes' illustration of mind/body dualism