Don't ignore your gut: The 'Four E's' of embodied cognition
I think and compare, see with a feeling eye, feel with a seeing hand. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
This article is in response to an interview between cognitive scientist John Vervaeke and psychiatrist, neuroscientist and author of The Master and his Emissary, Iain McGilchrist. You can watch the full interview here
Have you ever had a ‘feeling’ about something where you just knew, but didn't know how? Or felt a deep understanding or affinity for a piece of music or art that you couldn’t quite explain? A lot of our intuitive and emotional reactions to experiences are like weather patterns in our bodies - unconscious, willful and with a significant impact on how we consciously pay attention to the world. So many of our phrases for emotions; ‘they rose within me’, ‘I lost control, ‘I was swept away’, speak to a sense of these processes having a will of their own and one that has more of an impact on our conscious thought than we realise.
Over the last ten years there has been an exponential increase in the amount of research into embodied cognition. Embodied cognition is a way of conceptualising how we think and make decisions, a shift away from the predominant, and restrictive, way of viewing thought as only specific to the brain. The movement of embodied cognition is a way of viewing thinking that is grounded not only in the biology of the brain, but also from the feedback of our bodily sensations, our connection to nature and the influence of our social environment.
The importance of serotonin in understanding ‘thinking’
When considering how thinking is shaped not only by our brain, but by our body, it is important to consider the role of serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, a chemical that transmits signals between neurons in the central nervous system, and is critical to the regulation of virtually all brain function. Dysregulation of serotonin function has been implicated in major depressive disorder along with other mental illnesses, with most antidepressant drugs working by increasing the amount of serotonin in the brain. It is difficult to find a human behaviour that is not modulated by serotonin, with it responsible for regulating mood and emotional responses, perception, attention and memory, and our attitudes to rewards like food and sex.
The interesting thing about serotonin is that the vast majority of it is found outside of the brain. In fact up to 90% of all serotonin in the body is found in the gut, and this network is so extensive that scientists have referred to the gut as the “second-brain”. Often used phrases “I feel it in my gut” or “I have butterflies” in my stomach are not superstitious nonsense, but a critical factor in what drives our cognition. That intuitive feeling of ‘something’s not right’, a feeling that we can’t explain but which we feel, may have a significant amount to do with the distribution of serotonin in the digestive system.
This hypothesis is supported by research conducted on mice in 2017, which discovered that serotonin played a key role in behavioural and cognitive flexibility, something the researchers called ‘reversal learning’. Reversal learning can be thought of as the ability to change a course of action, when something in the environment changes, i.e when something no longer feels right.
An example of this process malfunctioning, would be someone with low serotonin levels who is unable to adjust their ways of thinking after being made redundant. This inflexibility leads them to ruminate over and over on the fact they were made redundant, leading to a spiral of negative thinking and self criticism. Someone with higher serotonin levels may have had more flexibility in their response and instead of ruminating, re-framed the way they view the situation, taking a new course of action like volunteering their time, or re-enrolling at university.
Of course our analytical reasoning and conceptual development happens in the most highly evolved parts of the brain, but they are built on a foundation of non-verbal, intuitive processes that begin in the body.
The Four E’s of Cognition
Embodied - The body
Our bodies are the seat of our intuition, our understanding. Whilst the mind is the centre of our intellect, our knowing.
Historically the body has been viewed as unimportant to the understanding of the mind, even as an impediment to this understanding. Religious ideas of the body as something base, even sinister; with its many temptations being a barrier to salvation, have been common across many religions and philosophical thought for thousands of years. The French philosopher René Descartes was so suspect of any physical experiences, including that of his own body, he decided the only thing we could be sure of are our thoughts. For most of Western philosophical history the body has been something to be overcome, to be tamed by the mind, as though it were separate from the body.
Without the body we would be unable to think. The brain is our seat of conscious experience, however the vast majority of what the brain does and processes is occluded from our conscious awareness. The amount of information that our body takes in from our broader environment, is the input that the brain uses to conceptualise an understanding of the world and to ignite actions within it. Our appetites for food and sex, what draws our attention, our emotional responses, all of these take place from within the body via a complex network of sensory inputs, neurotransmitter chemicals and hormones, long before our rational mind interprets these experiences.
Our bodies then can be seen as the seat of intuition, of our understanding, whilst our mind is the centre of our intellect, of our knowing. A sense of understanding in this context is our visceral, non-verbal intuition of something that we have sensed, without applying a consciousness judgement of how this fits in with our existing knowledge. An example of this is a mother responding to her child’s cries in a specific way as she understands what the needs of the child are, without necessarily knowing what these needs are. Our sense of knowing then grows out of an initial understanding of the problem. After tending to the child, over time the mother develops a knowledge of what a particular cry entails and so develops more of a conscious response.
The opposite of this is the practice of a physical skill, something like playing the piano. At first, there is a requirement to consciously attend to each specific element of this skill, a sustained focus on which key represents what note, on how these keys combine to create a chord and how these chords create a tune. Over time as this skill is continually practiced, these actions become more natural, and with increasing proficiency the action of playing the piano becomes more and more devoid of conscious attention, in fact conscious attention may even disrupt the ‘flow’ of playing. At this point the skill of playing the piano has essentially become embodied, and it is as though the body is almost channelling the music that has been learned through conscious practice.
Embedded - The environment
Inanimate objects in the world can serve as symbols that jog our memory
The materialist view of the brain is that it must be explainable by the principles of nature. This view is extended by those proponents of embodied cognition, stating that cognition is embedded and shaped by the environment in which we grew up and live. In connection to the above point, our cognition is shaped by the natural environment we are faced with, and what the sensory input of our bodies gleans from this environment. An example of this is how the cognition of two people, one in Iceland and one in Thailand, are likely to be very different based on their experiences of navigating their environments. The skills required to be learnt, and therefore the ways of thinking that need to be utilised in order to develop these skills.
We are often able to remember more effectively by using our bodies and parts of our surrounding environment to ‘offload’ storage and simplify the processing required. Essentially we map our memories onto elements in the environment, with those elements serving to remind us of what we need to remember when we see them again. Simple examples of this relate to something that psychologists call context effects, which involved experiments relating to test performance of college students. These experiments showed that those who took the test in their regular, weekly lecture hall performed better than those who took the test in a new venue. It is believed that visual cues in the regular lecture hall provided memory cues for specific information that had been learned throughout the semester, aiding recall.
Essentially this is an example of the representation of knowledge in symbolic form. We imbue meaning onto parts of our environment, almost unconsciously, and this allows us to build sophisticated structures of references and understanding. Out of its context a clock in a lecture hall is just an object, however within the context of a lecture hall, during class, the clock may serve as a reminder to a student of a particular piece of information, jogging their memory.
Extended - The Social World
"It is as if the other person's intentions inhabited my body and mine his."
Our cognition does not develop in a vacuum, or a ‘black box’ as the arch priest of behavioural psychology, B.F.Skinner referred to the brain. Our cognition is shaped by the social environments we inhabit, in fact it is almost dependent on the social environment we exist within. The social environment and our cognition are reciprocal exchanges between us and the groups we are a part of. Our ways of thinking are shaped by family members, educational institutions, work, friends, sexual partners; sculpted by the millions of gestures, actions, words and emotions of the individuals we spend our time with.
The discovery of mirror neurons by Giacomo Rizzolatti and Laila Craighero in 2004 was a major breakthrough in neuroscience. This finding represented a paradigm shift for our understanding of cognition and in particular the understanding of the mechanisms for empathy, imitation and language. The paper showed that mirror neurons in the brain ‘fire’ in the same way for an observer of an action, as though the observer had performed the action themselves. This finding was empirical evidence for a statement by the French phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty who stated, whilst talking about the reciprocal nature of communication, that “it is as if the other person’s intentions inhabited my body and mine his”.
The implication of this finding was that it showed how fundamental empathy is to our ability to learn and think via the imitation of others in our social environment. Something that is also critical for language development and production. Without empathy, we are unable to understand another person's emotional state, meaning that we are unable to develop lasting social relationships. Without the ability to imitate than we would never have been able to learn from one another. A child learns to walk and talk not by thinking abstractly about the concept of language or movement, but by attempting to be like those they hear and see around them.
Enacted - Our actions
So often when we are stuck for a word, we gesticulate wildly with a hand, almost as though we were physically grasping for the word that escapes us.
An interesting way of thinking about how our thinking is enacted and how action supports thinking is by understanding gestures when we talk. In multiple studies, gestures have been shown to aid in the recall of information, particularly detailed visual memory, or memory about particular locations. The way that gesture can aid in the recall of working memory then helps in the production of speech itself.
We think as much with our hands as we do with our minds. So often when we are stuck for a word, we gesticulate wildly with a hand, almost as though we were physically grasping for the word that escapes us. This notion of grasping is critical to understanding how action and thinking are symbiotically linked. The German’s have a word for all meaningful, goal-directed activity called Handeln, which relates to an individual acting in the world, but also refers to more abstract notions of mental thought. This word of course is derived from where we get the word hand from and relates to our ability to manipulate our environment, to acquire things, including acquiring concepts, which is why we say we have “grasped'' something once we understand it.
Much of the purpose of our thinking is to put thoughts into action. One of the key benefits of cognitive behavioural therapy, still the dominant form of psychotherapy sanctioned by most Western health systems and governments, focuses on how your actions can shape your patterns of thought. Clinical depression is often preceded by a life event that leads to a period of withdrawal, isolation and inactivity, and the premise of behavioural therapy is that new ways of thinking can be ‘enacted’ by changing patterns of behaviour. These patterns of behaviour, remove the individual from their isolation, exposing them to activities that bring enjoyment and connection with other people. This activity removes the self-directed gaze of rumination, bringing us back into embodied movement and an extension beyond ourselves back into the social and outside world. The feedback from these actions are what allows us to update our mental representations of what we understand to be the world and how the world works, whilst also enabling us to develop patterns of thinking that emanate from these new frames of reference.
Bringing it all together
The brain is not a black box pulling the levers on the rest of the body. The brain is the conductor of an orchestra, a body of instruments whose reverberations are influenced by the actions within the environment around them. The brain is our seat of conscious experience and where all our high level reasoning and abstraction takes place, however these mental parts of us that we rightly celebrate do not take place in a vacuum. Our ability to reason is critically dependent on the intuitive, unconscious and non-verbal understanding that comes from the body and its entanglement with the wider world. We appear to often have an intuitive understanding of something long before we develop conscious knowledge and it is critical to remember that this knowledge is built on this foundation of unconscious processes. A hyper-rational way of thinking that ignores intuition is a half-blind way of looking at the world, one that only values abstractions over the importance of context. The embodied cognition movement has major implications for how we view the world and is a promising avenue for developing a more holistic understanding of the mind, an understanding that is built from the body.