Embodied cognition and symbolism

This is another post about symbolism and metaphor. The area that I will be discussing today is the area of embodied cognition. For our purposes it is the psychological idea that aspects of cognition are shaped by aspects of and actions of the body. How did I start reading about this topic. Well three different things really.

The first was when I was preparing about symbols and the unconscious for an Open Learning talk. As part of that preparation I read Imagination and the Meaningful Brain by Arnold H. Modell. In that book there is a whole chapter entitled ‘Corporeal Imagination’ in which the origins metaphors in all languages are connected to aspects of body, its sensations and functions. He has Giambattista Vico as saying ‘it is noteworthy that the greater part of the expressions relating to inanimate things are formed by metaphor from the human body and its parts and from the human senses and passions’.

He also talked about metaphor as being not simply a figure of speech but primarily a mode of thought.

The second thing that piqued my interest in this area was a brief piece on how baths can reduces our feelings of loneliness. It suggested that there was research to support the idea that the areas dealing with physical and social warmth were in some ways associated processes. It also suggested that lonelier you are the longer the bath you need to take to achieve the same ameliorating effect.


This brief look at the beneficial effects of bathing brought me onto further metaphors. There is, for example, a metaphorical link between physical and moral cleanliness (e.g., ‘‘a clean conscience’’). Researchers found have found, inter alia, that cleaning one’s hands with soap or an antiseptic wipe can alleviate the guilt of moral transgressions (Zhong &Liljenquist, 2006) and influence one’s moral judgment (Schnall, Benton, & Harvey, 2008a; Schnall, Harber, Stefanucci, & Proffitt, 2008b).

The third thing that interested me in this area of embodied Cognition were the lectures of Robert Sapolsky (Highly recommend them -Lots of information – Everything from Hyena clitoral erections and IKEA ads to Serial killers and Huntington’s Chorea . It is an entire lecture series on Human Behavioural Biology on youtube and in it he talks at length about the area of embodied cognition. I suppose one of the things that is so interesting about this area, more generally, is the idea that the brains processes are more universal and interrelated than we at first conceive of them. This ties into another area that I have read about which essentially says that not only are the senses informed by one another but that they might be influenced by mood. Peripheral vision, for example, actually improves with mood.


In David Eagleman’s book – Incognito – The Secret Lives of the Brain he discusses some of the overlap between the senses. He discusses, for example, The McGurk effect which relates to the effect whereby when the sound of the syllable (ba) is synchronized with a video of lip movements mouthing a different syllable (ga), it produces the powerful illusion that a third syllable (da) is being produced. Additionally there is the flash effect whereby a flashed spot is accompanied by two beeps it appears to flash twice. He links this to another phenomenon called ‘auditory driving’ in which the apparent rate of a flickering light is driven faster or slower by an accompanying beeping sound presented at a different rate.

Returning to embodied cognition though for a moment there are some other interesting pieces of research to be mentioned. There is, as alluded to earlier, a link between physical and social temperature. B.P. Meier, et al, (2012) found that participants in a study perceived others as ‘warmer’ after they held a warm rather than a cold cup of coffee. Other research has suggested that the people experience a room as physically colder after having been socially rejected.


(Meier, Schnall, Schwartz and Bargh, ‘Embodiment in Social Psychology’, (2012) Topics in Cognitive Science 1-12)


Zajonc, Pietromanco and Bargh (1982) discovered that chewing gum while viewing faces interfered with participants’ ability to remember faces because they were unable to properly mimic the faces they were seeing in order to better remember the faces.

It is interesting to note the interrelationship between not only different concepts within brain but the shared structures. The anterior cingulate seems to be involved in many pain and possibly error correction and modulations processes.The way in which we experience pain is similarly looped and interrelated. One of the areas that deals with pain in the brain is the anterior cingulate . Is the same area which activates when we see others in pain. It is involved in our empathy but also suggests that there is a relationship between our own pain and others pain actually becoming real pain for us. Additionally the brain does not carefully distinguish between emotional and physical pain. This is why paracetemol, an analgesic, has been found to be useful in reducing the emotional pain of social rejection.


The putamen insula an area of the brain dealing with disgust surrounding rotting food and various forms of disgust at rancid and filthy things is also involved in processes of moral judgment. This explains why a lot of the metaphors and turns of phrase relating to moral turpitude are inspired by disgust at food, etc. Bad things ‘turn your stomach’, etc.

Margaret Wilson’s work on embodied cognition is interesting to mention.


In the article of the above link she outlines 6 views of embodied cognition. One of the suggestions, that we offload cognitive work onto the environment, is very interesting too. She talks about an area which she refers to as symbolic off-loading.


She suggests that it need not be deliberate or formalized. It can be universal and automatic behaviours such as gesturing while speaking. Her fourth view is entitled ‘The environment is part of the cognitive system’. This is an interesting one because I think that with trauma both emotional (as discussed by Modell) and physical trauma (Like Kurt Goldstein’s patients of WW1 as mentioned in several of Rollo May’s books)it peels back a few layers and exposes some cognition which would otherwise be off limits to us.


If we take Kurt Golstein’s patient’s for example, who had lost chunks of their brains in WWI combat, they have difficulty transcending their immediate concrete surroundings. They become profoundly uncomfortable and must keep their environments perfectly tidy and organized. When asked to sign their name on a piece of paper they just take up a small corner of the page. Robert Sapolsky when discussing Schizophrenia talks, similarly, about this inability to transcend the immediate concrete situation. He talks about this inability to deal with any level of abstraction and super-literalness using the example of a WW2 poster. Another of Margaret Wilson’s listed views on embodied cognition seems relevant here.

She suggests that off-line cognition, as opposed to on-line cognition (which is cognition that relates to immediate inputs from our environment and Here-And-Now tasks), is body based. This might suggest that disorders which interfere with on-line cognition might expose the nature of the off-line cognition which would include a focus on the body and concrete environment.

These posters contain the well known phrase ‘loose lips, sink ships’ and the idea is that not being cautious with information in correspondence might allow the enemy to obtain information and undermine the war effort. Give this to a Schizophrenic though and they might view this as a pair of giant lips trying to sink ships.

It is my feeling that this very concrete way of dealing with the environment and language is perhaps an under the hood process that occurs with many people who are not necessarily schizophrenics. When I walk into a messy room my first thought might be that the outer state of the room is a reflection of the inner mental state. For the most part though people are able to transcend this immediate concrete situation with some of the more developed metaphorical and cognitive processes. 

PS. When I dug a hole on the beach and talked about the Lacanian lack and the ultimate regression I was making a statement. Don’t read anything into it – I was making a powerful, ironic statement or commentary. Whichever sounds more plausible 😛



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