Embodied Situated Cognition

Probably 95 percent of embodied thought is non-cognitive,
yet probably 95 percent of academic thought has concentrated on the cognitive dimensions of the conscious 'I'.
(Thrift, 2000).

Although western culture privileges rational self-conscious thought, we intuitively know that our understanding is shaped by feelings that lie beyond the realm of ‘objective knowledge’ and conscious cognition. Extensive research concludes that these processes are in some sense embodied. Although as yet there is no fully articulated epistemology of embodied situated cognition (ESC), a consistent interdisciplinary model is emerging, as researchers are apparently discussing the same phenomena from disparate but consistent perspectives.

Considering the perspectives of phenomenology, anthropology, sociology, religious studies, cognitive neuroscience and ecopsychology reveals an interdisciplinary consensus about ESC. Different disciplines repeat key themes: ESC is practical, pre-reflective, and blurs conventionally understandings of ‘self’ and ‘world’.

Merleau-Ponty concluded that in knowing the world we become part of it, and thus the conventional subject-object distinction was illusionary (Merleau-Ponty, 1962). Gendlin developed Merleau-Ponty's work, showing how an intricate "bodily sensed knowledge" (Gendlin, 1981) emerges from our bodily interaction with the world. Anthropologists have theorised aspects of embodied knowing: Bateson, for example, concurred with Merleau-Ponty that mind is immanent in the world. The sociological approach is significant for Mauss's notion the habitus, which was further theorised by Bourdieu (1977). The habitus carries embodied cultural knowledge that is tacit and practical, so is consistent with Merleau-Ponty's stance.

Second-generation cognitive neuroscience reseach is fundamental and concurs that cognition is embodied and situated, supporting the position held by Merleau-Ponty, Gendlin, Bateson and others that at least some fundamental aspects of the mind-body extend beyond the skin. Preston develops this discussion by claiming that we think with place, and this has a crucial impact on our being-in-the-world (2003). Enactivism might reasonbly be taken as the most developed model of embodied situated cognition, and emphasizes that what we conventionally think of a 'subject' and 'object' are co-arising.

Lakoff and Johnson (1999) emphasize the role of embodied metaphors in cognition while Depraz & Gallagher conclude that emotions are "inextricable from every mental act" (Depraz & Gallagher, 2003).

Philosopher Clark concludes that “extra-bodily resources constitute important parts of extended computational and cognitive processes”, and in some cases this “seepage of the mind into the world” challenges western notions of self. Clark follows Bateson in concluding that what we normally accept as "mental processes" extend beyond the "skin bag" into the local environment (Clark, 1977). Clark avoids claims about the self/other boundary and does not suggest that “individual consciousness extends outside the head”, but concludes that what we refer to as mind is much more widely extended than the brain, and can “encompass a variety of external props and aids” (Clark, 1977). This process, which Clark calls “robust cognitive extension” only occurs in special cases where “the relationship between user and artifact is about as close and intimate as that between the spider and the web” (Clark, 1977). However, “beliefs, knowledge, and perhaps other mental states" sometimes depend on "aspects of the local environment” creating “hybrid entities” made up of “brains, bodies, and a wide variety of external structures and processes” (Clark, 1977).

Such conclusions are widespread: In his survey of the field Peterson notes that for a “significant number of researchers … to understand the mind/brain in isolation from biological and environmental contexts is to understand nothing” (Peterson, 2003). Although ESC emerged from artificial intelligence research, it has become an interdisciplinary field enabling advances in psychology, philosophy of mind and social interaction theory (Almeida e Costa and Rocha, 2005).

Evidence from neuroethology supports the ESC approach: MacIver rejects what he calls ‘craniocentricism’ - the idea that what is really important is what goes on inside the skull - and concludes that the complex behaviour of organisms arises out of “a tight interplay of body, brain, and environment” (MacIver, 2009).

For these researchers embodiment means “the body-in-space, the body as it interacts with the physical and social environment” and they conclude that it ”is not just that the body shapes the embodied mind, but that the experiences of the body-in-the-world also shape the embodied mind” (Rohrer, 2006).


Wilson usefully summarizes the six claims of the "emerging viewpoint of embodied cognition":

1) cognition is situated; 2) cognition is time-pressured; 3) we off-load cognitive work onto the environment; 4) the environment is part of the cognitive system; 5) cognition is for action; 6) off-line cognition is body-based (Wilson, M, 2002).

She argues that some of these claims "are more controversial than others" (Wilson, M, 2002) and cautions against over extending the application of the theory: Wilson's critique is comprehensive and includes all the key challenges to this stance. While the sixth claim, that "off-line cognition is body-based", "may in fact be the best documented and most powerful" (Wilson, M., 2002), she argues that the remainder are, at best, "at least partially true" (Wilson, M., 2002).

In her criticism of the first claim, that "cognition is situated" (Wilson, M., 2002), Wilson notes that "large portions of human cognitive processing" cannot be situated, and Kirsh and Anderson concur (Anderson, 2003; Kirsh, 1991). Specifically, these are off-line cognitive processes that involve "our ability to form mental representations about things that are remote in time and space" (Wilson, M., 2002).

Wilson supports the third claim, that "we off-load cognitive work onto the environment" (Wilson, M., 2002), as long as we recognize that it is only applicable to on-line cognition (Wilson, M., 2002).

Wilson mounts a fairly robust attack on the fourth claim that "the environment is part of the cognitive system" (Wilson, M., 2002). Wilson’s critique hinges on what we mean by "cognitive system". On this basis she concludes that what she call the "strong version" of extended cognition, "that a cognitive system cannot in principle be taken to comprise only an individual mind", will not hold (Wilson, M., 2002). There are two types of cognitive system: "Facultative systems are temporary, organized for a particular occasion and disbanded readily", while "obligate systems ... are more or less permanent, at least relative to the lifetime of their parts" (Wilson, M., 2002). If we are explicitly concerned with embodied situated cognition in quite distinct locations, then the cognitive system will use facultative rather than obligate. Wilson accepts this "weaker version", which she concludes offers "a promising ... avenue of investigation" (Wilson, M., 2002).

Wilson critique of the fifth claim, that cognition is for action, once again focus on limitations rather than general validity. Although this claim is supported by much of the available evidence, it doesn't apply in all examples of cognition (Wilson, M., 2002), notably excluding most off-line cognition.

Adams and Aizawa provide a more comprehensive critique of extended cognition in The Bounds of Cognition (2008 - see review) and 'Why the Mind is Still in the Head' (2009). I shall consider their approach shortly.


related links:

The Cognitive Iceberg

Six Views of Embodied Cognition - Wilson

ESC in mathmatics education

Full set of external links