The Boston Globe on embodied cognition

How often do you read a piece in the newspaper that explicitly makes reference to Maurice Merleau-Ponty? Can’t say that I ever had until I stumbled across this article, ‘Don’t Just Stand There, Think,’ on embodied cognition by science writer Drake Bennett in The Boston Globe. It’s all over the map, making brief references to a host of different research projects, some of them more obviously anti-Cartesian than others. The piece might make an excellent entry point for people wanting to introduce others to the significance of embodiment for human cognition.

In particular, the article discusses a number of examples that highlight the ways in which cognition makes use of motor capacities and perceptual abilities, rather than simply being just some disembodied form, such as logic, signification, or recall. Aside from more obvious cases where embodiment affects thought, Bennett briefly touches on some of the more counter-intuitive cases:

A few [neuroscientists, linguists, and philosophers] 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.

Bennett makes references to mirror neurons, research by Sian Beilock and Lauren Holt suggesting that athletes’ perceptions are shaped by their expertise, Susan Goldin-Meadow’s work on gesture and thought, and a number of other intriguing research projects. There’s no links to the original research reports or articles, but the interested reader could easily track them down.

In particular, one quote reminded me of Daniel’s earlier post on cultural differences in puzzle solving. Beilock, after doing research on hockey players’ ability to quickly understand photographs of hockey, came to the conclusion that, ‘People with different types of motor experiences think in different ways.’ This is a consequence of embodied cognition, and it may help to explain certain types of differences in reasoning, perception, or cognition.

The article hardly breaks new ground, but it is a very good quick summary of a lot of relevant research. I’d highly recommend it; and it will be a great one to share with friends and colleagues and anyone else who wonders what you’re on about when you mention embodied cognition.

Published by


Trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, I have gone on to do fieldwork in Brazil and the United States, and look forward to a new project in New Zealand. I have written one book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford, 2005). I have also co-edited several books, including, with Dr. Daniel Lende, The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT, 2012), and with Dr. Melissa Fisher, Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy (Duke, 2006). My research interests include psychological anthropology, sport, dance, human rights, neuroscience, phenomenology, economic anthropology, and just about anything else that catches my attention.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s