Embodied Cognition


Embodied cognition is the notion that human cognitive processes are largely grounded in and linked to interactions with the physical environment. Rather than viewing cognitive processes and behavior as being rooted solely in the formation of symbolic mental templates, a notion that has often pervaded western thought and anthropological theory, embodied cognition suggests that many aspects of cognition are derived from direct and time-dependent interactions between the sensorimotor system and the extra-somatic environment[1] .

As ideas of embodied cognition have developed, the scope of what such a term entails is often considered as having multiple components. One such component is that the idea of embodied cognition presents a direct challenge to traditional western thought and mind-body duality. Central to this challenge is the idea of sensory direction, where sensory information is directly received from the environment and guides cognitive process without the assistance of intricate mental templates[2] . Here, sensory interactions with the environment can, in a sense, be enacted to solve specific tasks and can replace the need for complex mental processing. It must be noted that these instances of cognitive replacement are highly situational, as symbolic blueprints of expected interaction sequence may not be used in these scenarios, but instead are driven by the situation at hand[3] . Using the aforementioned reasoning, some have suggested that the cognition is not something rooted solely in the internal mind, but is rather a part of an “extended cognitive machine”[4] .


Although the notion of embodied cognition is a relatively recent phenomenon, the concept of mind-body duality has considerable antiquity. Because embodied cognition seeks to establish a new view of cognitive process dependent on a concatenate of mind, body and environment, ideas of duality, often central to the development of Western philosophy[5] , may be seriously undermined by continued research. The separation of mind and proposed by 17th century philosopher Renee Descartes has been a cornerstone of Western thought and has clearly impacted the construction of some aspects anthropological theory. Similar dualities have often been attributed to the role of the social and the ecological in regards to discerning the trajectory of cultural process. Such duality is apparent with the advent of theoreticians advocating for dialectics within anthropology to act as mediators in the midst of abundant theoretical duality.

The identification of mind-body duality as a potential limitation in modern science and philosophy dates to the late 1950s, with the advent of work by Herbert Feigl and J.J. C. Smart. Feigl and Smart were among the first to disseminate ideas that seriously questioned this duality and introduced new ways of thinking about how brain and body are situated and interrelated[6] . Although not direct constructors of the contemporary idea of embodied cognition, the trajectory of scientific research and philosophic discussion would be forever changed by these robust challenges to Cartesian thought.

Intersections with Anthropology

The future study of embodied cognition should benefit immensely from the use of ethnography. Essentially, the study of this concept centers around personal experience and one that is external to the researcher. Because the potentially observable processes that delineate the constituents of an extended cognitive machine are not apparent to the unsuspecting cognizer[7] , well-informed ethnography and input from trained anthropologists may be able to document these internal experiences in a manner unique to the discipline.

However, the potential interconnectedness between anthropology and embodied cognition does not begin and end with ethnography. The concatenation implicit in embodied cognition should provide theoretical, conceptual and methodological relief to a discipline that has been rife with dichotomy. Keeping ideas of interconnectedness in mind when constructing theoretical frameworks may eliminate the future need for theories to serve as intermediaries amidst reductionist polarity.

Embodied Cognition and Language

Essential to the idea of embodied cognition is the apparent role of human sensorimotor systems in the construction of language. Language has often been conceptualized as being associated with high-order mental processes, which are restricted to certain areas of a supposed massively modular brain. Recent evidence in the form of neuroimaging and behavioral analysis suggest that sensory perception can play a vital role in the construction, production and consumption of language and in the execution of language-oriented tasks. It has been observed that memory recall of a word is correlated to the procedural mechanism for the physical execution of the activity associated with the word. Because the use of procedural memory requires sensorimotor training, sensory perception is more intertwined with language than previously thought[8] .

George Lakoff on Embodied Cognition and Language

George Lakoff and his colleagues have developed several lines of evidence that all cognition is based on knowledge that comes from the body and that other domains are mapped onto our embodied knowledge using a combination of topographic maps containing conceptual metaphor and image schemas.
This lecture is about a general overview of a theory of embodied cognition under development by Lakoff and Srini Narayanan. It begins with basic cognitive linguistics: embodied schemas, frames, and conceptual metaphors. Using empirical examples from basic experiments, Lakoff presents in general form a theory of the neural circuitry needed to characterize these phenomena in detail. The following video was Lakoff’s first lecture fleshing out his incomplete manuscript about Cascade Theory given at a public lecture last year at Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. He expects the book to be published in late 2014.

George Lakoff, Cognitive Science and Linguistics Professor at UC Berkeley
Lecture: Cascade Theory: Embodied Cognition and Language from a Neural Perspective
Published on October 22, 2013


Case Study

As has been the case with many ground-breaking studies in cognitive neuroscience, some of the most useful evidence that has been used to reinforce the idea of embodied cognition has come through the form of examining neurological pathology. A study conducted by Boulenger et al.[9] sought to determine the role of sensorimotor function in word processing. Here, a behavioral analysis was conducted on individuals affected by Parkinson’s disease. Individuals were presented with selected verbs and nouns. The effect of motor impairment on language processing was measured through an index of “word imaginability”. Participants were asked how well they could create mental images of given words, while experiencing sensorimotor disruption related to the disease. The results of the study revealed that individuals with motor impairment had notable difficulty processing and imagining words that connote action (verbs), but not nouns, which has helped establish a direct link between the sensorimotor system and language.


Mapping an Integrative Approach to Embodied Cognition

Further Reading

Barsalou, L.W.
1999 Perceptual Symbol Systems. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 22: 577-609.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson
1999 Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. Basic Books, New York.


  1. ^ Wilson, Margaret
    2002 Six Views of Embodied Cognition. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review 9(4): 625-636.
  2. ^ Wilson, Andrew D. and Sabrina Golonka
    2013 Embodied Cognition is Not What You Think it is. Frontiers in Psychology 4:1-13.
  3. ^ Anderson, Michael L.
    2003 Embodied Cognition: A Field Guide. Artificial Intelligence 149:91-130
  4. ^ Clark, Andy
    2008 Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  5. ^ Kim, Jaegwon
    1998 Mind in a Physical World: An Essay on the Mind-body Problem and Mental Causation. MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.
  6. ^ Kim, Jaegwon
    1998 Mind in a Physical World: An Essay on the Mind-body Problem and Mental Causation. MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.
  7. ^ Wilson, Andrew D. and Sabrina Golonka
    2013 Embodied Cognition is Not What You Think it is. Frontiers in Psychology 4:1-13.
  8. ^ Nazir, Tatiana A. and Marc Jeannerod
    2008 The Role of Sensory-motor Systems for Language Understanding. Journal of Physiology 102:1-3.
  9. ^ Boulenger, Veronique, Laura Mechtouff, Stephane Thobois, Emmanuel Broussolle, Marc Jeannerod, and Tatjana A. Nazir
    2008 Word Processing in Parksinson’s Disease is Impaired for Action Verbs but Not for Concrete Nouns. Neuropsychologia 46(2):743-756.