Friday, 8 February 2008

Do we think with our body?

The Situationist is an interesting blog created by Jon Hanson –Professor of Law at Harvard Law School- and Michael McCann –Assistant Professor at Mississippi College School of Law. This blog is associated with The Project on Law and Mind Sciences at Harvard Law School. This project

is devoted to identifying, inventorying, archiving, blogging, and otherwise promoting research, writing, conferences, colloquia, and presentations directed toward understanding the implications of social psychology, social cognition, and other related mind sciences for law, policymaking, and legal theory.

In February 7th they posted the article “A (situationist) body of thought”. This article is a commentary on another article published in The Boston Globe by Drake Bennett on January. The latter was titled “Don’t just stand there, think” and is a summary of a number of scientific papers that advocate that the body and its interaction with the environment have an important role in high-level cognitive processes such as thinking.

This approach is called “embodied cognition” and is against the traditional view in cognitive sciences in which mind is investigated independently of the body. The separation between mind and body in current cognitive sciences is reminiscence from Descartes conception of an immaterial mind separated from the material body. In a controversial book “Philosophical foundations of neuroscience”, published in 2003, Hacker and Bennett avowed that cognitive neuroscientists –despite rejecting Descartes’ mind-body dualism– use a new version of that dualism: brain-body dualism. Instead of ascribing mysterious powers to an immaterial mind, cognitive neuroscientists (mistakenly) ascribe the same powers to the brain.

Antonio Damasio, in his book “Descartes error” published in 1994, had already pointed out that neuroscientists do not pay attention to the role of the body in high-level cognitive processes such as decision making.

My view

I accept the embodied cognition view that the role of the whole body (not only the brain), the characteristics of the environment, and the idiosyncratic interaction of the whole body with the environment are part of cognition. I also accept that the theories of several neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists do not take into account the role of the whole body and its interaction with the environment.

However, this view is not entirely new. For example, Herbert Simon –one of the founders of traditional cognitive science– was a strong advocate of the influence of the interaction of the cognitive system with the environment in the way experts solve problems.

Furthermore, Piaget’s theory of the development of intelligence published in 1950s is an embodied theory of cognition.

What is new, then, in the embodied cognition approach?

In fact, although I am sympathetic to this approach, there is nothing new. Until some researcher does not develop a general theory of psychology that incorporates embodied cognition views, this approach is just gaining some space in academic psychology because media finds it attractive.

Drake Bennett’s article in The Boston Globe presents a number of new evidence that favours the embodied cognition approach. However, all the evidence showed, could be interpreted in a different way. (I will write about the role of evidence in psychology in a future post).

Embodied cognition is not a good approach to cognitive sciences because there is new evidence that favours it. It is a good approach because it is obvious that the body and the environment are essential aspects of cognition.

First, even if we only use the brain to think, since the brain is part of the body, we use our bodies to think. There is no immaterial mind doing the thinking; it is, obviously, the body that does it.

Second, just observe a scientist thinking of a theory. Most probably, the nervous system is consuming a lot of the energy, but in the process of thinking, the scientist takes notes, looks at the notes, stands up, goes for a walk (this may help him/her seeing things from a different perspective), drinks a cup of coffee, types the keyboard of the computer, draws graphs, etc. It is an experience in which the whole body is participating, not only the brain.

Third, the dissection of the human body in a number of systems (nervous system, digestive system, musculoskeletal system, immune system, etc.) is only convenient, it is not necessary. In other words, the human body is a whole, we sometimes observe at different parts of it, but the separation in systems is absolutely arbitrary.

Almost all of us started counting with our fingers. So, we used muscle cells (cells of the musculoskeletal system) of the fingers. But we also used neurons (cells of the nervous system) connected to the muscle cells. When we stop using our fingers to count (if we ever stop, that is!), we are probably still using the same neurons connected to the muscle cells of the fingers when we count. The only difference between a group of cells (motor cells) and the other (brain cells) is that the former are connected to parts of the body that are in contact with the environment and the latter are only indirectly connected to those parts of the body.

Summing up, the human body is more connected than modular; therefore, when we think we may use more or less parts of our body depending on the situation. Sometimes we may use mainly our brain; sometimes, we may use the brain plus other parts of the body. One thing is sure: our brain is part of our body, so we always think with our body. We do not need any new evidence to affirm this. v

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