Posts Tagged ‘embodient’

The Brain is in the Mind

July 6, 2017

This is the fifth post in the series The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone (Unabridged), written by Steven Sloman and Phillip Fernbach. The title of this post is identical to the title of a section in that book.

When asked where the mind is located, most people respond that it is in the brain. So most people assume that the locus of thought—the most impressive of human capacities—is in the most sophisticated of human organs, the brain. Is this correct? Consider the following experiment.

This is a simple experiment where participants are asked to push a button with one of their hands to indicate their response. We have no problem with this task and respond in not much more than half second. But if the experiments vary one little detail, a detail that shouldn’t matter if the mind is in the brain, the results changed. The objects were oriented either to the left or to the right. For example, the handle of a watering can be on the right-hand side in half the pictures and on the left-hand side in the other half. If all we’re doing to decide whether the object is upright or upside down is consulting the knowledge stored in our brain about the object’s orientation, then whether the handle is on the left or right should make no difference. But it does. When responding yes with our right hand, we are faster when the handle is on the right than when the handle is on the left. When we are asked to say yes by pressing a button with our left hand, we are faster when the handle is on the left.

Here’s why. A photograph of a utensil with a handle on the right makes it easier to use our right hand. We see the photograph and immediately and unconsciously start organizing our body to interact with the picture object. Even though the handle is a photograph and not real, the handle is calling for our right hand. The fact that our right hand is primed for action makes us faster to respond with it, even to a question about the orientation of the object, which has nothing to do with action. By priming our hand to interact with the object, our body is directly affecting how long it takes us to answer the question. We don’t just pull the answer out of our brain. Instead our body and brain respond in synchrony to the photograph to retrieve an answer.

We use our bodies to think and remember. One study showed that acting out a scene is more effective than other memorization techniques for recalling a scene. Embodiment is a cluster of ideas about the important role the body plays in cognitive processing. Cognition is unified with objects that we’re thinking about and with. When we make music, our thoughts about music and the music we make with out mouths or instruments are part of the same process and highly interdependent. It’s much easier to move our fingers as if we’re playing a guitar if we actually have a guitar, and it’s much easier spell a word or do arithmetic if we write down what we’re thinking. The fact that thought is more effective when it is done in conjunction with the physical world suggests that thought is not a disembodied process that takes place on a slate inside the head. The authors conclude, “Mental activities do not simply occur in the brain. Rather, the brain is only one part of a processing system that also includes the body and other aspects of the world.

Emotional reactions are also memories. Remember the healthy memory blog post on Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett and her book “How Emotions Are Made” Our emotions are the result of our interpretations of and models based on our interoceptive responses. We learn to interpret our internal bodily responses in an analogous manner to how we build models and interpret the external world.

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