Embodiment is the answer

Raymond Tallis (2011) draws on a lovely metaphor for the perceptual and cognitive activity of the brain… “Observations of this kind have led some scientists […] to suggest that “the brain acts more as if the arrival … of inputs provokes a widespread disturbance in some already existing state”, rather as happens when a pebble is dropped in a pond.”

The point he is making is that we cannot understand neural activity by looking for individual locations for each particular activity (an idea that he and others have likened to phrenology) but rather by understanding the way that the brain as a whole responds and (perhaps) by looking at interactions across regions which correlate with different forms of activity. (Although I have a suspicion that there is a big difference between the way we subjectively experience the world and the way that the brain handles the substrates of that experience.)

Anyway, the analogy and the idea behind it help in the way that they tie up with an argument by Arthur Glenberg (2010).

Glenberg’s review is intended, as he points out, to argue that as an idea ‘embodiment’ “is on the right track” to unify psychology. Embodiment refers to a number of psychological theories that “for the most part, […] take as a starting point that psychological processes are influenced by the body, including body morphology, sensory systems, and motor systems.” He then goes on to review different pieces of empirical research that point to the validity and significance of this idea.

What is really important for object handling is that the research suggests that our language and thinking utilise the parts of the brain that are involved in perception and motor control. For example, “Barsalou’s notion of a perceptual symbol system. In contrast to the standard cognitive science notion of symbols as abstract, point-like entities, perceptual symbols are analogical in the sense that they are composed of components of neural activity arising from the perception of the symbol’s referent.” (Struiksma (2011) develops these ideas to argue for a supra-modal haptic language of space but more on this when I’ve finished reading her thesis.)

These empirical studies support ideas that Eco developed some years ago. He argued that we must develop and hold ideas of objects in our heads that are intrinsically multi-sensory. His question – what did the Aztecs think when they first saw horses? – is instructive. He posits that the idea (cognitive type) of a horse would involve not only size, shape and colour but also smell and possibly the feeling of nervousness when impressed by its size.

I need to investigate this further but what this approach does (potentially) is enrich our understanding of thought and integrate thought with perception and action. So, back to Tallis’ analogy, when we encounter an object we don’t think about it with one bit of our brain and sense it with another bit but all the parts are invoked together and interact in this rich (!!! ‘multi-sensory’ doesn’t do the idea justice !!!) fashion. A hypothetical framework based on these ideas seems well placed to explore object handling and reminiscence.


Glenberg, A.M. (2010) ‘Embodiment as a unifiying perspective for psychology’, Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science, 1, 4, 586-596

Tallis, R. (2011) Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity, Durham: Acumen Publishing

Struiksma (2011) On the language of space: Neurocognitive studies in blind and sighted individuals, PhD Thesis, Utrecht University

About Bruce Davenport

Research associate at Newcastle University. Previously a museum educator and researcher.
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