The Boston Globe just published an excellent article on ‘embodied cognition‘, an area that’s recently been getting a lot of attention in cognitive science and which argues that we can’t understand psychology without understanding the body and our actions.
The reason it’s so potentially revolutionary is that it challenges the idea that psychology can be understood as a purely abstract mental process and suggests that our mind is shaped as much by our body and how we physically interact with the environment as by ‘passive’ sensory experience.
In other words, the reason we’ve developed thinking brains is to allow us to act, and so the possibilities, limitations and feedback from actions must shape our psychology – both in the long term as a species (via evolution) and in the short term as individuals (via learning and plasticity).
The body, it appears, can subtly shape people’s preferences. A study led by John Cacioppo, director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, found that subjects (all non-Chinese speakers) shown a series of Chinese ideographs while either pushing down or pulling up on a table in front of them will say they prefer the ideographs they saw when pulling upward over the ones they saw while pushing downward. Work by Beilock and Holt found that expert typists, when shown pairs of two-letter combinations and told to pick their favorite, tend to pick the pairs that are easier to type – without being able to explain why they did so.
Some of my favourite research in this area is by psychologist Dennis Proffitt who has found a range of bodily effects on perception.
In one particularly striking study, Proffitt and his colleagues found that we perceive distances as shorter when we have a tool in our hand, but only when we intend to use it.
They suggest that we perceive the environment in terms of our intentions and abilities to act within it.