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What Is Embodied Cognition?

By Kenneth W. Michael Wills
Updated May 16, 2024
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Embodied cognition is an area of scientific inquiry with its roots deeply embedded in philosophy beginning with Kant, a 20th century philosopher. The theory proposes that the human mind is particularly susceptible, if not wholly determined by the state and actions of the human body. Research from various scientific and philosophical perspectives intersects with the embodied mind. Those fields of study include psychology, neuroscience, evolutionary epistemology, biology, philosophy and the fields of artificial intelligence and robotics.With new theories proposed concerning the mind-body influence from each of these fields, in particular artificial intelligence, researchers often conclude that the influence is not only the body on the mind, but also the motor system's influence on human cognition as well.

Several approaches to cognition focus on the operational theory of the mind interacting with symbols in its environment to perform actions; however, embodied cognition takes a radically different approach. Instead, the theory proposes that cognition is a situated activity that requires taking into account first, the being in which the mind is attached. Complex social environments, as theorized, are where most thinking actually occurs, thus thinking is a process firmly grounded in the actions of human social interactions. As such, abstract thinking results from the neural actions and networks in the brain that are linked to the same neural systems responsible for analyzing and process sensory information and experiences. For example, the term chilly often conveys the notion of unfriendliness with many research efforts demonstrating that when people are rejected in social situations, the physical temperature feels colder to them at the time, than when included in social activities, though there is no change in physical temperature.

Though deeply rooted in philosophical arguments, it is the fields or artificial intelligence and robotics that are responsible for eliciting widespread consideration of embodied cognition across various scientific disciplines. One of the toughest challenges in the field is grasping a firm understanding of how the human mind functions and figuring out ways to replicate that functioning so a machine can think, rather than simply do as programmed. Researchers in the field concluded that such machines may need a human-like body to think. After extensive efforts, some researchers in artificial intelligence have concluded that robots should perform only minimal thinking, but instead all actions should be embodied and situated. Other researchers have gone as far as to propose this is the only way forward in achieving reliable artificial intelligence.

Rather than the body being a peripheral to the human mind, oftentimes cognition is actually dependent upon the human body. Therefore, viewing the body as a mere peripheral is considered a fatal flaw according to embodied cognition theorists. For familiarity with how this works, research has shown that communication and language processing are typically reliant on hand gestures to facilitate both processes.

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