Embodied thinking

TalkingBrains has a posting, “Embodied or Symbolic? Who Cares?” (here). Greg Hickok is asking what exactly is the difference between embodied and symbolic cognition. He takes a nice example of a neurocomputation that is understood, the way a barn owl turns its head to a sound source. If you have not seen it before have a look at the link – it is well explained and easy to follow.

He asks:

Question: what do we call this kind of neural computation? Is it embodied? Certainly it takes advantage of body-specific features, the distance between the two ears (couldn’t work without that!) and I suppose we can talk of a certain “resonance” of the external world with neural activation. In that sense, it’s embodied. On the other hand, the network can be said to represent information in a neural code–the pattern of activity in network of cells–that no longer resembles the air pressure wave that gave rise to it. In fact, we can write a symbolic code to describe the computation of the network.

I think, however, that the example is a bit off the subject. Of course there are many examples in the brain of clear computations that could be presented in the form of a computer program or an algorithm for manipulating symbols. And it is generally assumed that the brain manipulates entities that are best called symbols: words, objects, concepts, places and the like. Even the brains great ability to work with metaphors is like substituting symbols in schemes that relate a number of symbols in a particular way. Symbols and their manipulation seems useful in understanding the brain. Symbols in the brain, of course, would always be metaphors for actual processes, but then the idea of a symbol is by its nature always a sort of metaphor standing in for whatever it is a symbol of.

But just because some, or a great many perhaps, processes in the brain can be pictured as manipulations of symbols, in ways akin to algorithms, this does not mean that the brain acts like a general computing device. Embodied cognition is quite clearly computation only in the sense of task specific processes and architecture and, not the actions of a general device. To be understood, the brain has to be seen as an integral part of the body. It is and does its part of what the body is and does. The cognitive abilities and facilities of the brain are the ones the body needs to function. If those abilities are sometimes used for arbitrary and abstract things like playing chess, this does not mean that they are not individually ‘grounded’ in the body’s requirements and limitations.

Just because some task could be done in a particular way, does not mean that it is done that way. The brain is what it is; metaphors can help us understand its workings or they can also stand in the way of understanding. They do not dictate the nature of the brain. We always should keep in mind that metaphors are somewhat limited tools.

4 thoughts on “Embodied thinking

  1. Lyndon

    Hi Janet, I have long looked in on your blog and have always enjoyed it.

    I have struggled with the embodied cognition thing as well. A similar idea for me is the brain-in-a-vat idea. If something bodily is important to functioning, then I have never understood why such bodily structure cannot be (easily) part of the higher up, central processing. That does not mean that the relational features of different body structures are not useful to understanding how the brain is working, only that such bodily relations just seems like another informational factoid that has to be input somehow. As to brains-in-vats, if there is something special about information flow and time lapses between, say, the knee to the spinal cord, and that such time lapse effects brain processes as that time lapse interacts with the movement of the body, then such an arrangement of knee-spine-brain may have to be processed in some mirrored way of that bodily arrangement in order to have a brain-in-a-vat behave in the same way as a normal human. That seems obvious. And it vindicates that we need to understand the structural relations of body and brain. But as Greg points out, that just seems like the normal parsing of cognitive science to me. But maybe I am missing something as well.

    Or one more try. It makes sense that a sensory process, and hence a cognitive process, will have “extra” sensory elements, say the length of the axon from sensory neuron to brain processing region. The processing region not only takes in the information of the sensory neuron itself but is processing relational information of the structure of that sensory neuron and sensory neuron system. That all of that hangs together, such as in auditory processing, makes the distinction between an embodied cognition and a representational cognition seem superfluous in the way that Greg worries about. Our sensory systems especially create images and representations of the world through the bizarre maze of their structural systems, which includes how they are incarnated in our body/brain but also all the processing shortcuts and heuristics they use.

    But I will be honest that I have long not quite understood the embodied arguments and have shut them out a bit, at least in whatever way that they are trying to isolate the theory in itself.

  2. Lyndon

    You are welcome to discuss my ideas from yesterday. I will say that I spent some time after posting trying to understand the embodied cognition theory better. I still have many issues with it, but I also agree with a great deal of it. I find it difficult to understand the main theses of embodied cognition.

    I am not sure we need the descriptor embodied to talk about what is the general stance of how cognition must be working in most circumstances. That any specific being’s cognition is intimately tied into their environment, their history, and their emotion/body seems like a given to me. On the other hand, I accept computationalism. However, the idea that all cognition is symbolic computation was never a good thesis, though perhaps we could reframe any cognitive process in symbolic computational terms.

    That human drives, body structure and the environment we happen to find (one where we run into the solidity of the wall, e.g.) shapes our cognitive worlds is surely right. I think that bottoms out in the idea that we are the products of our genes and environment, and the cognitive world we now inhabit thus closely fits in with the environment we happened to have found. That all known human environments are shaped with many similar regularities (dirt, causal regularities), given standard human drives and the freedom to explore “the world” means that many of our concepts, imagery, and representations end up having similarities.

    I also accept that emotion is intimately tied into solving problems. It seems to me that we have certain emotional feelings when we recognize a logical conclusion or a right answer. My experience is that we are not non-emotional calculators though we could be non-emotional data producers. The difference between working through an equation and the idea that the answer to 6×6 just seems to pop into the head. Given that, understanding symbolic cognitive architecture and a specific problem solving instance is usually (always) going to require more than just the symbol manipulation that is going on.

    I am okay with much of the situationist type of thinking, even if some of the experiments are being questioned. That our cognitive structures and outcomes can be shaped by different environmental influences or slightly different framing of problems seems appropriate. That our cognitive processing is complex and always tied into and possibly effected by other goals, desires, body movements, and expectations of future events makes sense. We were not designed to shut down the entirety of other concerns, and then solve a problem in complete isolation while blocking out all superfluous thoughts and ideas. In fact, most our problem solving, most our cognitive activity is how do I slightly alter and maintain the environment around me for my benefit. Such problem solving is constantly happening both consciously and unconsciously. Then obviously, desires, drives, and tenacity effects how we go about parsing a problem and the outcome that ensues, and those desires and tenacity is going to be influenced by all sorts of other factors.

    Anyways, some more thoughts for you there. Also, the wikipedia page is a mess in my opinion, for anyone interested. I think Wikipedia may be a mess because the theory is a bit tangled and overly broad, and embraced by disparate disciplines.


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