Tag Archives: embodiment

Emotional communication

Judith Copithorne image

It has been suspected for many years that if the body is forced to experience the signs of an emotion then the emotion will be felt. So… when we feel an emotion we will have a particular bodily expression of that emotion; and, if we have the bodily expression of an emotion we feel the emotion. If we are happy we smile and if we smile we will feel happy. This connection does not need to be obvious – if we are a tiny bit happy we will make a tiny bit of a smile and a tiny smile can increase our happiness a tiny bit.

A definitive experiment was done on this connection (Strack, Martin, Stepper; 1988; “Inhibiting and Facilitating Conditions of the Human Smile: A Nonobtrusive Test of the Facial Feedback Hypothesis”; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 54 (5): 768–777) and here is the abstract: “We investigated the hypothesis that people’s facial activity influences their affective responses. Two studies were designed to both eliminate methodological problems of earlier experiments and clarify theoretical ambiguities. This was achieved by having subjects hold a pen in their mouth in ways that either inhibited or facilitated the muscles typically associated with smiling without requiring subjects to pose in a smiling face. Study 1’s results demonstrated the effectiveness of the procedure. Subjects reported more intense humor responses when cartoons were presented under facilitating conditions than under inhibiting conditions that precluded labeling of the facial expression in emotion categories. Study 2 served to further validate the methodology and to answer additional theoretical questions. The results replicated Study 1’s findings and also showed that facial feedback operates on the affective but not on the cognitive component of the humor response. Finally, the results suggested that both inhibitory and facilitatory mechanisms may have contributed to the observed affective responses.The important aspect in this study is that the subjects did not think they were mimicking a smile or a frown or that they were being tested for their emotional state.

It later became clear that the reason that emotions are somewhat contagious is that we mimic others bodies and expressions. When someone smiles at us, we are inclined to smile back and it is very difficult to completely inhibit the return of a smile. It seems that this is a form of communication. We read others and others read us by our bodily emotional expressions.

What does failure to express an emotion with the body do? It can inhibit the emotion. It was found that people with facial paralysis that interfered with smiling showed increased symptoms of depression while people with botox treatment that interfered with frowning had their depression symptoms decreased. (Lewis etal 2009 J Cosmetic Dermatology).

And now it is found that interference with bodily expression of emotion can interfere with understanding the emotions of others. When we mimic another’s facial expression is when we can understand their state of mind.

A recent paper shows this effect. (Baumeister, Papa, Foroni; “Deeper than skin deep – The effect of botulinum toxin-A on emotion processing”; Toxicon, 2016; 118: 86) Here is the abstract:


  • Effect of facial Botox use on perception of emotional stimuli was investigated.
  • Particularly perception of slightly emotional stimuli was blunted after Botox use.
  • The perception of very emotional stimuli was less affected.
  • After Botox use, reaction times to slightly emotional stimuli increased.
  • Specifically weakly emotional stimuli seem to benefit from facial feedback.

The effect of facial botulinum Toxin-A (BTX) injections on the processing of emotional stimuli was investigated. The hypothesis, that BTX would interfere with processing of slightly emotional stimuli and less with very emotional or neutral stimuli, was largely confirmed. BTX-users rated slightly emotional sentences and facial expressions, but not very emotional or neutral ones, as less emotional after the treatment. Furthermore, they became slower at categorizing slightly emotional facial expressions under time pressure.”

The press release for this paper (here) gives more details. “The thankfully temporary paralysis of facial muscles that this toxin causes impairs our ability to capture the meaning of other people’s facial expressions. … The idea (embodied cognition) is that the processing of emotional information, such as facial expressions, in part involves reproducing the same emotions on our own bodies. In other words, when we observe a smile, our face too tends to smile (often in an imperceptible and automatic fashion) as we try to make sense of that expression. However, if our facial muscles are paralyzed by Botox, then the process of understanding someone else’s emotion expression may turn out to be more difficult.

All pain is not the same

A popular illustration of embodied cognition is the notion that physical pain and social pain share the same neural mechanism. The researchers that first published this relationship, have now published a new paper that finds the two types of pain do not overlap in the brain but are just close neighbours, close enough to have appeared together on the original fMRI scans. But the pattern of activity is different. The data has not changed but the method of analyzing it has produced a much clearer picture.

Neuroskeptic has a good blog on this paper and observes: “ Woo et al. have shown commendable scientific integrity in being willing to change their minds and update their theory based on new evidence. That sets an excellent example for researchers.” Have a look at the Neuroskeptic post (here).

It would probably be wise for other groups to re-examine, using multivariant analysis, similar data they have previously published.





Abstract of paper (Woo CW, Koban L, Kross E, Lindquist MA, Banich MT, Ruzic L, Andrews-Hanna JR, & Wager TD (2014). Separate neural representations for physical pain and social rejection. Nature Communications, 5 PMID: 25400102)

Current theories suggest that physical pain and social rejection share common neural mechanisms, largely by virtue of overlapping functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) activity. Here we challenge this notion by identifying distinct multivariate fMRI patterns unique to pain and rejection. Sixty participants experience painful heat and warmth and view photos of ex-partners and friends on separate trials. FMRI pattern classifiers discriminate pain and rejection from their respective control conditions in out-of-sample individuals with 92% and 80% accuracy. The rejection classifier performs at chance on pain, and vice versa. Pain- and rejection-related representations are uncorrelated within regions thought to encode pain affect (for example, dorsal anterior cingulate) and show distinct functional connectivity with other regions in a separate resting-state data set (N=91). These findings demonstrate that separate representations underlie pain and rejection despite common fMRI activity at the gross anatomical level. Rather than co-opting pain circuitry, rejection involves distinct affective representations in humans.”


Metaphors are basic

Metaphors are basic

A few weeks ago, a friend asked what I thought about metaphors. Actually I think they are extremely important to cognition. Many years ago I was looking at a list of rhetorical devices/figures of speech. Each had its Latin name under which it was taught as part of rhetoric in ancient and medieval times. What stood out was how different metaphor, simile, allegory, analogue (and the figurative by any other name) were from the other devices and how similar they were to each other. It was as if these were ways of thinking as well as forms of speaking.

This prompted me to look at investigators such as Lakeoff and Johnson. Many of the ideas and theories about metaphor are very well known and I do not want to repeat them here. I want to deal with some less well known ideas.

Embodied cognition bridges the gap between babies being born with an empty mind, a ‘blank slate’, and having to figure everything out for themselves; and the other extreme in which babies are born with all the cognitive concepts they need to understand the world. Neither of these extremes are credible. But being born with some very useful starting points and tools, but quite a small group of them, can allow the child to get to a general understanding relatively quickly. We can think of metaphor in this sense. The child has embodied cognition that uses metaphor to get from a physical grounding point to complex and abstract notions.

Take the structure that can be built from the child’s idea of motion that is grounded in the child’s own ability to engage in intentional movement. We could draw a little map of this: there is ‘here’ where I am now, there is ‘start’ where I was when this movement started, ‘target’ where I want to get to, ‘path’, ‘goal’, ‘obstacle’, ‘finish’ and so on. As the child matures other grounded concepts get added. Eventually the child has the concept of a journey which is more complex but still heavily grounded in the child’s physical experience. But journey can become another map including many more ingredients in its structure. Lakeoff did a lot of work on this particular metaphoric structure and I will not repeat those structures (like career, life, transport, exploration) here. As adults we end up (metaphorically) with nested piles of maps, each giving a structure: concepts and relationship between the concepts of a group things that can be related by metaphor.

If I want to explain a computer memory, I say that each bit of data is stored in memory in a particular address. What does this do? The word address brings up a map set, let’s call it the postal system map set. Here everything has an address and there is a standard way to identify an address. Things (letters) can be delivered to an address by a system (postal system) using various forms of transport etc. Once we understand the postal system, we can understand many other systems with similar structures by relabeling the concepts and making small modifications to the relationships, a little tweaking and a new map goes on the pile. In a sense what the words in a language do is to point out to the listener appropriate metaphorical maps to aid in understanding what is being said. It is not just language, we can get these prods and nudges from many things in our environment and from our own thoughts. There are visual, auditory, kinesthetic metaphorical ‘maps’ too. One of the problems with experiments in this area is that very small unnoticed clues can affect the results – a sort of human ‘clever Hans’ effect.

There is a sense in which language is just one huge metaphoric machine. There are dead metaphors. If you take a page of a dictionary and examine a word’s different meanings and etymology you can see how many words are obviously derived from metaphors that have lost their figurativeness through long use and become literal. Look at the word ‘go’ as a good example. What does it mean to die as a metaphor and become literal? One, it is processed in a different part of the brain. Two, it has lost some of its poetic and emotional power. But more importantly, its metaphoric base has changed type; it no longer seems to cause recall its metaphorical roots.

It is a very important question for neuroscience and linguistics to answer: how is what I have (metaphorically) described as grounding – mapping - dieing – pointing-to etc. actually happen in the brain. In terms of autism, it is also a medical question. How is this powerful tool of learning, thinking and communicating realized in the flesh?