14. Lawrence Shapiro, Embodied Cognition

by breavman99

embodied cognition

After not learning much about embodiment or embodied knowledge from the last book I read, I decided to go outside of my list in order to try to find something more helpful. When I looked at the library’s database, I didn’t find a whole lot about embodied knowledge; however, I did discover that a lot has been published about embodied cognition. Maybe I should read an introductory text on that, I thought. Maybe that’s the field of inquiry I’ve been trying to find. And that decision brought me to Lawrence Shapiro’s book, Embodied Cognition.

Shapiro describes the aims of his book on the first page: “to introduce and develop the central themes of embodied cognition,” and to assess “the relationship between embodied cognition and standard cognitive science” (1). These are important questions, he writes, because what our minds are like matters to our understanding of who and what we are (2). Standard cognitive science is a clearly defined and demarcated field of inquiry which claims that “cognition involves algorithmic processes upon symbolic representations” (2). In other words, for standard cognitive science, cognition is like a computer: our brains are the hardware, and our minds are the software (41). Embodied cognition, however, is different. According to Shapiro, there are three themes in embodied cognition. The first is Conceptualization (the capitalization is Shapiro’s), which argues that 

[t]he properties of an organism’s body limit or constrain the concepts an organism can acquire. That is, the concepts on which an organism relies to understand its surrounding world depend on the kind of body that it has, so that were organisms to differ with respect to their bodies, they would differ as well in how they understand the world. (4)

Humans and, say slugs—if slugs are capable of cognition, that is; sentient slugs, perhaps—would therefore understand the world in different ways because of their different bodies. That’s because that organism’s understanding of the world “is determined in some sense by the properties of its body and sensory organs” (66). The second theme is Replacement:

An organism’s body in interaction with its environment replaces the need for representational processes thought to have been at the core of cognition. Thus, cognition does not depend on algorithmic processes over symbolic representations. It can take place in systems that do not include representational states, and can be explained without appeal to computational processes or representational states. (4)

Our interactions between our bodies and our environment are the key to cognition, according to this theme, rather than computations going on in our brains. For Replacement, “the computational and representational tools that have for so long dominated standard cognitive science are in fact irremediably defective, and so must be abandoned in favor of new tools and approaches”—tools and approaches that don’t use a vocabulary filled with computational concepts (68). The final theme is Constitution: “The body or world plays a constitutive rather than merely causal role in cognitive processing” (4-5). For this theme, our bodies and/or our environment constitute—at least in part—cognition, rather than just whatever is going on in our heads. According to Shapiro, Constitution is “a commitment to the idea that the constituents of the mind might comprise objects and properties apart from those found in the head,” so that “mental activity includes the brain, the body, and the world, or interactions among these things” (68).

Before Shapiro discusses these themes—he calls them “themes” because he doesn’t think embodied cognition has yet acquired to coherence of a theory—he presents an overview of standard cognitive science. This way of looking at cognition claims that our minds are like computers—in fact, since the 1960s cognitive scientists have been trying to create computer software that mimics human cognition. According to this version of cognition, the environment in which an organism exists, and the body of that organism, do not matter to that organism’s cognitive processes: “cognition is computation, computation operates over symbols, symbols begin with inputs to the brain and end with outputs from the brain, so it is in the brain alone that cognition takes place and it is with the brain alone that cognitive science need concern itself” (26-27). In other words, cognition is solipsistic: subjects are merely passive receivers of information, and if you give inputs to their computational processes, the rest of the world makes no difference to those processes—a model many cognitive scientists endorse (26). Embodied cognition, though, takes a very different approach to cognition. It “resists the idea that cognition is solipsistic, and so rejects the idea that subjects are passive receivers of stimulation” (27).  Instead, according to embodied cognition, our bodies and our environments are part of cognition. For Shapiro, embodied cognition raises a couple of key questions: How might the body contribute to or constrain our psychological capacities? Is the body a constituent in psychological processes? What from standard cognitive science can be retained, and what ought to be abandoned? (50).

Shapiro’s next move is to attempt to present a common background of embodied cognition, with reference to several multidisciplinary research projects. For some researchers, cognition is embodied action: it depends on the kinds of experiences that come from having a body with sensorimotor capacities—that is, a body that moves and collects information from its senses—and these sensorimotor capacities are themselves embedded in a wider biological, psychological, and cultural context (52). Other researchers claim that cognition depends on the experiences that come from having a body with specific perceptual and motor capacities that are inseparably linked, and that together form a matrix within which various aspects of cognition take place (56). Still others claim that the body is not merely a container for the brain, or a contributor to the brain’s activities, but is the brain’s partner in cognition (66). 

Following that attempt at a general description of embodied cognition, Shapiro reviews research that, in his judgment, falls into the Conceptualization theme. The research of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson is central to this discussion. According to Lakoff and Johnson, we understand basic concepts with reference to our bodies and their motion (88). Our minds, they contend, are biological and neural, not symbolic; our thought is embodied; the vast majority of our mind’s activity is unconscious; and abstract thought is metaphorical and uses the same sensorimotor system that runs our bodies (92). For Shapiro, the claims of Conceptualization are trivial (112), and standard cognitive science has computational explanations for many of the problems that Conceptualization claims cannot be explained by it (113), and many advocates of Conceptualization do not understand the science they “seek to topple,” especially Lakoff and Johnson (113). For these reasons, Shapiro concludes that Conceptualization is not a promising research theme.

Replacement, for Shapiro, is the theme that is the most self-consciously opposed to the computational framework that is at the core of standard cognitive science (114). Its proponents suggest that dynamical systems theory, rather than computational theory, would provide the right tools to investigate cognition (115) in a way that is committed to embodiment and situatedness—that is, to the body and its place in an environment (116). Dynamical systems theory, however, consists of a complex mathematical apparatus that attempts to describe how things change over time (116), and if it’s true that “[c]ognition emerges from dynamical interactions among brain, body, and world” (125), the resulting equations would be impossibly complicated. “Indeed,” Shapiro notes, “a common criticism of dynamical approaches to cognition is that they are practically intractable except in the simplest cases” (127-28). Shapiro concludes that the Replacement theme also falls short, because the kinds of behaviour that dynamicists have investigated “represent too thin a slice of the full cognitive spectrum to inspire much faith that embodiment and situatedness can account for all cognitive phenomena” (156).

Lastly, Shapiro takes on the Constitution theme. Proponents of this theme argue that cognitive processes extend beyond the brain (158). Some suggest that the body is part of the mind; others that the mind extends beyond the body and into the world—a view known as extended cognition (158-59). Unfortunately, much of the debate over constitution takes the form of a thought experiment, in which a brain is kept alive in a vat. When brains can be separated from the bodies that house them, I’ll take such thought experiments seriously. More sensible is the suggestion that when we write something down in a notebook in order to remember it, the pencil and paper we are using are part of our cognitive processes (185). 

In his conclusion, Shapiro argues that Conceptualization offers poor explanations of cognition (205-06), compared to standard cognitive science, and that while Replacement offers better explanations of particular phenomena, it is best thought of as an extension of standard cognitive science, rather than an alternative (207). Constitution, on the other hand, is not in competition with standard cognitive science, despite the intentions of some of its proponents (208), because “one can pursue Constitution with the assistance of explanatory concepts that are central to standard cognitive science,” something that cannot be said of Conceptualization or Replacement. In fact, Shapiro argues that Constitution pushes the boundaries of standard cognitive science—perhaps farther than many of its practitioners would have expected.

What do I make of this whirlwind introduction to a complex field I barely understand? Well, for starters, I think that standard cognitive science seems to be based on a metaphor that isn’t acknowledged as a metaphor: the brain is a computer, and our minds are that computer’s software. After all, the field seems to have arisen only after the invention of computers, and its first research projects were computer simulations that attempted to mimic our brains. What if the brain is something very different from a computer? What happens to that metaphor in that case? And does it make sense to try to separate mind and body? When I’m walking a long way on a hot day and I start to get heat exhaustion, the first symptoms include irritability and confusion. Doesn’t that suggest the link between my body and my cognitive processes? What about the recent studies that suggest that populations of gut bacteria have an effect on depression? Don’t they suggest that it’s foolish to attempt to separate mind and body? What would happen if cognitive scientists talked to neuroscientists about what’s actually going on in our skulls, instead of relying on thought experiments and simulations? Wouldn’t their theories end up being grounded in something other than a metaphor (and a pretty tired one at that)? My immediate impulse is to side with those who see a connection between mind and body, rather than a separation, and while I appreciate the care with which Shapiro works through the claims made by proponents of the various themes of embodied cognition, I wonder if his conclusions about those themes are warranted. Part of the problem, I think, is that Shapiro wants to see experimental data about embodied cognition, a field that is far too complex to generate such data. After all, if it’s true that our minds, bodies, and environment are interconnected in fundamental ways, how would those interconnections be measured? Maybe those experiments are less useful than Shapiro thinks they are.

Perhaps I need to spend more time investigating embodied cognition. I could, for example, read Lakoff and Johnson’s huge book, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, even though it’s not on my list, despite Shapiro’s dismissal of their work. Or I could look at theories of embodied learning. I’m not sure where to proceed, but I still have a sense that embodiment is an important part of my research, and that I need to find a way to think and write about it. 

Works Cited

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. Basic, 1999.

Shapiro, Lawrence. Embodied Cognition. Routledge, 2011.