Embodied Cognition: Definition, Theory & Experiments

Instructor: Emily Cummins
In this lesson, we'll discuss the theory of embodied cognition, which suggests our bodies are very important to the process of cognition, or thinking. We'll discuss some of the experiments that psychologists have done to understand embodied cognition.

What Is Embodied Cognition?

Is our brain solely responsible for our thoughts? What about our body? Is it possible for thoughts and behavior to originate from some place other than our brain? Psychologists who study embodied cognition ask similar questions. The theory of embodied cognition suggests that our body is also responsible for thinking or problem solving. This is a pretty revolutionary thing to say! In this lesson, we'll go over this new line of thinking in cognitive research and look at some of the key explanations for this phenomenon. We'll also go over some of the major experiments that have recently been conducted in this area.

Theory of Embodied Cognition

The earliest explanations for human thought generally focused on the ways that our thoughts are regulated and controlled by something internal to us. Cognitive psychologists have called these mental representations. Essentially these are models of the world that the brain comes up with. This explanation was kind of like suggesting we had a computer inside of us. But embodied cognition is a little different than this. Embodied cognition suggests that, in fact, we have a very good sense of perceptual information about the world around us and we might use this even more than mental representations. In other words, we're not just thinking up abstract models of things in our brain that in turn generate thoughts, but instead we're processing information firsthand.

Perhaps the most important component of the theory of embodied cognition is the idea that our body is not simply controlled by our brain. Instead, our body might influence our thinking. In other words, our thinking does not simply come from the brain--the way that we experience the physical world through our bodies shapes our thinking. The environment is really important, here. The way we move our body, how we're standing, or what we're touching or holding can influence the way that we think about or evaluate a situation.

Experiments in Embodied Cognition

The idea of embodied cognition really started in disciplines like philosophy and linguistics, as opposed to cognitive or experimental science. But recently there have been a number of important experiments that seek to test this concept empirically. Let's go over some examples.

In one recent experiment, researchers had undergraduate students estimate measurements. Specifically, students were asked to look at a picture of different objects, like the Eiffel Tower, and estimate how tall the objects were. Participants stood on a balance board and researchers ever so slightly shifted the balance of different participants, so that they were unaware that their posture was shifting. What researchers found is quite interesting. Participants' posture affected how tall they believed the Eiffel Tower to be. Researchers found that leaning slightly left caused participants to believe the tower was smaller. So, here, we see that our body is involved in how our brain estimates size.

How tall is the Eiffel Tower?
embodied cognition experiments

John Bargh, a social psychologist working at Yale, has done a number of experiments that reinforce this idea that the body is very much connected to our thought process. Bargh and his colleagues found that when people who were interviewing job candidates held very heavy clipboards, they took their role more seriously than the people who were holding very light clipboards. The research team also found that when people sat in hard and uncomfortable chairs versus soft ones, they were less likely to negotiate. Holding a warm drink versus holding a cold one made people more likely to be nicer to and more interested in other people when having a conversation.

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