To investigate, Witt and a colleague showed college students photos of people holding different objects and asked them to quickly decide whether what they saw was a gun or some neutral object, like a shoe or a cell phone.
When participants were themselves holding a plastic toy gun, versus some neutral object, they were about 30 percent more likely to perceive the object in another person’s hand as a gun. Merely seeing a gun nearby had no such effect on their perceptions.
“We see the world in terms of our ability to act,” Witt concludes. The same object “can look different, depending on what we’re intending to do and our ability to perform that intended action.”
Different Bodies, Different Thoughts?
Such findings raise a mind-bending question: Do different bodies dictate different thoughts? In one study that confronts that idea, cognitive scientist Daniel Casasanto of the New School for Social Research in New York reasoned that if people use their physical perceptions and motor experiences to construct mental simulations, then physical characteristics that cause us to interact with the environment in systematically different ways should in fact send people down different mental pathways.
To test the possibility, Casasanto and colleagues examined spatial preferences in left- and right-handers. He found that people prefer the choices presented to them on their dominant side, a phenomenon that supports what he calls the “body-specificity hypothesis.” When asked to select which job applicant to hire, which product to buy or which alien creature seemed most trustworthy, lefties tended to choose the selection that was on the left, and vice versa.
In another experiment, Casasanto’s team asked right-handed study participants to wear a bulky glove that nudged them to use their left hand while doing a motor task. The constraint changed their preferences: After completing a motor task with their left hand, people preferred choices presented on their left.
Studies that demonstrate embodied cognition seem to defy conventional wisdom, which paints thought as a set of computer-like algorithms that unfold entirely within the skull. That characterization is a mistake, Golonka argues.
She and Leeds colleague Andrew Wilson advocate an ecosystem-like approach that treats even the most sophisticated cognitive tasks as a product of how our brains and bodies have evolved with our environments. The astonishing implication is that our bodies, through perception and action, can actually replace the need for complex mental calculations.
Consider a baseball outfielder who must run to catch a fly ball: How does he get to the right place at the right moment? You could solve this problem with a calculator, using math and physics to calculate where and when the ball would reach the height necessary for catching, and then draw a straight line from the player’s starting position to that spot. But the player doesn’t do the math, and he doesn’t run in a straight line, Golonka says.
Instead, he keeps his eye on the ball and moves in a path that syncs with the ball’s curved, decelerating trajectory. As he runs, his motion cancels out some of the ball’s motion and now it looks, to him, as if the ball is moving in a straight line, which he can track to its endpoint.
The outfielder doesn’t need to get out a calculator. He just needs to process the visual cues he’s getting, along with physical cues like his running speed, and then put them together to solve the task. Yes, he uses his brain; but his eyes and legs are just as crucial.
Clear evidence of embodied cognition is now voluminous. What to make of it ... well, that’s more controversial. The view that thought depends crucially on bodily sensation and action has yet to overtake the traditional model of cognition, as Lee observes. In part, that’s because researchers lack a coherent theory that can explain how and under what circumstances embodied effects occur.
Golonka and Wilson hope their ecosystem-like model can become this unifying framework. If they’re right that thought occurs not only in the brain but in a tangled communication among brain, body and environment, it could turn cognition research upside down. French philosopher René Descartes once said, cogito ergo sum: I think, therefore I am.
The embodied cognition model suggests a slightly different philosophy — I am, therefore I think.