Category Archives: embodied cognition

The info processing (IP) metaphor of the brain is wrong

Psychologist Robert Epstein, the former editor of Psychology Today, challenges anyone to show the brain processing information or data. The IP metaphor, he says, is so deeply embedded in thinking about thinking it prevents us from learning how the brain really works. Epstein also takes on popular luminaries including Ray Kurzweil and Henry Markram, seeing both exemplifying the extremes of wrongness we get into with the IP metaphor and the notion mental experience could persist outside the organic body.

The Empty Brain (Aeon article with audio)

New free e-books from Frontiers in Science

See the selection here. Frontiers is a pioneer in open access science publishing. Of possible interest to this forum:

What Is the Role for Effective Pedagogy In Contemporary Higher Education?

Reaching to Grasp Cognition: Analyzing Motor Behavior to Investigate Social Interactions

Neural Computation in Embodied Closed-Loop Systems for the Generation of Complex Behavior: From Biology to Technology

Cellular Therapies: Past, Present and Future

Software Architectures for Humanoid Robotics

Recontextualizing decenterd cognition

New issue of Contructivist Foundations on e-cognition. E.g.:

“Such considerations motivate the need to re-think our understanding of how the brain itself works. They suggest that the best explanation of brain function may be found in the mixed vocabularies of embodied and situated cognition, developmental psychology, ecological psychology, dynamic systems theory, applied linguistics, the theory of affordances and material engagement, rather than the narrow vocabulary of computational neuroscience.”

What are numbers, really?

The nature of math came up in our embodied cognition discussion. Here is a presentation by Dehaene on the topic followed by comments from The Reality Club: George Lakoff, Marc Hauser, Jaron Lanier, Rafael Núñez, Margaret Wertheim, Howard Gardner, Joseph Traub, Steven Pinker, Charles Simonyi. A few brief, edited Lakoff excerpts follow from that discussion. Note that this is a discussion from 1997, so a lot of confirming science has happened since then.

” [Dehaene] has made it clear that our capacity for number has evolved and that the very notion of number is shaped by specific neural systems in our brains. […] We understand the world through our cognitive models and those models are not mirrors of the world, but arise from the detailed peculiarities of our brains.”

“Mathematics is not ‘abstract’, but rather metaphorical, based on projections from sensory-motor areas that make use of ‘inferences’ performed in those areas. The metaphors are not arbitrary, but based on common experiences: putting things into piles, taking steps, turning around, coming close to objects so they appear larger, and so on.”

“Dehaene is right that this requires a nonplatonic philosophy of mathematics that is also not socially constructivist. Indeed, what is required is a special case of experientialist philosophy (or ’embodied realism’). […] Such a philosophy of mathematics is not relativist or socially constructivist, since it is embodied, that is, based on the shared characteristics of human brains and bodies as well as the shared aspects of our physical and interpersonal environments. […] On the other hand, such a philosophy of mathematics is not platonic or objectivist. Consider two simple examples. First, can sets contain themselves or not? This cannot be answered by looking at the mathematical universe. You can have it either way, choosing either the container metaphor or the graph metaphor, depending on your interests.”

“Dehaene is by no means alone is his implicit rejection of the Computer Program Theory. Distinguished figures in neuroscience have rejected it (e.g., Antonio Damasio, Gerald Edelman, Patricia Churchland). Even among computer scientists, connectionism presents a contrasting view. In our lab at the International Computer Science Institute at Berkeley, Jerome Feldman, I, and our co-workers working on a neural theory of language, have discovered results in the course of our work suggesting that the program-mind is not even a remotely good approximation to a real mind.”

Pinker of course also comments and takes issue with Lakoff’s depiction of him. Dehaene also responds to the comments at the end.

Can we understand other minds? Novels and stories say: no

by Kanta Dihal

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Cassandra woke up to the rays of the sun streaming through the slats on her blinds, cascading over her naked chest. She stretched, her breasts lifting with her arms as she greeted the sun. She rolled out of bed and put on a shirt, her nipples prominently showing through the thin fabric. She breasted boobily to the stairs, and titted downwards.

This particular hyperbolic gem has been doing the rounds on Tumblr for a while. It resurfaced in April 2018, in response to a viral Twitter challenge posed by the US podcaster Whitney Reynolds: women, describe yourself the way a male writer would.

The dare hit a sweet spot. Many could summon up passages from books containing terrible, sexualised descriptions of women. Some of us recalled Haruki Murakami, whose every novel can be summarised as: ‘Protagonist is an ordinary man, except lots of really beautiful women want to sleep with him.’ Others remembered J M Coetzee, and his variations on the plot: ‘Tenured male professor in English literature sleeps with beautiful female undergraduate.’ It was a way for us to joke about the fact that so much great literature was written by men who could express perfectly detailed visual descriptions of the female body, and yet possessed such an impoverished understanding of the female mind.

This is why the philosophical project of trying to map the contours of other minds needs a reality check. If other humans are beyond our comprehension, what hope is there for understanding the experience of animals, artificial intelligence or aliens?

I am a literature scholar. Over thousands of years of literary history, authors have tried and failed to convey an understanding of Others (with a capital ‘O’). Writing fiction is an exercise that stretches an author’s imagination to its limits. And fiction shows us, again and again, that our capacity to imagine other minds is extremely limited.

It took feminism and postcolonialism to point out that writers were systematically misrepresenting characters who weren’t like them. Male authors, it seems, still struggle to present convincing female characters a lot of the time. The same problem surfaces again when writers try to introduce a figure with a different ethnicity to their own, and fail spectacularly.

I mean, ‘coffee-coloured skin’? Do I really need to find out how much milk you take in the morning to know the ethnicity you have in mind? Writers who keep banging on with food metaphors to describe darker pigmentation show that they don’t appreciate what it’s like to inhabit such skin, nor to have such metaphors applied to it.

Conversely, we recently learnt that some publishers rejected the Korean-American author Leonard Chang’s novel The Lockpicker (2017) – for failing to cater to white readers’ lack of understanding of Korean-Americans. Chang gave ‘none of the details that separate Koreans and Korean-Americans from the rest of us’, one publisher’s letter said. ‘For example, in the scene when she looks into the mirror, you don’t show how she sees her slanted eyes …’ Any failure to understand a nonwhite character, it seems, was the fault of the nonwhite author.

Fiction shows us that nonhuman minds are equally beyond our grasp. Science fiction provides a massive range of the most fanciful depictions of interstellar space travel and communication – but anthropomorphism is rife. Extraterrestrial intelligent life is imagined as Little Green Men (or Little Yellow or Red Men when the author wants to make a particularly crude point about 20th-century geopolitics). Thus alien minds have been subject to the same projections and assumptions that authors have applied to human characters, when they fundamentally differ from the authors themselves.

For instance, let’s look at a meeting of human minds and alien minds. The Chinese science fiction author Liu Cixin is best known for his trilogy starting with The Three-Body Problem (2008). It appeared in English in 2014 and, in that edition, each book has footnotes – because there are some concepts that are simply not translatable from Chinese into English, and English readers need these footnotes to understand what motivates the characters. But there are also aliens in this trilogy. From a different solar system. Yet their motivations don’t need footnoting in translation.

Splendid as the trilogy is, I find that very curious. There is a linguistic-cultural barrier that prevents an understanding of the novel itself, on this planet. Imagine how many footnotes we’d need to really grapple with the motivations of extraterrestrial minds.

Our imaginings of artificial intelligence are similarly dominated by anthropomorphic fantasies. The most common depiction of AI conflates it with robots. AIs are metal men. And it doesn’t matter whether the press is reporting on swarm robots invented in Bristol or a report produced by the House of Lords: the press shall plaster their coverage with Terminator imagery. Unless the men imagining these intelligent robots want to have sex with them, in which case they’re metal women with boobily breasting metal cleavage – a trend spanning the filmic arts from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) to the contemporary TV series Westworld (2016-). The way that we imagine nonhumans in fiction reflects how little we, as humans, really get each other.

All this supports the idea that embodiment is central to the way we understand one another. The ridiculous situations in which authors miss the mark stem from the difference between the author’s own body and that of the character. It’s hard to imagine what it’s like to be someone else if we can’t feel it. So, much as I enjoyed seeing a woman in high heels outrun a T-Rex in Jurassic World (2015), I knew that the person who came up with that scene clearly has no conception of what it’s like to inhabit a female body, be it human or Tyrannosaurus.

Because stories can teach compassion and empathy, some people argue that we should let AIs read fiction in order to help them understand humans. But I disagree with the idea that compassion and empathy are based on a deep insight into other minds. Sure, some fiction attempts to get us to understand one another. But we don’t need any more than a glimpse of what it’s like to be someone else in order to empathise with them – and, hopefully, to not want to kill and destroy them.

As the US philosopher Thomas Nagel claimed in 1974, a human can’t know what it is like to be a bat, because they are fundamentally alien creatures: their sensory apparatus and their movements are utterly different from ours. But we can imagine ‘segments’, as Nagel wrote. This means that, despite our lack of understanding of bat minds, we can find ways to keep a bat from harm, or even nurse and raise an orphaned baby bat, as cute videos on the internet will show you.

The problem is that sometimes we don’t realise this segment of just a glimpse of something bigger. We don’t realise until a woman, a person of colour, or a dinosaur finds a way to point out the limits of our imagination, and the limits of our understanding. As long as other human minds are beyond our understanding, nonhuman ones certainly are, too.Aeon counter – do not remove

Kanta Dihal is a postdoctoral research assistant and the research project coordinator of the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Book discussion event on embodied cognition

Our discussions all, to some extent, relate to cognition. An important area of inquiry concerns whether some form of physical embodiment is required for a brain to support cognition in general and the self-aware sort of cognition we humans possess.


Philosophy In The Flesh: The Embodied Mind And Its Challenge To Western Thought, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Please note, while the title includes “Philosophy,” we are not a philosophy group and the book and discussion will revolve around scientific concepts and implications, not spiritualistic or metaphysical ideas.

Amazon (used copies in the $6 range, including shipping)

eBook (free PDF)


RSVP by email to if you plan to attend our discussion on the afternoon of Saturday, November 3, 2018.


While our group enjoys socializing and will plan other events to that end, this meeting is for focused discussion among people who invest the time in advance to inform themselves on the topic. As a courtesy to those who will do their ‘homework,’ before the meeting please read and consider Part 1 (the first eight chapters) of the book. As you read, jot down your thoughts and questions on the book’s claims, supporting evidence, and implications for our core topics–brain, mind, and artificial intelligence. If you are not able to invest this effort prior to the meeting, please do not attend. Thank you for your understanding.

If you are a visual systematic learner, try creating a concept map of the book’s core concepts and ideas.


Please see related resource links in the comments to this post. Also, you can search this site’s other relevant posts using the category and tag, ’embodied cognition.’


The location will be in the vicinity of UNM on Central Ave. When you RSVP to, you will be sent the address.

Book: Beyond the Body – The Future of Embodied Cognition

Free e-book from Frontiers in Psychology. It was published in 2016 so has more updated chapters from various authors on the subject. Given the more recent information this might be a better alternative for our book discussion group then the one I recommended earlier . Their blurb follows:

Embodied cognition represents one of most important research programs in contemporary cognitive science. Although there is a diversity of opinion concerning the nature of embodiment, the core idea is that cognitive processes are influenced by body morphology, emotions, and sensorimotor systems. This idea is supported by an ever increasing collection of empirical studies that fall into two broad classes: one consisting of experiments that implicate action, emotion, and perception systems in seemingly abstract cognitive tasks and the other consisting of experiments that demonstrate the contribution of bodily interaction with the external environment to the performance of such tasks.

Now that the research program of embodied cognition is well established, the time seems right for assessing its further promise and potential limitations. This research topic aims to create an interdisciplinary forum for discussing where we go from here. Given that we have good reason to think that the body influences cognition in surprisingly robust ways, the central question is no longer whether or not any cognitive processes are embodied. Instead, other questions have come to the fore: To what extent are cognitive processes in general embodied? Are there disembodied processes? Among those that are embodied, how are they embodied? Is there more than one kind of embodiment? Is embodiment a matter of degree?

There are a number of specific issues that could be addressed by submissions to this research topic. Some supporters of embodied cognition eschew representations. Should anti-representationalism be a core part of an embodied approach? What role should dynamical models play? Research in embodied cognition has tended to focus on the importance of sensorimotor areas for cognition. What are the functions of multimodal or amodal brain areas? Abstract concepts have proved to be a challenge for embodied cognition. How should they be handled? Should researchers allow for some form of weak embodiment? Currently, there is a split between those who offer a simulation-based approach to embodiment and those who offer an enactive approach. Who is right? Should there be a rapprochement between these two groups? Some experimental and robotics researchers have recently shown a great deal of interest in the idea that external resources such as language can serve as form of cognitive scaffolding. What are the implications of this idea for embodied cognition?

This research topic aims to bring together empirical and theoretical work from a diversity of perspectives. Submissions are sought from any of the major disciplines associated with cognitive science, including but not necessarily limited to anthropology, cognitive psychology, computational modeling, linguistics, neuroscience, philosophy, robotics, and social psychology.

Embodied cognition and mindfulness

The podcast is below. The blurb follows:

“Evan Thompson discusses Embodied Cognition, 4E Cognition, and the problems with studying the mechanisms of mindfulness from a brain-only perspective. Evan is a writer and professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He works on the nature of the mind, the self, and human experience by combining cognitive science, philosophy of mind, phenomenology, and cross-cultural philosophy, especially Asian philosophical traditions. Evan holds a thoughtful, critical view in these times of turbulence regarding mindfulness research and methods of delivery, ‘Mindfulness is not in the head. Being mindful is an embodied, social practice not a private mental state or special pattern of brain activity. Mindfulness is embodied understanding.'”


Seismic communication: Elephants communicate through their feet

During our recent meeting to discuss animal intelligence, Eve mentioned elephants communicating over large distances by transmitting and receiving low-frequency waves through their skeletons and feet. This was in the context of my question, “Is physical embodiment necessary to higher cognition?” This article and video from KQED show and explain the phenomenon.

Affective neuroscience of self-generated thought

By Fox et al. (2018), Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 12 May, pp. 1 – 27. The abstract:

“Despite increasing scientific interest in self-generated thought—mental content largely independent of the immediate environment—there has yet to be any comprehensive synthesis of the subjective experience and neural correlates of affect in these forms of thinking. Here, we aim to develop an integrated affective neuroscience encompassing many forms of self-generated thought—normal and pathological, moderate and excessive, in waking and in sleep. In synthesizing existing literature on this topic, we reveal consistent findings pertaining to the prevalence, valence, and variability of emotion in self-generated thought, and highlight how these factors might interact with self-generated thought to influence general well-being. We integrate these psychological findings with recent neuroimaging research, bringing attention to the neural correlates of affect in self-generated thought. We show that affect in self-generated thought is prevalent, positively biased, highly variable (both within and across individuals), and consistently recruits many brain areas implicated in emotional processing, including the orbitofrontalcortex amygdala, insula, and medial prefrontal cortex. Many factors modulate these typical psychological and neural patterns, however; the emerging affective neuroscience of self-generated thought must endeavor to link brain function and subjective experience in both everyday self-generated thought as well as its dysfunctions in mental illness.”