The Embodied Mind Project

In the week between 13th and 20th March 2015 the Derek Jarman Lab led a project whose aim was to produce a short film essay on the subject of ‘embodied mind.’ In the course of this filmmaking experiment we brought together participants with diverse backgrounds and skills, from cognitivists to theatre performers. We wanted to galvanise a creative and completely unique response to the subject matter which was intellectually exciting and seemed to lend itself to audiovisual treatment.

The outcome of our experiment are two films which you can see below. But the project is far from being finished. We will continue with more film essays which will re-work the subject and re-edit the gathered footage. Anyone interested please stay in touch.


The philosophical concept of ‘embodied mind’ or ‘embodied cognition’ holds that the nature of the human mind is largely determined by the form of the human body. The aspects of the body include the motor system, the perceptual system, the body’s interactions with the environment (situatedness) and the ontological assumptions about the world that are built into the body and the brain. Although the idea itself dates back to the early works of Kant, and strongly features in the phenomenological writings of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Martin Heidegger, it rose to eminence thanks to recent insights from cognitive psychology, linguistics, neuroscience and AI. Investigated in the context of connectionism the ‘embodied mind’ thesis gained new support in the models which see mental or behavioral phenomena as the emergent processes of interconnected networks of simple units. The metaphor of networks which span our thinking and body, and extend further to the environment which we inhabit seems to be a potent way of explaining the incredible potential of human mind, which in its adaptedness and problem-solving abilities is still unrivalled by any form of artificial intelligence.

According to Margaret Wilson ‘embodied cognition’ can be described using the following six views:

1. “Cognition is situated. Cognitive activity takes place in the context of a real-world environment, and inherently involves perception and action.” One example of this is moving around a room while, at the same time, trying to decide where the furniture should go.

2. “Cognition is time-pressured. We are ‘mind on the hoof’ (Clark, 1997), and cognition must be understood in terms of how it functions under the pressure of real-time interaction with the environment.” When you’re under pressure to make a decision, the choice that is made emerges from the confluence of pressures that you’re under. In the absence of pressure, a decision may be made differently.

3. “We off-load cognitive work onto the environment. Because of limits on our information-processing abilities (e.g., limits on attention and working memory), we exploit the environment to reduce the cognitive workload. We make the environment hold or even manipulate information for us, and we harvest that information only on a need-to-know basis.” This is seen when people have calendars, agendas, PDAs, or anything to help them with everyday functions. We write things down so we can use the information when we need it, instead of taking the time to memorize or encode it into our minds.

4. “The environment is part of the cognitive system. The information flow between mind and world is so dense and continuous that, for scientists studying the nature of cognitive activity, the mind alone is not a meaningful unit of analysis.” This statement means that the production of cognitive activity does not come from the mind alone, but rather is a mixture of the mind and the environmental situation that we are in. These interactions become part of our cognitive systems. Our thinking, decision-making, and future are all impacted by our environmental situations.

5. “Cognition is for action. The function of the mind is to guide action and things such as perception and memory must be understood in terms of their contribution to situation-appropriate behavior.” This claim has to do with the purpose of perception and cognition. For example, visual information is processed to extract identity, location, and affordances (ways that we might interact with objects). A prominent anatomical distinction is drawn between the “what” (ventral) and “where” (dorsal) pathways in visual processing. However, the commonly labeled “where” pathway is also the “how” pathway, at least partially dedicated to action.

6. “Off-line cognition is body-based. Even when decoupled from the environment, the activity of the mind is grounded in mechanisms that evolved for interaction with the environment- that is, mechanisms of sensory. processing and motor control.” This is shown with infants or toddlers best. Children utilize skills and abilities they were born with, such as sucking, grasping, and listening, to learn more about the environment.[1]

Michael Thomas proposes following philosophical and scientific implications of connectionism:

1. Although our behaviour (and particularly our language) can be described in terms of rules, our behaviour is not driven by internal mental rules. Instead, we have similarity-based distributed representations, which deliver context-sensitive behaviours. While our behaviour is sometimes conventionally rule-following (we stop at red lights), we can step outside of the rules in certain contexts (emergencies). Systematic rule based knowledge is a cultural artefact iteratively developed over many generations (e.g., propositional logic). Rules are used to communicate normative behaviour (in the context of laws and ethics, a medium that is open to public scrutiny).

2. Modern concepts are thus the result of many generations of honing knowledge into systematic forms that minimise the need for personal (context-sensitive) intuitions. These concepts are often hybrid that span multiple situations and contexts (e.g., notions like ‘number’ or ‘good’). We create structured learning environments that require several years to shape the cognitive systems of child in our culture (as opposed to the sensori-motor and socio-communicative skills they readily acquire in the first few years). Human concepts are thus neither innate nor acquired, they represent an extensive history of using our innate cognitive capacity to shape knowledge in interaction with cultural knowledge artefacts and passing on the result to the next generation to acquire through education and continue the process of shaping.

3. Within psychology, there has been a history of the use of technological metaphors to infer hidden causal entities of the mind that generate behaviour, including ropes and pulleys, steam engines, telephone networks, the symbolic computer, and arguably now the internet. Computational theory after Turing argued for an independence between software and hardware (implementation), but latterly cognitive neuroscience takes the real-time constraints of the brain as influencing the likely computational algorithms it employs. Both symbolic and connectionist approaches nevertheless subscribe to the information processing perspective on what minds/brains do. Some would argue that the network metaphor is therefore closer to the ‘truth’ of how the mind works than earlier metaphors.

Further reading:

Clark, Andy. Supersizing the Mind : Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. (chapter ‘World, Incorporated’ can be downloaded here)

Vesey, G. N. A. The Embodied Mind. Taylor & Francis, 2014.

[1] Six views of embodied cognition Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, Vol. 9, No. 4. (1 December 2002), pp. 625-636 by Margaret Wilson.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *