Embodied Cognition

My attention was brought again today to cognitive scientists working in what has come to be called embodied cognition.  My initiation into these ideas happened when I read the book Where Mathematics Comes From by George Lakoff and Rafael Núñez.   The book explores mathematical ideas from the perspective that our bodies, living in their world, structure concepts and reason, including those found in mathematics.   Or, to put it another way, the physical interaction between the body and the world largely constitutes the cognitive processes that emerge.

Recognizing the extent to which we are not conscious of what the body is doing (how we see, how we breath, why we laugh, why we sleep – to name just a few) raised the possibility, for me,  that the things we think we are directing might also be driven by processes outside of our awareness.   I find this prospect invigorating, a perspective that could fling open doors to understanding ourselves better and crack some of the masks we hide behind.

Only recently did I realize the extent to which this perspective is growing in cognitive science.  It has roots in the phenomenological philosophy of Merleau-Ponty where the body is said to stand between subject and object, somehow existing in both.   But more and more cognitive scientists are developing research to support their view.  A new book by Lawrence Shapiro was brought to my attention today.  The NYTimes had a related story last February.  Disputes are also growing.  I read an interesting post responding to a paper challenging the ideas.

Francisco Varela was one of the pioneers of the perspective and wrote about what he called autopoietic systems (derived from the words self and creation). The cell is such a system in that the production of its components is based on an external flow of molecules and energy.  Then the components continue to maintain the organized bounded structure that gives rise to them.  It is said that autopoietic systems are structurally coupled with their medium.  This continuous dynamic in any living system is thought of as, at least, a rudimentary form of knowledge and cognition.  A nice review of one of his book Embodied Mind can be found here.

Rafael E. Núñez continues to work on the study of ideas in mathematics through this lens.  You can get access to some of his publications here.  He makes an interesting statement in one of them:

I will argue that the dynamic component of many
mathematical ideas is constitutive of fundamental
mathematical ideas such as limits, continuity, and infinite
series, providing essential inferential organization for them.
The formal versions of these concepts, however, neither
generalize nor fully formalize the inferential organization of
these mathematical ideas (i.e., epsilon/delta definition of limits and continuity of functions as framed by the arithmetization
program in the 19th century). I suggest that these deep
cognitive incompatibilities between dynamic-wholistic
entities and static-discrete ones explain important
dimensions of the great difficulties encountered by students.

I will inevitably return to all of this.  For now I would just like to add that the whole perspective is, in my opinion, compatible with mystical insights as well as analytic ones, when you consider that you can’t quite see outside your life but can become cognizant of your place within it.

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