A&O – COGNITION notes incl embodiment




embodied and extended cognition









“Cognition refers  to the mechanisms by which animals acquire, process, store, and act on information from the environment.  These include perception, learning, memory, and decision making” (Shettlesworth 1998:5)[1]


This definition is so broad that some scholars think it advisable to limit its meaning to specific aspects of knowledge manipulation (e.g., McFarland 1991 cited by Shettlesworth 1998). But I am not sure if the definition is broad enough, since it is not only information from the environment that an organism acts upon –at least not at several of the levels of organization with which we are concerned [note: reasoning and thinking at multiple levels of organization is a source of great mischief, and an issue because of the confusion caused by reasoning involving multiple levels simultaneously.  Thinking about the connections of (for example) cause and consequence are so vastly below (or above) human competence for reason that they cannot be discussed except in metaphysical terms.  This is part of the sometimes bitter conflict between the real versus the ideal:  sentiments that emerge when people are at or near the end of their competence]



“Meaning is more than words and deeper than concepts.”



Read key excerpts



While the cognitive processes of the nervous system are responsible for thoughts and actions, they inform and are informed by the body—they are embodied.  Further, the body itself exists in a multidimensional matrix—an environment in which it is embedded and with which it interacts.   It can be said that these parts and wholes—minds, bodies, environments, and all their constituent elements–exist in dynamic relationship with each other. They are all in constant flux with respect to each other and any one of them can be exquisitely sensitive to small changes in another such that thoughts and actions can be profoundly altered, often in existentially relevant ways. At the level of physiology, this is termed homeostasis, a dynamic balance which is critically responsible for the survival of the organism.  Throughout development, parts of this system change as a result of inner (genetic, developmental) influences and outer (environmental) influences.  As Levins and Lewontin put it, “one thing cannot exist without the other … one acquires its properties from its relation to the other [and] … the properties of both evolve as a consequence of their interpenetration” (1985:3)​​​​​​​.   The different relationships that characterize the individual involve varying levels of intimacy and fluidity of interaction.  For example, the artist, by disposition and training (that is, congenital and acquired characteristics) is more-or-less connected to their medium.  As the potter and poet Mary C. Richards put it,

I learn through my hands and my eyes and my skin what I could never learn through my brain. I develop a sense of life, of the world of earth, air, fire, and water — and wood, to add the fifth element according to Oriental alchemy — which could be developed in no other way. And if it is life I am fostering, I must maintain a kind of dialogue with the clay, listening, serving, interpreting as well as mastering. The union of our wills, like a marriage, it is a beautiful act, the act of centering and turning a pot on the potter’s wheel…  (1989:74)[ii]

The effect of one’s experience of the world (inner state of the body or outer state of the environment) on one’s cognitive processes seems evident.  And surely one’s cognition affects the body.  This reciprocity—often seeming like a single functional unit—is embodied cognition, mentioned above.  Scientific exploration of this theme—particularly with respect to emotions—is fraught with difficulty but very provocative theories (most prominently the James-Lange Theory) and much influential thinking has been promoted.   These issues were addressed in an article by Caruana Fausto (2017) in the journal Emotion Review.  In his summary, he sought to challenge the traditional view that emotion consists of “independent affective and motor components” which led to the “assumption that emotional expression is controlled by motor centers in the anterior cingulate, frontal operculum, and supplementary motor area, whereas emotional experience depends on interoceptive centers in the insula. Recent stimulation studies provide a different perspective. I will outline two sets of findings. First, affective experiences can be elicited also following the stimulation of motor centers. Second, emotional expressions can be elicited by stimulating interoceptive regions. Echoing the original pragmatist theories of emotion, I will make a case for the notion that emotional experience emerges from the integration of sensory and motor signals, encoded in the same functional network.”


  • Cognitive processes that are coupled to the durable outcomes of one’s actions (look in on “Thoughts of a Spiderweb“).
    • “In their brief, bold, and controversial manifesto of a thorough, “active” externalism in the philosophy of mind, titled “The Extended Mind”, Clark and Chalmers[i] highlight “the active role of the environment in driving cognitive processes” (1998, p. 7). Not only does the content of mental processes or linguistic expressions depend on what is in the environment—as it does according to externalist views in the philosophy of mind and language, respectively.1 In some respects at least, the very accomplishment of cognitive processes, and, in a relevant subset of cases, their very existence, depends on what is in the environment. Clark and Chalmers argue that there are situations in which “the human organism is linked with an external entity in a two-way interaction, creating a coupled system that can be seen as a cognitive system in its own right” (1998, p. 8, emphasis in original)”.  (Greif 2017)[ii]



“For Maturana and Varela [26], autopoiesis refers to the processes by which organisms act on their environments in order to provide the conditions for their own continued functioning.

Cognitive autopoiesis refers to the active means by which agents structure their environments in order to provide the conditions for the own cognitive activities. These include most basically the means by which agents provide for the factorability of environments: engaging in customary activities, using the customary tools and materials for them, partitioning the activities in the customary ways, and so on. But it also includes a range of more subtle phenomena. Kirsh [19], for example, has drawn the useful distinction between actions that aim at achieving functional goals (beating eggs, sweeping floors) and actions that aim at facilitating cognition (setting out the right number of eggs at the beginning, opening the curtains so that dust will be more visible). Actions can, of course, serve both purposes, for example when one chooses to boil water in a kettle rather than a saucepan: each strategy achieves the result, but the latter will also provide a sign that it is possible to take the next action, for example preparing tea. Stabilization actions [16] also provide the cognitive conditions for other actions. One might, for example, develop the habit of leaving items by the door the moment one realizes that they need to be taken in to work.”  (From  http://www.cs.cmu.edu/afs/cs/project/jair/pub/volume6/agre97a-html/node26.html  December 12, 2008)


read a key excerpt)


[i] Clark A, Chalmers D. The extended mind. Analysis. 1998;58(1):7–19. doi: 10.1093/analys/58.1.7. [Cross Ref]


[ii] Hajo Greif   (2017)  What is the extension of the extended mind?  Synthese. 2017; 194(11): 4311–4336.    Published online 2015 Jun 29. doi:  10.1007/s11229-015-0799-9  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5686289/  PMCID: PMC5686289  PMID: 29200511



[i] Sara J. Shettlesworth (1998) Cognition, Evolution, and Behavior.  New York: Oxford University Press. 

[ii] “But the trouble was that though the work absorbed my mind, it used very little else. And I am by now convinced that wisdom is not the product of mental effort. Wisdom is a state of the total being, in which capacities for knowledge and for love, for survival and for death, for imagination, inspiration, intuition, for all the fabulous functioning of this human being who we are, come into a center with their forces, come into an experience of meaning that can voice itself as wise action. It is not enough to belong to a Society of Friends who believe in non-violence if, when frustrated, your body spontaneously contracts and shoots out its fist to knock another man down. It is in our bodies that redemption takes place. It is the physicality of the crafts that pleases me: I learn through my hands and my eyes and my skin what I could never learn through my brain. I develop a sense of life, of the world of earth, air, fire, and water — and wood, to add the fifth element according to Oriental alchemy — which could be developed in no other way. And if it is life I am fostering, I must maintain a kind of dialogue with the clay, listening, serving, interpreting as well as mastering. The union of our wills, like a marriage, it is a beautiful act, the act of centering and turning a pot on the potter’s wheel; and the sexual images implicit in the forming of the cone and opening of the vessel are archetypal; likewise the give-and-take in the forming of a pot out of slabs, out of raw shards, out of coils;the union of natural intelligences: the intelligence of the clay, my intelligence, the intelligence of the tools, the intelligence of the fire.” – MC Richards ((1989:74 in Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person, Wesleyan University Press)



“… the idea that the mind is not only connected to the body but that the body influences the mind, is one of the more counter-intuitive ideas in cognitive science. In sharp contrast is dualism, a theory of mind famously put forth by Rene Descartes in the 17th century when he claimed that “there is a great difference between mind and body, inasmuch as body is by nature always divisible, and the mind is entirely indivisible… the mind or soul of man is entirely different from the body.” In the proceeding centuries, the notion of the disembodied mind flourished. From it, western thought developed two basic ideas: reason is disembodied because the mind is disembodied and reason is transcendent and universal. However, as George Lakoff and Rafeal Nez explain:


 Cognitive science calls this entire philosophical worldview into serious question on empirical grounds… [the mind] arises from the nature of our brains, bodies, and bodily experiences. This is not just the innocuous and obvious claim that we need a body to reason; rather, it is the striking claim that the very structure of reason itself comes from the details of our embodiment… Thus, to understand reason we must understand the details of our visual system, our motor system, and the general mechanism of neural binding.


What exactly does this mean? It means that our cognition isn’t confined to our cortices. That is, our cognition is influenced, perhaps determined by, our experiences in the physical world.”   (McNerny 2011)[2]


 DEEP COGNITION:  of course, features of cognition are diverse and distributed.  They have evolved over the generations conforming to broad outlines and develop within each individual in conformance with the social and physical environments into which the individual is born and matures.   In moment-to-moment functioning, the coordination of cognitive traits can be more-or-less reconfigured more-or-less physiological stress.  

STRESS.  In research on social dominance I observed the subordinates have higher levels of specific stress hormones and changed susceptibilities to surges in other hormones associated with stress.   Thinking about the known influences of these hormones on function of specific parts of the brain I inventoried the diversity of stress hormone effects on cognitive functions: see Table 1 at “Ethological Causes and Consequences of the Stress Response” (Greenberg et al. 2002).  

A recent article on stress and cognition that will underscore and extend my own findings is at an editorial on STRESS and COGNITION


Knowing one’s own mind sometimes seems like the tip of an iceberg –those mental processes accessible to reflection (“metacognition”), but inferring the mind of others is understandable daunting– yet our development enables this by means of a “theory of mind.”

It allows us to ask, how we can understand what an artifact could communicate to us.  We assume that somehow the minds of artists are embodied in their artifacts. We can ask “what were they thinking?” This might help us infer, “what were they trying to say?” if indeed they were making intentional efforts to communicate. (What we perceive as art might be unintentional on the part of its creator.) And further, considering the ancient minds that created Paleolithic art, this can inform our understanding of the evolution of cognitive competencies (A&O notes on Theory of Mind)


THE MANY PROCESSES THAT CONSTITUTE SPECIFIC COGNITIVE COMPETENCIES are revealed by the multiplicity of kids of AGNOSIAS that result when their orchestration goes askew ….  similarly, the Extraordinary hallucinations that can result


lost line: … originating from or penetrating to more-or-less of an individual’s “depth,” so communications within and between people is of significant interest: This is COMMUNICATIONS –and to borrow a couple of bullet point from those notes, …

[1] Sara J. Shettlesworth (1998) Cognition, Evolution, and Behavior.  New York: Oxford University Press. 

[2] Samuel McNerney A Brief Guide to Embodied Cognition: Why You Are Not Your Brain.  Scientific American Blog November 4, 2011. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/a-brief-guide-to-embodied-cognition-why-you-are-not-your-brain/