A&O – COGNITION notes incl embodiment





nonconscious cognition

embodied and extended cognition

highest cognition







COGNITION, most simply, involves the flow of information: acquisition, its storage, and subsequent actions (“INPUT-INTEGRATION-OUTPUT”):  

  • The usual mode by which information is acquired involves senses that detect events in both the internal and external environments and transmit it…
    • “human cognition involves . . . many hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of internal cognitive “spaces,” each of which provides a proprietary canvas on which some aspect of human cognition is continually unfolding.”  (Churchland, 2002; quoted by Greenberg 2019)

Classic definitions of cognition often neglect information arising from within the organism: “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]  [But now, however, we can enlarge this: “environmental” input can include the body itself (see INTEROCEPTION”and EMBODIED COGNITION, below


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 about causes and consequences of actions that serve cognition 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 limits of their competence]


WHAT IS COGNITION? how does it work?  The process may be “ancient” –that is, apparent in even remotely distant ancestors. It is thus perhaps especially accessible from the comparative perspective, beloved of ethologists–particularly because it seems to be a feature of virtually all living organisms:

A New Look at an Old Idea (from Lyon 2015): “The idea that microbes might know their world, not merely bump into it, is controversial but unoriginal. At the beginning of the 20th century, Jennings (1905/1962) claimed the behavior of the ‘lower animals,’ notably paramecia but including bacteria, could tell us much about the behavior of the ‘higher animals,’ including humans. The Animal Mind (Washburn, 1936), the first US textbook on comparative psychology (first edition 1908), begins with amoeba. Biochemist Daniel Koshland  provided the modern scientific equivalent of Jennings’ argument in an under- appreciated monograph on bacterial chemotaxis (CT) as a model system for the study of behavior, and remarked (following Pope) that “the proper study of mankind is the bacterium” (Koshland, 1980b). Philosopher of science Karl Popper went further and argued (only slightly tongue-in- cheek) that in the evolution of problem-solving “from the amoeba to Einstein is just one step”  (Popper, 1999).
More recently, in view of tremendous advances in methods for studying individual cells as well as population-based microbial behavior, the bacterium has been compared explicitly to a parallel  distributed  processing  (PDP) network  (Bray,  2009) that  displays  ‘minimal cognition’ (Lengeler et al., 2000; van Duijn et al., 2006; Shapiro, 2007). Arguments concerning bacterial ‘intelligence’ (Jacob et al., 2004; Hellingwerf, 2005; Marijuán et al., 2010) and even cells ‘thinking’ (Ramanathan and Broach, 2007) are appearing in mainstream journals, including the special series in this one. British psychologist Richardson (2012), who has been researching human intelligence (sometimes despairingly) since the early 1970s, recently concluded in an extraordinary article in EMBO that the nascent study of unicellular intelligence might provide the key to understanding intelligence in complex vertebrates, including humans.”

COGNITIVE processes–operations involving THOUGHT can be characterized and (in recent years) correlated with specific neural activity (or suites of actions) — like behavioral patterns themselves that can be defined with varying levels of specificity from a muscle twitch to a coordinated movement of a limb or the body.  The diversity of cognitive processes can be quite intimidating, depending on the level of organization selected AND, of extreme interest, are often in COMPETITION with each other.  

  • Famously, when one cognitive process ends (such as trying to remember a name), another process summons it to mind quickly.
    • C.S. Lewis wrote, “The more lucidly we think, the more we are cut off … You cannot study Pleasure in the moment of the nuptial embrace, nor repentance while repenting, nor analyze the nature of humour while roaring with laughter… If only my toothache would stop, I could write another chapter about Pain… ” (God in the Dock, 1944, pp 65-66, “Myth Became Fact.”)

[note:  Competition between neuronal processes occurs at different levels of communication.  Look at A&O notes on connections in competition for perspective on function, but also, crucially, on development.] 


COGNITION is intimately involved with THE QUALITY of COMMUNICATION–the effectiveness and efficiency of information transfer. We may speak of a “meeting of the minds” when we find accord amongst various points-of-view, but also a “heart to heart” conversation, when sharing thoughts that emerge from depths not easily accessible to reason.  In A&O we pay special attention to information originating from or penetrating to more-or-less–deeper or more shallow–levels of an individual’s mind– its “depth”– so communications within and between people is of significant interest: Read A&O notes on COMMUNICATIONS.

SEMANTIC COGNITION, “the rapid retrieval and integration of contextually appropriate concepts … during language comprehension is supported by a rapid progression of widespread neural networks related to meaning, meaning integration, memory, reappraisal, and conceptual cohesion.” (Aboud et al. 2023)

  • “Incorporation of spatial and temporal characteristics, as well as behavioral measures, provide convergent evidence for the following progression: a hippocampal/anterior temporal phonological semantic retrieval network (peaking at 300 ms after the sentence final word); a frontotemporal thematic semantic network (400 ms); a hippocampal memory update network (500 ms); an inferior frontal semantic syntactic reappraisal network (600 ms); and nodes of the default mode network associated with conceptual coherence (750 ms).”   (see Aboud et al. 2023
  • Storage: see MEMORY
    • “Memory, needless to  say,  is  critical  to  cognition.  Without memory, present circumstances have no context; the detection of change is impossible. Without the ability to detect change, the decision to alter behavior can only be random, haphazard. Without  memory,  learning  of  any  kind  is  impossible.  While cognitive scientists now accept that discoveries concerning the molecular basis of memory in the marine invertebrate Aplysia are relevant to the study of human memory (Kandel, 2006), they (to say nothing of microbiologists) have yet to connect the dots with memory processes in prokaryotes.” (Lyon 2015)[i]   (from A&O notes on MEMORY)


      [i] The cognitive cell: bacterial behavior reconsidered.  Pamela Lyon  Front. Microbiol., 14 April 2015 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fmicb.2015.00264

      • Its storage enables the manipulation and integration of information from multiple sources…
      • Subsequent actions on the internal or external environments are the traits upon which natural selection works.



“A large amount of complex cognitive processing appears to occur at the unconscious level in both healthy and psychiatric and neurological populations. …. It is largely accepted that lower levels of processing (e.g., motor reflexes, sensory analysis) can operate outside of perceptual awareness (implicitly) … under certain circumstances, stimuli that are not experienced consciously still can modulate neural activity and generate emotional responses. …. nonconscious stimuli can influence motivation, value judgment, and goal-directed behavior without affecting conscious feeling.”  In other words, “studies demonstrate that the affective value of stimuli that are not consciously perceived and do not produce any conscious affective feelings can still motivate behavior. [That is] Motives, like skills, may be activated unconsciously. Some claim that the majority of the motives that drive our behavior occur outside of awareness.”  READ Heather Berlin (2011) on the Dynamic Unconscious



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



Read key excerpts then read about how embodiment is part of phenomenology, the philosophy that defend the relevance of studying real organisms (not lab animals) in real environments (nature, not labs)


There is a familiar sense in which the SELF inhabits the BODY.  

BUT, Close study of phenomena such as Phantom Limb Syndrome and body integrity identity disorder strongly suggests that SELF CONSCIOUSNESS must include the BODY.


read the Guardian’s essay on the body as key to understanding consciousness 


INTEROCEPTION provides critical information to the brain on the state of the body and can thereby affect physiological processes. It also affects cognitive processes and thereby states of mind–read Camilla Nord’s comments on interoception in Psyche Feb 2022 issue.

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]
    • The idea that the brain and body are co-creators of cognition is becoming accepted.   But we can go further!  WE are the agents of our actions and the changes in our world: our cognitive processes and emotions drive our behaviour and self-actualization.  As may now appear obvious, we do not do this alone: we respond to our environments and that includes neglected (because unseen) companions with whom we interact from conception to demise and which affects the expression of congenital behavioral dispositions and acquired ones (“nature-nurture”).  But ALSO, the decisions we associate with the brain are guided by many of these unseen (and until recently unknown) companions: symbiotes that live within us.  (Read “What Does the Microbiome Do” Jerome Groopman’ s essay/review of “Gut Feelings: The Microbiome and Our Health” –NYRB 21 Oct 2021 pp37-38).  These symbiotes—commensals or parasites—can also affect our behavior by means of their own metabolic processes hacking into our own, often in ways that promote their own success.  



“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




“… 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




“The mammalian neocortex is believed to act as the computational substrate for our highest cognitive abilities, particularly the ability to model the world around us and predict the effects of our actions. Many aspects of cortical structure are repeated across brain regions and conserved across species, suggesting a general-purpose approach to cognition. Within this repeating structure, neurons influence the formation of synaptic connections based on their cell type-specific biases. This results in a stereotyped network architecture in which synapse properties and connectivity are strongly influenced by cell type.

Synapses between cell types transmit information in a way that is highly stochastic and depends on the prior history of activity. The dynamic properties of synapses are also strongly dependent on both the pre- and postsynaptic cell types, suggesting an important role in cortical function. This provides a major source of computational diversity that is often absent in neuroscience modeling studies as well as modern machine-learning architectures.

Neurons are broadly grouped into excitatory and inhibitory classes, each of which can be divided into more specific subclasses. Cortical inhibitory neurons, for example, are commonly divided into Pvalb, Sst, and Vip subclasses and are distributed broadly across cortical layers. In contrast, most excitatory cell subclasses occupy narrower regions across cortical layers.”

From Campagnola (2022) (Https://Www.Science.Org/Doi/10.1126/Science.Abj5861)




  • DYSFUNCTION:  There exists in the mind “a multiplicity of functional systems that are hierarchically organized but can become dissociated from one another” (Ernest Hilgard 1977:17) (ER Hilgard Divided Consciousness: Multiple Control in Human Action and Thought. Wile, NY – cited by  1997:75) 



[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)

see A&O WORD note on WISDOM

[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/