embodied theory of concepts

November 1, 2007

From Claudia Scorolli and Anna M. Borghi Sentence comprehension and action: Effector specific modulation of the motor system

Recently cognitive science and neuroscience claim that cognition is embodied: knowledge is grounded in sensorimotor experiences, and that there is a deep unity among perception, action and cognition (Pecher and Zwaan, 2005).

The theoretical understanding of indirect connection between concepts as symbols of something real, and perceptual experiences we gain with sensory-motor systems, has been put under question.
New, embodied view of concepts considers perceptual symbols as neural representations located in sensory-motor areas in brain. This means concepts are not perceived as arbitary symbols but rather concepts consist of the reactivation of the same neural activation pattern that is present when we perceive the objects or entities they refer to and when we interact with them.

Object attributes are thought to be stored near the same modality-specific neural areas that are active when objects are being experienced (Martin, Ungerleider and Haxby, 2001).

Symbols, according to the embodied view, are not amodal, but multimodal – for example, they refer both to the tactile experience of caressing a dog as well as the auditory experience of hearing a dog bark (Barsalou, 1999; Gallese and Lakoff, 2005).

Concepts make direct use of sensory-motor circuits of the brain (Gallese and Lakoff, 2005).
The same neural areas are involved when forming motor imagery and when activating information on objects, particularly on tools.

Pecher, D., and Zwaan, R.A., 2005, Grounding Cognition: The Role of Perception and Action in Memory, Language, and Thinking, Cambridge University Press.

As a researcher with the background of natural sciences, i wonder what happens if the symbol, what we read, is not the first order symbol, directly related with the objects (real dog – word dog), but if we describe in the scientific text some micro- or macrolevel objects and phenomena (eg. cells, genes, evolution), or if the phenomena we describe are highly of abstract nature (photosynthesis). How do we embody these concepts?

Or, if we read not the scientific narrative but scientific images (graphs etc.) or scientific formulated symbol language (math or physic formulas, chemistry reactions). Presumably we need to process arbitrary concepts somehow and link them to embodied concepts at certain moment in order to grasp the thing?

If we think of scientific narratives (papers, books), we can say that they have reduced action potentialities, or embodied concepts in them, and the difficulty of the reader of such texts is to perform cognitive symbol processing to relate abstract concepts with limited affordances for action-potentialities internally with the embodied concepts that are related with real world perception. And supposedly only then we can understand the text.



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  2. Was reading E.Fromm:
    Symbols are sensory expressions of seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, standing for something else which is inner experience, a feeling or thought. A symbol of this kind is something outside ourselves, that which it symbolizes is something inside ourselves. Symbolic language in which we express inner experience as if it was a sensory experience, as if it were something we were doing or something that was done to us in the world of things. Symbolic language is language in which the world outside is a symbol of the world inside, a symbol for our souls and our minds (Fromm, p.12).
    We express our moods and feelings by facial expressions and our attitudes and feelings by movements and gestures so precise that others recognize them more accurately from our gestures than from our words. Indeed the body is a symbol of the mind (p. 17).
    Certain physical phenomena suggest by their very nature certain emotional and mental experiences, and we express emotional experiences in the language of physical experiences. That is to say symbolically ( p. 17).
    The universal symbol is the only one in which the relationship between the symbol and that which is symbolized is not coincidental but intrinsic. It is rooted in the experience of the affinity between an emotion and thought, on the one hand, and sensory experience, on the other.
    The universal symbol is rooted in the properties of our body, our senses and mind (p. 18).

    First i love one thing he said, because it is very much how i believe it is proved to be true by new neurobiological findings. It says the environmental features become the symbol of our emotional states.I have tried to tell that there is certain kind of interrelation between the external environment and our intentional states and emotions – what i believe is that in order to act or feel emotions we need to shift some of the external environment’s dimensions to internal, so this shifted part becomes like the tool to make action or emotion possible. And i also believe there is the opposite that if we want to express our emotions and our intentions we need again to externalize this embodied dimension of the environment. Somewhat what i feel Fromm says about environment symbolizing in dreams our souls and minds is fitting to the idea that the dimension we have embodied from the environment becomes the conveyer of emotions and intentions for us.

  3. […] days there were some talks and some events that enabled me to get better understanding of how the embodiment of abstract concepts could be […]

  4. […] and representational way of making the world meaningful. For example, there is a theory of embodied cognition, where the processing of representations is not needed but they claim that persons directly […]

  5. […] or by the observation of the activities of other individuals and groups. This view suggests that embodied cognition could be also considered as part of our […]

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