Embodiment of abstract concepts

November 18, 2007

This weekend Anatole Fuksas visited Tallinn and we had great meetings and brainstorming with him and our new media prof. Mauri Kaipainen and his partner Pia Tikka from narrative film studies. Tomorrow Anatole is going to give a talk about ‘Storytelling and Hybrid Ecologies in the Age of Social Networking and Locative Media’ at KERG seminar in Tallinn University.

During these weekend days there were some talks and some events that enabled me to get better understanding of how the embodiment of abstract concepts could be explained.

We were talking at Mauri’s place, could concepts like ‘photosynthesis’ be easily embodied and activated directly through sensory-motor path, without the activation of symbolic schemata processing in between, like mirror-matching theories suggest would happen when we look, hear or read something from the environment that we have embodied before, and what relates with our intentional framework.

The problem with abstract concepts is that they are often invisible and thus not so easily embodied. For example, we can think of various kind of reasons why some abstract concepts cannot be directly embodied – they are at micro-level and thus we have no sensory-motor experience with them (genes) or complex at supra-macro level (why the seasons emerge due to astronomical causes), they may have the emergence patterns that make them visible only as time-related phenomena (like evolution), they may look totally different an have several visible and invisible emergence patterns (like boiling with start and end at visible level with various emotional and perceptional and motor-neuron activation and Brown movement at molecular level with endless chaotic movement of molecules at higher speed).

Previously, Anatole with his philology background, has suggested that photosynthesis for him relates with something green that is synthesized..and i argued with him that in many languages the concept is actually borrowed from foreign languages, and it does not activate anything familiar word-based, besides maybe thinking of the synthesis of photos that sounds similar and doesn’t lead us to the right path of embodiment.

Piia suggested that for her knowledge of photosynthesis, as the learned process, always emerges as the sensory-motor sequence of actions when she hears the word. Basically, if i have learned what photosynthesis means, i have embodied the sequence of actions through my neural sensory-motor path, and i can reactivate them when the keyword ‘photosynthesis’ is heard.
Ok, this seems quite likely…but still there is a problem how i created the pattern of sensory-motor activations that will later become related with the abstract word?

Today we went to see some nice medieval artifacts at Niguliste church. Then Anatole initiated talk about exemplars (eg. exemplar of guilt feeling at the altar paintings) what were supposed to create the emotional and motor-action correlates at believers.

The idea of exemplars as the carries of the whole complex system of abstract concepts reminded me the talks of photosynthesis. How we create the abstract concept, is enabling the person to embody the whole sensory-motor action system using some analogical exemplars of this concept. We need to model something, which evokes similar affordances for action potentialities.

Basically, the concept photosynthesis can be a bit differently triggered by many exemplars, which evoke different action potentialities and its emotional correlates, and the understanding and precise knowing of what photosynthesis is, presupposes having more than one embodied experience of these different exemplars.

So, we could teach the abstract concept by embodying sensory-motor actions from some known situations that are modeled to us in relation to the new abstract word.
Well, a bit trivial? Analogy-based teaching is mapping old sensory-motor experiences to new objects and processes.

As suggested by Gentner and Gentner, the success of an analogy-based teaching method depends on student knowledge of the base domain (i.e. prior knowledge), and student acceptance of the analogy.

If to go deeper into what the embodied concepts are, diSessa’s theory of knowledge as phenomenological primitives or p-prims (eg. closer means warmer), which are activated like fields by coordination classes, seems very similar to the affordance emergence (field-like, perspectives) and embodied concepts (sensory-motor experiences, phenomenological primitives).

p-prims can be understood as simple abstractions from common experiences. They are phenomenological in that they are responses to experienced and observed phenomena. They are are linked to, cued by, those phenomena rather than being general or abstract. They are primitive in the sense that they generelly are self-evident and need no explanation; they simply happen.
Coordination classes are internally coherent networks of primitives and readout strategies.

When teaching an abstract concept, we will try to activate a field of phenomenological primitives the learner has previously activated as sensory-motor paths leading to perceiving those phenomena, embodying them as concepts. Then we try to tag the new abstract symbol (eg. photosynthesis) to these embodiments and relate these sensory-motor experiences to the new elements from the environment. It is about migrating the emergence of affordances (action potentialities) from one system to another new system.

It is known that the activation of wrong phenomenological primitives (eg. warmer means closer) can cause altered understandings of the processes (eg. sun moves closer to the earth, and then we get summer, and when it moves further away it gets colder and we will have winter).

Teaching abstract concepts through embodied simulations has been one of the suggested methods in science (eg. playing sun system or molecules) at primarily level. For example, my friend Pirkko Hyvonen has studied PLE-s, Playful Learning Environments where students learn mathematics and other subjects outdoors by playing and embodying concepts.

Since it is known that embodiment can also be visually triggered (great paper i saw of embodying movements in art for example Anatole showed me), the models can be used for understanding or embodying concepts.

For example, studies of Uri Wilensky about participatory simulations, where kids can learn difficult phenomena by programming them at different emergence levels with NetLogo programming language, that helped them to understand phenomena better can be explained as embodiment by moving the LOGO turtles and perceiving their actions at individual (one molecule in the water) and system level (boiling water as a system).
Another nice example of participatory simulations with PDAs.

So, important in studying abstract concepts is that we can do something with the model elements to embody action- and emotion potentialities as sensory-motor paths?


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