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Philosophers, cognitive scientists and artificial intelligence researchers who study embodied cognition and the embodied mind believe that the nature of the human mind is largely determined by the form of the human body. They argue that all aspects of cognition, such as ideas, thoughts, concepts and categories are shaped by aspects of the body. These aspects include the perceptual system, the intuitions that underlie the ability to move, activities and interactions with our environment and the naive understanding of the world that is built into the body and the brain.

The embodied mind thesis is opposed to other theories of cognition, such as cognitivism,[citation needed] computationalism and Cartesian dualism. The idea has roots in Kant and 20th century continental philosophy (such as Merleau-Ponty). The modern version depends on insights drawn from recent research in linguistics, cognitive science, artificial intelligence, robotics and neurobiology.

George Lakoff (a cognitive scientist and linguist) and his collaborators (including Mark Johnson, Mark Turner, and Rafael E. Núñez) have written a series of books promoting and expanding the thesis based on discoveries in cognitive science, such as conceptual metaphor and image schema.[1]

Robotics researchers such as Rodney Brooks, Hans Moravec and Rolf Pfeifer have argued that true artificial intelligence can only be achieved by machines that have sensory and motor skills and are connected to the world through a body.[2] The insights of these robotics researchers have in turn inspired philosophers like Andy Clark and Horst Hendriks-Jansen.[3] The motor theory of speech perception proposed by by Alvin Liberman and colleagues at the Haskins Laboratories argues that the identification of words is embodied in perception of the bodily movements by which spoken words are made.[4][5][6][7][8]

Neuroscientists Gerald Edelman, António Damásio and others have outlined the connection between the body, individual structures in the brain and aspects of the mind such as consciousness, emotion, self-awareness and will.[9]

Biology has also inspired Gregory Bateson, Humberto Maturana, Francisco Varela, Eleanor Rosch and Evan Thompson to develop a closely related version of the idea, which they call enactivism,[10] while Patricia Carpenter is pursuing a biologically-grounded account of cognition called the 'fractal catalytic model'.


Philosophical roots

In his pre-critical period, philosopher Immanuel Kant advocated a remarkably similar embodied view of the mind-body problem that was part of his Universal Natural History and Theory of Heaven (1755). José Ortega y Gasset, George Santayana, Miguel de Unamuno, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Martin Heidegger and others in the broadly existential tradition have proposed philosophies of mind very close to the 'embodiment' thesis.

Cognitive science and linguistics

Lakoff and Johnson (1999) argue that the embodiment hypothesis entails that our conceptual structure and linguistic structures are shaped by the peculiarities of our perceptual structures. As evidence, they cite research on embodiment effects from mental rotation and mental imagery, image schemas, gesture, sign language, color terms, and conceptual metaphor among other examples.

According to Lakoff and Johnson, an embodied philosophy would show the laws of thought to be metaphorical, not logical; truth would be a metaphorical construction, not an attribute of objective reality. That is, it would not rely on any foundation ontology from the physical sciences or from religion, but would likely proceed from metaphors drawn from our experience of having a body.

Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner have advanced a theory of cognition known as conceptual blending which has much in common with the idea of embodied cognition.

Research by Tom M. Mitchell and others has shown that embodied features are an intrinsic aspect of semantics. These sensory-motor features include see, hear, listen, taste, smell, eat, touch, rub, lift, manipulate, run, push, fill, move, ride, say, fear, open, approach, near, enter, drive, wear, break, and clean. English nouns are found by computational linguistic analysis of over a 1 trillion words of text exhibiting typical word use, to have exactly these 25 different semantic features. Each feature is associated with its own pattern of fMRI activity. The individual contribution of each parameter, when adjusted by the strength of its contribution to a particular noun, predicts the fMRI pattern when that noun is considered. Nouns therefore derive their meaning from prior experience linked probabilistically to a common symbol.[11]

Neuroscience and biology

One source of inspiration for embodiment theory has been research in cognitive neuroscience, such as the proposals of Gerald Edelman concerning how mathematical and computational models such as neuronal group selection and neural degeneracy result in emergent categorization. Drawing on experimental psychology and linguistics as well as Edelman and other cognitive neuroscientists, Rohrer (2005) discusses how both our neural and developmental embodiment shape both our mental and linguistic categorizations. The degree of thought abstraction has been found to be associated with physical distance which then affects associated ideas and perception of risk. [12]

This view is compatible with some views of cognition promoted in neuropsychology, such as the theories of consciousness of Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, Gerald Edelman, and Antonio Damasio.

Artificial intelligence and robotics

In 1950, Alan Turing proposed that a machine may need a human-like body to think and speak:

It can also be maintained that it is best to provide the machine with the best sense organs that money can buy, and then teach it to understand and speak English. That process could follow the normal teaching of a child. Things would be pointed out and named, etc. (Turing, 1950).[13]

Embodiment theory was brought into Artificial Intelligence most notably by Rodney Brooks in the 1980s. Brooks showed that robots could be more effective if they 'thought' (planned or processed) and perceived as little as possible. The robot's intelligence is geared towards only handling the minimal amount of information necessary to make its behavior be appropriate and/or as desired by its creator. Brooks (and others) have claimed that all autonomous agents need to be both embodied and situated. They claim that this is the only way to achieve strong AI.


The embodiment movement in AI has in turn fueled the embodiment argument in Philosophy, see in particular Clark (1997) and Hendriks-Jansen (1996). It has also given emotions a new status in philosophy of mind as indispensable constituent, not a non-essential addition to rational intellectual thought.

See also


  1. ^ Lakoff & Johnson (1980), Lakoff (1987), Lakoff & Turner (1989), Lakoff & Johnson (1999), Lakoff & Nunez 2000
  2. ^ Moravec 1988, Brooks 1990, Pfeiffer 2001
  3. ^ Clark 1997, Hendriks-Jansen 1996
  4. ^ Liberman AM, Cooper FS, Shankweiler DP, Studdert-Kennedy M. (1967). Perception of the speech code. Psychol Rev.74(6):431-61. PubMed
  5. ^ Liberman AM, Mattingly IG. (1985). The motor theory of speech perception revised. Cognition. 21(1):1-36. PubMed
  6. ^ Liberman AM, Mattingly IG. (1989). A specialization for speech perception. Science. 243(4890):489-94. PubMed
  7. ^ Liberman AM, Whalen DH. (2000). On the relation of speech to language. Trends Cogn Sci. 4(5):187-196. PubMed
  8. ^ Galantucci B, Fowler CA, Turvey MT. (2006). The motor theory of speech perception reviewed. Psychon Bull Rev. 13(3):361-77. PubMed
  9. ^ Edelman 2004, Damasio 1999
  10. ^ Maturana & Varela 1987, Varela, Thompson & Rosch 1992
  11. ^ Mitchell TM, Shinkareva S, Carlson A, Chang K, Malave V, Mason R, Just M. date=2008-05-08. "Predicting Human Brain Activity Associated with the Meanings of Nouns". “Science” 320: 1191–1195. doi:10.1126/science.1152876. PMID 18511683. 
  12. ^ Liberman N, Trope Y. date=2008-11-21. "The Psychology of Transcending the Here and Now". “Science” 322: 1201–1205. doi:10.1126/science.1161958. PMID 19023074. 
  13. ^ Turing, Alan (October 1950), "Computing Machinery and Intelligence", Mind LIX (236): 433–460, doi:10.1093/mind/LIX.236.433, ISSN 0026-4423,, retrieved on 2008-08-18 


  • Brooks, Rodney A. (1999). Cambrian Intelligence: The Early History of the New AI. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. ISBN 0262522632
  • Clark, Andy (1997). "Being There: Putting Brain, Body and World Together Again", Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
  • Damasio, Antonio (1999). The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness
  • Edelman, G. Wider than the Sky (Yale University Press, 2004) ISBN 0-300-10229-1
  • Hendriks-Jansen, Horst (1996) Catching Ourselves in the Act: Situated Activity, Interactive Emergence, Evolution, and Human Thought. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  • Lakoff, George and Johnson, Mark (1980) Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press. 2003 edition contains an 'Afterword'.
  • Lakoff, George (1987) Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-46804-6.
  • Lakoff, George and Turner, Mark (1989) More Than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor. University of Chicago Press.
  • Lakoff, George and Johnson, Mark (1999) Philosophy In The Flesh: the Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought. Basic Books.
  • Lakoff, George and Nuñez, Rafael. (2001). Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into Being. New York: Basic Books. ISBN 0465037712
  • Maturana, Humberto and Varela, Francisco (1987) The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Boston: Shambhala. ISBN 0-87773-373-2
  • Pfeifer, R. (2001) Understanding Intelligence
  • Varela, Francisco J., Thompson, Evan T., and Rosch, Eleanor. (1992). The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. ISBN

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