Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Embodied Mind Extended: Using Words as Social Tools

This article comes from Frontiers in Cognition, an open access journal from FrontiersIn.org. In an attempt to extend the embodied mind hypothesis, the authors "propose that words, due to their social and public character, can be conceived as quasi-external devices that extend our cognition. Moreover, words function like tools in that they enlarge the bodily space of action thus modifying our sense of body." It's an enticing argument that, at first read, seems eminently reasonable to me.

Full Citation:
Borghi AM, Scorolli C, Caligiore D, Baldassarre G and Tummolini L. (2013). The embodied mind extended: using words as social tools. Frontiers in Cognition. 4:214. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00214

The embodied mind extended: Using words as social tools

Anna M. Borghi1,2*, Claudia Scorolli1, Daniele Caligiore2, Gianluca Baldassarre2 and Luca Tummolini2
1. EMbodied COgnition Lab, Department of Psychology, University of Bologna, Bologna, Italy
2. Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies, National Research Council, Rome, Italy
The extended mind view and the embodied-grounded view of cognition and language are typically considered as rather independent perspectives. In this paper we propose a possible integration of the two views and support it proposing the idea of “Words As social Tools” (WAT). In this respect, we will propose that words, also due to their social and public character, can be conceived as quasi-external devices that extend our cognition. Moreover, words function like tools in that they enlarge the bodily space of action thus modifying our sense of body. To support our proposal, we review the relevant literature on tool-use and on words as tools and report recent evidence indicating that word use leads to an extension of space close to the body. In addition, we outline a model of the neural processes that may underpin bodily space extension via word use and may reflect possible effects on cognition of the use of words as external means. We also discuss how reconciling the two perspectives can help to overcome the limitations they encounter if considered independently.


The embodied-grounded (EG) view and the extended mind (EM) view of cognition and language are typically considered as rather independent perspectives. Aim of this paper is to show how the two views can be integrated considering the case of words in their relationship with the bodily space. Specifically, we will propose that words are a very peculiar kind of tool.

According to embodied views of cognition, cognitive processes are constrained by our body, that is, human-like cognition cannot occur independently of a human-like body. In the embodied view, cognition is not for knowing; rather, “cognition is for action” (Wilson, 2002). Proponents of grounded views make a similar argument but posit that the involvement of the body is not exhaustive of cognition, which is grounded in many ways (Barsalou, 2008). In fact, while initially the label “embodied” was used in a more comprehensive way, in the recent literature a slight distinction between embodied and grounded approaches, and between the terms “embodied” and “grounded,” is emerging (see Pezzulo et al., 2011; Fischer, 2012; Myachykov et al., in press). According to this view cognition can be grounded in multiple ways. These include not only bodily states, but also situations, actions, etc. (Barsalou, 2008; Pezzulo et al., 2011). In the following, we will use the term embodied and grounded cognition (EG) to refer to both approaches, since the distinction is not relevant for the proposal we will advance.

When it comes to language processing, EG views argue that language is grounded in perception and action systems (for reviews: Willems and Hagoort, 2007; Fischer and Zwaan, 2008; Gallese, 2008; Toni et al., 2008;Jirak et al., 2010; Borghi and Pecher, 2011, 2012; Glenberg and Gallese, 2012). Comprehending language would imply activating a simulation, consisting in a re-enactment of the previous interaction with objects, situations, etc., to which linguistic expressions refer.

In the last years another perspective on cognition, the EM view, is gaining credit, in particular in philosophy. The underlying idea, initially promoted by Clark and Chalmers (1998), is that the human mind is not wholly in our head/brain, but it is rather distributed in our brain, body, and external devices. These external devices (e.g., computers) have the power to complement and augment our internal cognitive processes (see Wilson, 2010).

In this paper, we will first discuss some general limitations of EG and EM views, then address some more specific limits of these views in understanding the role of language. We will then suggest that words can be understood as social tools, and explain why, in our opinion, this approach helps to reconcile EG and EM views of cognition and to overcome their limitations. Finally, we will discuss experimental evidence to support the Words as social Tools (WAT) proposal and we will outline a computational model to specify the neural mechanisms that might underlie the aforementioned processes.

Embodied-Grounded and Extended Views

Even though we favor an EG approach to cognition, we hold that EG theories have some problems (for critiques to aspects of the embodied approach, see Borghi and Cimatti, 2009, 2010; Chatterjee, 2010; van Elk et al., 2010; Wilson and Golonka, 2013). We will consider first some problems characterizing the EG approach in general, and then we will focus on the limitations of the EG approach to language, in particular to language comprehension. We will focus on content issues and not on methodological problems, as for example the problem of the lack of precise and unidirectional predictions, which in our opinion can be solved with a more extensive use of computational models (see for discussions on this problemBorghi et al., 2010; Chersi et al., 2010; Willems and Franken, 2012). Notice that our critiques might not necessarily concern all versions of EG views, which are sometimes rather different (see Goldman and de Vignemont, 2009, for an analysis of this). One major problem of EG views is the high risk of adopting the view that Clark (2008) has called “brainbound.” In this view, human cognition directly depends on neural activity, with the mind being modeled as inner and neurally realized. This position does not accept the idea that cognition might be distributed and extended beyond bodily borders. The brainbound view is not convincing for a simple reason, as explained by Noe (2009): “the subject of experience is not a bit of your body. You are not your brain. The brain, rather, is part of what you are” (pp. 7). In our opinion many versions of the EG view are too brainbound: they emphasize too much the role of the brain with respect to the body. This might seem paradoxical for an embodied approach: obviously no embodied view does fully neglect the importance of the body, but many EG approaches ascribe a too relevant role to the brain compared to the whole body, at the same time neglecting the possible role of body extensions. Similar critiques are expressed by Wilson and Golonka (2013) who claim: “The major problem with this research is that it again assumes all the hard work is done in the head, with perception and action merely tweaking the result.” (Wilson and Golonka, 2013, p. 11). van Elk et al. (2010) further deepen this point, arguing that in cognitive neuroscience embodied approaches are still cognitivist. We report their own words: “In cognitive neuroscience the notion that concepts are embodied primarily means that there is a correspondence between the brain activations associated with processing the referent of a concept and the processing of the concept itself. For instance, seeing a car and thinking or reading about a car involves the activation in comparable visual areas. Thus, the dispute between modal and amodal theories of language comprehension is basically a discussion about the representational vehicle of concepts (i.e., whether the representational vehicle of concepts is shared with neural resources used for perception and action). Both modal and amodal theories of language thus share a cognitivist notion of cognition in terms of discrete internal representations of the world” (van Elk et al., 2010, p. 3).

The second problem with many EG theories is that they do not sufficiently consider and emphasize the fact that the sense of body might be plastically rearranged. Body boundaries are treated as rather static while some studies have revealed that they are flexible and can be modified, for example through the use of tools, changing with our sense of body (see for example the special issue on the sense of body by Tessari et al., 2010). We will further address this problem in the rest of the paper.

When they deal with language, one major limit of EG views is that language is mainly conceived in its referential aspects. This way of conceiving language relies on the classical notion that knowing the meaning of a word is knowing what it refers to. Accordingly, the meaning of a word like “hammer” consists in the re-enactment of past multimodal experiences with the word referent, i.e. hammers. For example, according to the indexical theory (Glenberg and Robertson, 2000) words would index their referents in the world, which would be represented in terms of perceptual symbols (Barsalou, 1999). This referential view of language has a number of merits. First, it provided the instruments to contrast the propositional view, which was dominant in psychology and cognitive sciences (see Lakoff, 2012, for a description of the times before the idea of embodied cognition). In this view concepts and word meanings were seen as the product of a transduction process from sensorimotor to abstract knowledge. Knowledge would be represented in terms of amodal symbols only arbitrarily related to their referents, organized through syntactic combinatorial rules (e.g.,Fodor, 1975; Pylyshyn, 1984). More recent non-embodied views posit that word meaning is a consequence of the statistical distribution of words in language (for an influential version, see Landauer and Dumais, 1997). However, today the necessity to contrast the statistical and the embodied view is not so critical, and conciliatory approaches have been proposed (see for example Andrews et al., in press).

Second, the influential research program based on these premises has inspired many studies, which have led to important and sophisticated experimental results (for reviews see Barsalou, 2008; Fischer and Zwaan, 2008; Gallese, 2008; Toni et al., 2008; Jirak et al., 2010; Borghi and Pecher, 2011, 2012). However, an embodied referential view is probably not sufficient to provide a thorough account of word meaning.

While in psychology and cognitive science the propositional view has dominated for a long time and the referential view was introduced by EG theorists as an alternative to it, in philosophy the referential view of language has been widely criticized since at least the seminal work ofWittgenstein (1953; see Noe, 2009 for a contemporary statement): the most widespread view in philosophy holds that, for example, we can speak about fawns even if we have never seen them since we can rely on the expertise of our community. Words are compositional and we can access the meaning of words of which we do not know or cannot see the referent thanks to the expertise of other members of our community. As Noe (2009) nicely argues, “meaning depends on the practice” (p. 90), and being able to use words corresponds to knowing what they mean.

Curiously, while philosophical examinations have gravitated toward treating the practical nature of meaning, the referential view is still the predominant one in EG cognition theories. This has probably been due to the desire, on the part of EG proponents, to contrast the traditional propositional view, according to which words are arbitrarily linked to their referents. EG proponents have assumed that it was necessary to demonstrate that words are grounded, as their referents activate perception and motor systems.

Beyond the limit of the focus on referentiality, in our view the EG view of language has two further limitations given that it has neglected two other important aspects of words. The first concerns the social and public nature of words, the second the fact that words can be instruments for action. Words are social and public because, since they are a heritage of our speakers’ community, to be effective they require someone else’s presence, implicit or not. Indeed, speaking implies performing complementary actions in coordination with someone else (Clark, 1996). Words can be instruments for action since their use allows humans to modify the current state of the world, as it happens during tool-use. This point will be further developed in the course of the paper.

If EG approaches often tacitly assume a brainbound view of cognition, the most vigorous attack to this view derives from the idea that cognition is not limited to the boundaries of body/skull but is extended. In other words, “minds like ours emerge from this colorful flux as surprisingly seamless wholes: adaptively potent mashups extruded from a dizzying motley of heterogeneous elements and processes” (Clark, 2008, p. 219). According to the EM view, tools complement our mental abilities: for example, a diary complements our memory. As a consequence of this relationship between brain-body system and external tools, our mind would be distributed (Hutchins, 1995) across a variety of bodily parts and non-bodily devices (Clark, 2003; Thompson and Stapleton, 2009). One potential limitation of EM views, and possibly one of the reasons why they have encountered resistance, is their appeal to functionalism (Kiverstein and Clark, 2009) which might conflict with the assumptions of an embodied view of cognition (but see Clark, 2008, for a different position, which does not put the two approaches in contrast).

The EM approach holds a peculiar view of the relation between words and cognition. Words themselves are considered as external devices and as cognitive tools capable of augmenting our computational abilities (Clark, 1998). This view (e.g., Clark, 1998) has its roots in the seminal work ofVygotsky (1962) who underlined the role played by inner language and its scaffolding function supporting actions. However, in our opinion, one of the most interesting aspects of Vygotsky’s notion of inner language is that it involves the internalization of a phenomenon which is initially (and inherently) social and public and which augments our computational abilities. Such a social and public component is, however, underappreciated in the EM approach, which instead underlines the importance of language for developing thought and computational abilities.

Here we propose that EG and EM views can, and should, be integrated. Such integration will overcome their respective limitations when dealing with language: the limited focus of the EG view on the referential aspect of words and the neglect of the social dimension of words in the EM view.
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