Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Embodied Cognition and Metaphors - Two Views

Two recent articles (both 2013) in Frontiers in Cognitive Science offer slightly different but important contributions to our understanding of how metaphor works in embodied cognition. The original article is first (only the first 20% or so, since it's long) followed by the commentary or clarification.

Original Article Citation: 
Wilson AD and Golonka S. (2013, Feb 12). Embodied cognition is not what you think it is. Frontiers in Cognitve Science, 4:58. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00058

Comment Citation: 
Hellmann JH, Echterhoff G and Thoben DF. (2013, Apr 22). Metaphor in embodied cognition is more than just combining two related concepts: a comment on Wilson and Golonka (2013). Frontiers in Cognitve Science, 4:201. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00201

Embodied cognition is not what you think it is

Andrew D. Wilson* and Sabrina Golonka
School of Social, Psychological and Communication Sciences, Leeds Metropolitan University, Leeds, UK


The most exciting hypothesis in cognitive science right now is the theory that cognition is embodied. Like all good ideas in cognitive science, however, embodiment immediately came to mean six different things. The most common definitions involve the straight-forward claim that “states of the body modify states of the mind.” However, the implications of embodiment are actually much more radical than this. If cognition can span the brain, body, and the environment, then the “states of mind” of disembodied cognitive science won’t exist to be modified. Cognition will instead be an extended system assembled from a broad array of resources. Taking embodiment seriously therefore requires both new methods and theory. Here we outline four key steps that research programs should follow in order to fully engage with the implications of embodiment. The first step is to conduct a task analysis, which characterizes from a first person perspective the specific task that a perceiving-acting cognitive agent is faced with. The second step is to identify the task-relevant resources the agent has access to in order to solve the task. These resources can span brain, body, and environment. The third step is to identify how the agent can assemble these resources into a system capable of solving the problem at hand. The last step is to test the agent’s performance to confirm that agent is actually using the solution identified in step 3. We explore these steps in more detail with reference to two useful examples (the outfielder problem and the A-not-B error), and introduce how to apply this analysis to the thorny question of language use. Embodied cognition is more than we think it is, and we have the tools we need to realize its full potential.


The most exciting idea in cognitive science right now is the theory that cognition is embodied. It is, in fact one of the things interested lay people know about cognitive science, thanks to many recent high profile experiments. These experiments claim to show (1) how cognition can be influenced and biased by states of the body (e.g., Eerland et al., 2011) or the environment (Adam and Galinsky, 2012) or (2) that abstract cognitive states are grounded in states of the body and using the former affects the latter (e.g., Lakoff and Johnson, 1980, 1999; Miles et al., 2010).

The problem, however, is that this is not really what embodied cognition is about. Embodiment is the surprisingly radical hypothesis that the brain is not the sole cognitive resource we have available to us to solve problems. Our bodies and their perceptually guided motions through the world do much of the work required to achieve our goals, replacing the need for complex internal mental representations. This simple fact utterly changes our idea of what “cognition” involves, and thus embodiment is not simply another factor acting on an otherwise disembodied cognitive processes.

Many cognitive scientists, see this claim occupying the extreme end of an embodiment continuum, and are happy with the notion that there can be many co-existing notions of embodiment – maybe three (Shapiro, 2011) or even six (Wilson, 2002). Why rule out other research programs that seem to be showing results? Why not have one strand of embodied cognition research that focuses on how cognition can be biased by states of the body, and another strand that focuses on brain-body-environment cognitive systems? The issue is that the former type of research does not follow through on the necessary consequences of allowing cognition to involve more than the brain. These consequences, we will argue, lead inevitably to a radical shift in our understanding of what cognitive behavior is made from. This shift will take cognitive science away from tweaking underlying competences and toward understanding how our behavior emerges from the real time interplay of task-specific resources distributed across the brain, body, and environment, coupled together via our perceptual systems.

This paper will proceed as follows. After laying out the standard cognitive psychological approach to explaining behavior, we’ll briefly point to some interesting lines of empirical research from robotics and animal cognition that support the stronger replacement hypothesis of embodied cognition (Shapiro, 2011). We’ll then lay out a recommended research strategy based on this work. Specifically, we will detail how to use a task analysis to identify the cognitive requirements of a task and the resources (in brain, body, and environment) available to fill these requirements. According to this analysis, it is the job of an empirical research program to find out which of the available resources the organism is actually using, and how they have been assembled, coordinated, and controlled into a smart, task-specific device for solving the problem at hand (Runeson, 1977; Bingham, 1988). We’ll focus on two classic examples in detail: the outfielder problem (e.g.,McBeath et al., 1995) and the A-not-B task (e.g., Thelen et al., 2001). We’ll then contrast this task-specific approach with some embodied cognition research in the standard cognitive psychology mold, and see how this latter research fails to successfully motivate any role for the body or environment, let alone the one identified in the research. Finally, we’ll conclude with some thoughts on how to begin to apply this approach to one of the harder problems in cognitive science, specifically language use. Language is the traditional bête noir of this more radical flavor of embodiment, and our goal in this final section will be to demonstrate that, with a little work, a truly embodied analysis of language can, in fact, get off the ground. 

Standard Cognitive Explanations for Behavior

The insight of early cognitive psychologists was that our behavior appears to be mediated by something internal to the organism. The classic example is Chomsky’s (1959) critique of “Verbal Behavior” (Skinner, 1957) in which he argues that language learning and use cannot be explained without invoking mental structures (in this case, innate linguistic capabilities). In general, the theoretical entities cognitive psychologists invoke to do this internal mediation are mental representations.

At the time these ideas were taking off, research on perception suggested that our perceptual access to the world wasn’t very good (see Marr, 1982;Rock, 1985 for reviews). This creates the following central problem for representations to solve. The brain is locked away inside our heads with only impoverished, probabilistic perceptual access to the world, but it has the responsibility of coordinating rapid, functional, and successful behavior in a dynamic physical and social environment. Because perception is assumed to be flawed, it is not considered a central resource for solving tasks. Because we only have access to the environment via perception, the environment also is not considered a central resource. This places the burden entirely on the brain to act as a storehouse for skills and information that can be rapidly accessed, parameterized, and implemented on the basis of the brain’s best guess as to what is required, a guess that is made using some optimized combination of sensory input and internally represented knowledge. This job description makes the content of internal cognitive representations the most important determinant of the structure of our behavior. Cognitive science is, therefore, in the business ofidentifying this content and how it is accessed and used (see Dietrich and Markman, 2003 for a discussion of this).

Advances in perception-action research, particularly Gibson’s work on direct perception (Gibson, 1966, 1979), changes the nature of the problem facing the organism. Perception is not critically flawed. In fact, we have extremely high quality, direct perceptual access to the world. This means that perception (and by extension, the environment) can be a useful resource, rather than a problem to be overcome by cognitive enrichment. Embodied cognition (in any form) is about acknowledging the role perception, action, and the environment can now play.

A radical conclusion emerges from taking all this seriously: if perception-action couplings and resources distributed over brain, body, and environment are substantial participants in cognition, then the need for the specific objects and processes of standard cognitive psychology (concepts, internally represented competence, and knowledge) goes away, to be replaced by very different objects and processes (most commonly perception-action couplings forming non-linear dynamical systems, e.g.,van Gelder, 1995). This, in a nutshell, is the version of embodiment thatShapiro (2011) refers to as the replacement hypothesis and our argument here is that this hypothesis is inevitable once you allow the body and environment into the cognitive mix. If such replacement is viable, then any research that keeps the standard assumptions of cognitive psychology and simply allows a state of the body to tweak cognition misses the point. To earn the name, embodied cognition research must, we argue, look very different from this standard approach.  

Embodied Cognition: Four Key Questions

The core question in psychology is why does a given behavior have the form that it does? The standard cognitive psychology explanation for the form of behavior is that it reflects the contents and operation of an internal algorithm (implemented as a mental representation) designed to produce that behavior on demand (e.g., Fodor, 1975, 2008). The work discussed below replaces complex internal control structures with carefully built bodies perceptually coupled to specific environments. (Of course, embodied cognition solutions will also sometimes require internal control structures. Critically, though, these internal control structures are taking part in the activity of distributed perceptually coupled systems from which behavior emerges online, in real time, in a context. Thus, explicit representations of behavior or knowledge have no place in embodied solutions.)

To get a rigorous handle on this claim, we suggest that there are four key questions any embodied cognition research program must address:

1. What is the task to be solved? Embodied cognition solutions solve specific tasks, not general problems, so identifying how an organism produces a given behavior means accurately identifying the task it is trying to solve at the time. Taking things one task at a time opens up the possibility ofsmart solutions (Runeson, 1977). Organisms using smart solutions solve particular problems using heuristics made possible by stable features of the task at hand, rather than general purpose rote devices which apply algorithms to solve the task. For common tasks, smart solutions are typically more efficient, more stable, and more economical than rote solutions (e.g., Zhu and Bingham, 2008, 2010).

2. What are the resources that the organism has access to in order to solve the task? Embodied cognition implies that there are resources, plural, available to the organism. These resources include the brain but also the body, the environment, and the relations between these things (e.g., the motion of our bodies through the environment). A task analysis should include an exhaustive list of resources available that might contribute, beginning with those available via perception and action and only hypothesizing more complex cognitive resources once the capabilities of these other resources have been exhausted. An exhaustive list is possible if you are able to characterize your task formally; tasks are differentiated from each other in terms of their underlying dynamics (e.g., Bingham, 1995) and thus it is becoming common practice to formalize the task description using the tools of dynamical systems (e.g.,Fajen and Warren, 2003; Bingham, 2004a,b; Schöner and Thelen, 2006).

3. How can these resources be assembled so as to solve the task? Solving a specific task means creating a smart, task-specific device that can do the job (Bingham, 1988). To be more specific, it means assembling the required resources into a dynamical system that solves the task at hand as its behavior unfolds over time. Remember, these resources can be distributed over brain, body, and environment. Since we only have access to information about our bodies and the environment via perception, an embodied analysis must include a detailed account of the perceptual information used to connect the various resources (Golonka and Wilson, 2012).

4. Does the organism, in fact, assemble, and use these resources? It is always an empirical question whether the dynamical system hypothesized in step 3 is, in fact, an accurate description of the system the organism has assembled to solve the task. The basic experimental tool for establishing the identity of a dynamical system is the perturbation experiment; systems respond to perturbations of resources in a manner that is specific to the role that resource plays in the system, and this allows you to map the composition and organization of the system at hand (e.g., Kay et al., 1987, 1991; Wilson and Bingham, 2008).

The next sections will review what this new research looks like in practice; we will begin with some simpler cases that tackle and clarify some of our key questions, and end up with two cases of human behavior that demonstrate how to tie these four questions into a coherent research program.
Read the whole article.

Here is the commentary on the first article (in full):

Metaphor in embodied cognition is more than just combining two related concepts: a comment on Wilson and Golonka (2013)

Jens H. Hellmann(1), Gerald Echterhoff(2) and Deborah F. Thoben(3)
1. Department of Psychology, Center of Higher Education, University of Münster, Münster, Germany2. Social Psychology, University of Münster, Münster, Germany3. Criminological Research Institute of Lower Saxony, Hanover, Germany
A commentary on Embodied cognition is not what you think it is.
by Wilson, A. D., and Golonka, S. (2013). Front. Psychol. 4:58. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00058

In their recent article on embodied cognition, Wilson and Golonka (2013) also discuss research on conceptual metaphors like “power is up” or “the future is forward” to exemplify common approaches to embodied cognition. Metaphors are particularly interesting for embodied cognition research because they can map concrete, bodily experiences onto abstract concepts (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980). To be sure, one could take issue with the selection of the two specific studies (Miles et al., 2010; Eerland et al., 2011). Only the latter study (Miles et al., 2010), which examined the relation between mental time travel and bodily posture, involves a conceptual metaphor, whereas the former study (Eerland et al., 2011) invokes the notion of a mental number line rather than any conceptual metaphor and indeed demonstrates that sometimes cognitions and bodily postures go together. There are many other interesting demonstrations that are consistent with the notion that conceptual metaphors inform and shape thinking (for a review, see Landau et al., 2010).

More importantly, we believe that to appreciate the joint operation of bodily experience and metaphors one needs to take into account metaphors that are actually articulated and encountered in linguistic practice. Conceptual metaphors represent general mappings that are assumed to organize and facilitate thought and judgments. Often, they are inferred and formulated by researchers, but many of them are not, or only exceptionally, used in non-scientific, everyday speech, and discourse. However, to understand how physically rooted language helps people perform tasks such as judgments or decisions in the real world, one needs to study metaphoric devices that are commonly used in language communities, that is, idiomatic or conventional metaphors like “alcohol is a crutch” or “revenge is sweet” (Holland, 1982; Burbules et al., 1989). The source concept of an idiomatic metaphor often represents a concrete bodily or physical state, whereas the target concept is relatively abstract. Idiomatic metaphors are relevant to embodied cognition precisely because they involve the concurrent activation of a bodily sensation and an abstract cognitive concept, which jointly guide people's cognition.

Research on embodied cognition has focused on only one type of metaphor, that is, conceptual metaphors. But idiomatic metaphors differ in several key aspects from conceptual metaphors, and these differences have important implications for theorizing on embodied cognition (Hellmann et al., in press). In the following, we will briefly explain the differences between conceptual and idiomatic metaphors and then point to implications of idiomatic metaphors for embodied cognition research and theorizing.

Conceptual metaphors combine two entities that intuitively fit together like weight and importance (Jostmann et al., 2009; Schneider et al., 2011). However, they are typically not used in speech and everyday language as frequently as idiomatic metaphors. Conceptual metaphors primarily represent inferences that guide individuals' cognitions. This effect emerges because one concept often spontaneously activates another, intuitively similar, concept. However, the source concept is not necessarily a concrete physical experience, and the target concept does not necessarily represent a rather abstract domain (see Schneider et al., 2011).

For an idiomatic metaphor to guide individuals' cognitions toward relevant judgments, there are more cognitive limitations than for a conceptual metaphor: The associations between the two concepts of the metaphor are less strong, less intuitive, and less stable in idiomatic metaphors. There is a more limited applicability of idiomatic metaphors than of conceptual metaphors. While conceptual metaphors often work both ways, that is, they are bi-directional, idiomatic metaphors operate one-way, that is, uni-directionally. Additionally, when an idiomatic metaphor is reversed it loses its original and genuine sense (Glucksberg et al., 1997; Landau et al., 2010).

Because the associations are less stable and less intuitive in an idiomatic metaphor, it requires the concurrent activation of both of its concepts (see Hellmann et al., in press). Source and target concept have to be specifically activated to in a given situation to provide a new understanding of the target concept and shape individuals' thinking and judgments. Evidence this for this constraint is provided by our own recent research (Hellmann et al., in press). In two experiments, we investigated whether the sensation of sweet taste informs judgments of harmful acts via indirect activation of the idiomatic metaphor “Revenge is sweet.” We found in one study that only after priming with the concept revenge, but not after priming with the similar concept schadenfreude, a concurrent sweet (vs. fresh) taste led to more lenient judgments. Hence, a physical state per se is not sufficient for effects of idiomatic metaphors on cognition.

The differences between the two types of metaphor have important implications for the understanding of embodied cognition. Conceptual metaphors can affect cognition already when only one of the pertinent concepts (source or target concept) is activated because the other concept will be automatically co-activated (see Barsalou, 2003). As our research suggests, idiomatic bodily metaphors can affect cognition only when both source concept and target concept are sufficiently activated such that the source concept can actually be mapped onto the target concept in a given situation.

To conclude, if one wants to understand the role of linguistic devices like metaphors in embodied cognition, one should take into account and appreciate the role of idiomatic metaphors. Following the terminology suggested by Wilson and Golonka (2013), such linguistic devices often serve as resources for the performance of real-world tasks (also see IJzerman and Koole, 2011). Importantly, to the extent that idiomatic metaphors are distinctive means for integrating bodily experiences into thinking, they certainly deserve attention by researchers interested in embodied cognition. 
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