Embodied cognition

At school, we learn to « cultivate intelligence » while remaining motionless in our chair, implying from very early in life onwards that “thinking is done in the head and the body is hardly involved in it”. This is perhaps most obvious in the french, notoriously cartesian, culture.
This is a major mistake, as suggested by the following scientific data:

  • The book by neuroscientist A. Damasio : “Descartes’ Error” showed that emotion is crucial in thinking, especially when we have to prioritize, decide what is important and what is not, what we need to think about more fully and what can, at least for now, be excluded from our cognitive activities. So the cultivation of a better understanding also requires the ability to welcome and manage our emotions and feelings, which are manifested in our body (which is why Damasio speaks of “somatic markers”).
  • Brain imaging studies have shown that the cerebellum is highly involved in our cognitive activities. The better known, primary function of the cerebellum is to activate and coordinate our bodily movements. To simplify a bit, we could say that, for the brain, “thinking = moving” (or “manipulating symbols”, just like we manipulate objects outside our bodies).
    Another interesting detail: the vestibular system, which manages our posture and our balance, is strongly linked to the cerebellum.

And finally, there are important connections between the cerebellum and prefrontal lobes, « locus » of our ability to anticipate the consequences of our actions (including our reasoning) and to manage our emotions, of our empathy and our intuitions.

  • Indicating, from another angle, the direct link between movement and thought, other studies have shown that it is difficult to express thoughts if we cannot move our hands. This is partly why, in my approaches, attention is regularly given to the changes in posture and spontaneous gestures that emanate in the therapeutic dialogue.
  • The most advanced behavioral studies on cognition (outlined in the “Relational Frame Theory”) is a highly successful development of studies initiated by B.F Skinner under the name of “Verbal Behavior”. This name already suggests that, from this perspective, thinking is behaving, and “private verbal behavior” (remembering, anticipating, creating, relating and organizing symbols, describing one’s experience, etc.) largely obeys the same laws as the behaviors directly observable from the outside. And the latter are necessarily bodily movements.
  • The neurobiologist Francisco Varela and the linguist Mark Johnson have each in turn, developed in detail why one should consider cognition as “embodied”, inseparable from the responses of the human body located in the world. Furthermore, Mark Johnson and his colleague George Lakoff have detailed the importance of metaphorical thinking, especially in our abstract cognitive activities. Which is one more reason to turn its attention to the metaphors that emerge spontaneously in the therapeutic dialogue. And usually one can easily observe that the development of these metaphors is tends to be accompanied by bodily movements, which confirms the models of embodied cognition as well as their relevance to my psychotherapy practice.

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