CogPoe: Embodied Cognition

Embodied cognition is a central, if not foundational, concept in cognitive science. This seems to mean a lot of things all at once, on various levels.

First, thinking occurs as a result of the activity of the structures of your brain. In this basic sense, cognition is rooted in the physical. This by itself doesn’t tell us much that’s interesting to the present project, but this has certain interesting corollaries. The kinds of thinking that you can do depend on the structure your brain. If evopsych is right and the brain was shaped by evolution, reasoning and other abstract faculties adapted from more primitive brain functions. Furthermore, these faculties evolved to confer a specific survival advantage – they come with purpose.

Because of processing constraints, information needs to be compressed. Categories are a form of compression, done mostly without conscious control. Furthermore, the categories we can use arise out of our physical capacities. Our ability to create and manipulate concepts uses our sensorimotor system: we think in physical terms. Relations of ideas are, deep down, spatial metaphors – things being beside each other, one being ahead of another, one passing another by, et c. (These, in cogsci, are called image schemas).  

My (certainly non-original) hypothesis is that strong writing engages the sensorimotor system. It uses image schemas to create clear relations not only in narration of concrete events, but also in explanations of abstract ideas (Steven Pinker says as much in his terrific The Sense of Style).

But going further, this also helps us make sense of the zeroth piece of advice given to writers: show, don’t tell. Showing engages sensorimotor reasoning, which in turn offers a much richer cognitive experience to the reader, engaging the imagination, producing a wealth of associations and allowing them to get to abstract understanding from the bottom up.

This is all fairly banal, as writing advice goes – at best it throws some scientific terms at tips that have been mined to death by writing how-to materials. But the depths of cogsci and cogpoe theory, which I have only begun to plumb, might hold some undiscovered treasure yet.

Tune in for our next installment, whenever it comes, where I discuss a few insights that might actually be useful.


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