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Embodied Cognition

by Phyllis Pollack
February 2010

From the Blog of Phyllis G. Pollack.

Phyllis  Pollack

The February 2, 2010 science section of The New York Times has an interesting article by Natalie Angier entitled “Abstract Thoughts? The Body Takes Them Literally.” Evidently, there is a field of science called “embodied cognition” which studies how the brain’s abstract thoughts are manifested in body movements. For example,

“Researchers at the University of Aberdeen found that when people were asked to engage in a bit of mental time travel, and to recall past events or imagine future ones, participants’ bodies subliminally acted out the metaphors embedded in how we commonly conceptualized the flow of time.”

“As they thought about years gone by, participants leaned slightly backward, while in fantasizing about the future, they listed to the fore. . . .” (Id.).

Embodied cognition studies have shown that “. . .the brain is not the only part of us with a mind of its own.” (Id.) That is, we process information with our entire bodies and not just our brain.

In one experiment, researchers had one group of students hold a cup of hot coffee while a second group held a cup of iced coffee. Each group was then asked to evaluate an imaginary person based on a packet of information.

As you might guess, those who had held a cup of hot coffee were more likely to find the imaginary person to be warm and friendly than those who had held a cup of iced coffee.

Similarly, in another experiment, participants were asked to answer a questionnaire attached to a clipboard. In one group, the researchers added weight to the clipboard so that it weighed 2.29 lbs. In the other group, the clipboard weighed 1.45 lbs. Again, in response to giving the value of six unfamiliar foreign currencies, those participants who were using the heavier clipboards, “. . .judged the currencies to be more valuable than those with the light clipboards.” (Id.)

In short, our body takes into account physical cues in deciding what to do, even though those physical cues are unrelated. That is, “. . .the body takes language to heart and can be awfully literal-minded.”(Id.)

One of my recent blogs (January 22, 2010, “Initiating The Dance“) discussed the concept of anchoring. Perhaps this research fits into that: using physical cues in mentally processing what to do next or how to approach an issue. If someone is holding a heavy book – will they think the issue is “weighty”? Probably so.

Or, perhaps “embodied cognition” is simply a fancy word for body language; that is, our physical actions reveal what we are thinking. We have all read about this, seen it in action, attempted to interpret it in others and even engaged in it ourselves.

No doubt, this field of embodied cognition ties into negotiation and mediation. I just haven’t quite figured out all of the details. If you do – I would love to hear from you. Drop me a line.

. . .Just something to think about.


Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as well as their own needs better than any mediator or arbitrator. She does not impose her views or make decisions for the parties. Rather, Phyllis assists the parties in creating options that meet the needs and desires of both sides.  When appropriate, visual aids are used in preparing discussions and illustrating possible solutions. On the other hand, she is not averse to being proactive and offering a generous dose of reality, particularly when the process may have stalled due to unrealistic expectations of attorney or client, a failure to focus on needs rather than demands, or when one or more parties need to be reminded of the potential consequences of their failure to reach an agreement.

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