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Art Glenberg, on how the body affects the mind

Psychology, embodiment, environment

Psychologists and philosophers have long thought of the brain as the primary tool for all abstract thinking, like reasoning or judgment. But recently, science has been changing its mind on this.

Over the last decade researchers have produced striking evidence that the body, and its relationship to the environment, is completely intertwined in the thinking process. For instance, simply sitting in a wobbly chair makes us judge others’ relationships to be unstable. Wearing a white lab coat, thought to be a doctor’s coat, helps our concentration and focus. Literally washing our hands rids us of guilty feelings.

So seemingly inconsequential events have a huge influence over our emotions, thoughts, and decisions. And this, scientists say, is because our abstract knowledge comes not from some disembodied reasoning within the brain but rather from our concrete experiences interacting with the world from the moment we are born. The very structure of reason itself comes from our visual and motor systems.

It was the philosopher Rene Descartes in the 17th Century who famously wrote: I think, therefore I am. But with embodied cognition on the rise in mainstream Western thought it might be time to supplant that statement with: I move, therefore I think.

Our awareness of this phenomenon will have a profound impact on our day-to-day behavior. We now know that our facial expressions can absolutely change our moods. And that children are more successful in math if they use their hands and bodies to guide themselves through algebraic problems. In fact, a new study suggests that the number one thing we can do to preserve our brain function is to be physically active — regardless of any intellectual enrichment.

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