Embodied Cognition: What it is and how we deal with it


Russ Mayne fights for hypotheses and theories of language teaching and learning to be empirically-based, and I support his good fight. To widen the fight just a bit, I think we need to hone our critical thinking so as to become more aware of muddled thinking, poorly-argued assertions, and badly-defined terms. In books, articles, and blogs about ELT, it’s often the case that assertions are not argued at all (not even badly!); waffle and “motherhood statements” pose as arguments; jargonese and name-dropping are used to disguise ignorance; exaggerated claims are made for fledgling ideas; band wagons are jumped on and abandoned for the daftest of “reasons”; there is too frequently a very poor standard of rational argument employed.

Alas, there are too few signs of a critical response to all this. So I’d like to look at a topic that has had recent attention, namely embodied cognition. I discuss what it is and then look at 2 examples of how those in ELT have dealt with it.

Thelen (1995) (not part of the ELT community) can kick things off. She says:

To say that cognition is embodied means that it arises from bodily interactions with the world. From this point of view, cognition depends on the kinds of experiences that come from having a body with particular perceptual and motor capacities that are inseparably linked and that together form the matrix within which memory, emotion, language, and all other aspects of life are meshed. The contemporary notion of embodied cognition stands in contrast to the prevailing cognitivist stance which sees the mind as a device to manipulate symbols and is thus concerned with the formal rules and processes by which the symbols appropriately represent the world.

Interest in embodied cognition (EC) is rising fast, but it’s still young and there are already very different interpretations of it. Experiments claim to show that

1) cognition can be influenced and biased by states of the body or the environment.
(2) abstract cognitive states are grounded in states of the body and using the former affects the latter.

But, that’s not how Wilson and Golonka (2013) see it.


Embodied cognition is not what you think it is

Wilson and Golinka argue, with regard to the above 2 claims,

… 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.
In this view, to suggest that we include a 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 is to fail to follow through on the necessary consequences of allowing cognition to involve more than the brain.

Let’s bring this a bit nearer home. Chomsky’s critique of Skinner’s “Verbal Behavior”, in which he argues that language learning and use cannot be explained without invoking mental structures, led to a “cognitive approach” to linguistics. In SLA, this paradigm shift has led to a focus on identifying the nature and sources of the underlying L2 knowledge system. While researchers recognize that SLA takes place in a social context, they view language learning as a matter of change in an individual’s internal mental state. As such, research on SLA is increasingly viewed as a branch of cognitive science.

But cognitive science has to deal with that old chestnut in philosophical circles: the problem of representation. As Descartes asked (to paraphrase him!) “How can we trust the representations of the external world which get to our brain through our senses?” And, to bring it up to date, by continuation: If the brain inside our heads gets only unreliable perceptual access to the world, how can it so successfully coordinate rapid, functional, and successful behaviour in a dynamic physical and social environment? Thus, as Wilson and Golonka say “the content of internal cognitive representations becomes the most important determinant of the structure of our behaviour, and cognitive science is, therefore, in the business of identifying this content and how it is accessed and used”.

The big difference, it’s claimed, is that advances in perception-action research have resulted in our now having “extremely high quality, direct perceptual access to the world”. Allowing this for a moment, embodied cognition wants to acknowledge the role perception, action, and the environment can now play. And if perception-action couplings and resources distributed over brain, body, and environment are substantial participants in cognition, then, as Wilson and Golonka argue:

… 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.

I agree with Wilson and Golonka that this “replacement 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 ..look very different from this standard approach”.

Wilson and Golonka go on to argue that there are four key questions any embodied cognition research program must address:
(1) identify the task at hand,
(2) identify the resources available within that task space that might help an organism solve the task,
(3) generate hypotheses about how these resources are assembled and coordinated (perhaps formalizing this hypothesis in a model;
(4) empirically test whether people, indeed, use these resources assembled in this way.

Wilson and Golonka then give examples of this research programme in action, which are very thought-provoking and sometimes impressive. They also examine other styles of research going under the banner of embodiment, and rule them out from their classification.

My point here is that the article argues a case in favour of a particular approach to EC in which the issues are all carefully considered and the complexities properly acknowledged. You get the feeling that these 2 authors know what they’re talking about and have something useful and interesting to contribute. The article (DO read it) is measured, engaging, coherent, cohesive and supported by evidence from carefully-chosen referenced sources. There’s no bullshit, no waffle, no jargonese, no obscurantism, no silly unsupported claims, no non-sequiturs. In my opinion, it’s much better than most articles you read in journals about ELT. Let’s look at one by Atkinson which appeared in the journal Applied Linguistics.

Extended, Embodied Cognition and Second Language Acquisition

Atkinson presents “summaries of extended and embodied cognition, followed by reasons why the two can be treated as a single, synthetic perspective; (ii) an approach to SLA grounded in an extended, embodied view of cognition—i.e. a sociocognitive approach—in three principles; and (iii) a naturally occurring example of extended, embodied cognition-for-SLA”. In my opinion, this article is a dog’s dinner which takes on far too much and fails to properly discuss embodied cognition in a satisfactory way. As usual in articles published in ELT-related journals, there’s a plethora of references which are supposed to give weight to an inadequate summary of the construct in question. Here’s the entirety of Atkinson’s argument for the claim that “Cognition, perception, and motor action are integrated”:

Cognitivists modularize cognition, strictly dividing it from perception on the input side and motor action on the output side (Barsalou 2008). Recent research, however, suggests the integrated nature of these domains. Thus, mirror neurons, a class of neurons in the cerebral cortex, activate not just when we perform motor actions, but also when perceiving others performing those same actions (Rizzolatti and Craighero 2004). By providing evidence for the shared neural coding of self- and other-action, mirror neurons appear to account for action-oriented understanding, imitative learning, and synchronized behaviour.

First, by no means all cognitivists modularise cognition.
Second, even those who do see the mind as modular don’t “strictly-divide” it in the way he suggests. Chomsky’s falling out with Fodor is a case in point. (We may note here that Atkinson relies heavily on Barsalou (whose conclusions from studies are widely-questioned), without any mention of the objections to Barsalou’s findings.)
Third, Atkinson should tell us what “recent research” he’s talking about.
Fourth, Atkinson uses “thus” to support the wild claim that mirror neurons provide evidence for the shared neural coding of self- and other-action (whatever that means) and account for action-oriented understanding, imitative learning, and synchronized behaviour. Note that Atkinson’s huge claim is made without any attempt to explain what the three constructs mentioned in the last sentence are.

A close reading of the article show that this kind of lazy argumentation characterises the whole text.

Thornbury’s comments on Embodied Cognition

And so we come, as come we must, to Thornbury’s comment on Russ Mayne’s guest appearance on the eltjam blog. Thornbury, in reply to a question to Russ about the value of students licking bits of vocab. to show they recognised them, said

There is an ample history of solid research into how memory works (see Baddeley 1997 for example) to suggest that the word retrieval process in your activity will have a positive effect on learning….

He added in a second comment:

I hasten to add that the positive benefits of touching are not validation of a kinaesthetic learning style (since the effects work equally well for all learners) but rather that they confirm the findings of a rapidly-growing research focus on ‘embodied cognition’, that is, the way the mind and the body are components of an intricately integrated system. This is not a style, nor even an intelligence. It is just cognition, and we all have it.

Never mind what I said before, what I say now is that Thornbury’s comments demonstrate a wide-spread tendency among so-called experts in ELT to make wild, unjustified claims. Thornbury tells us that research into “how memory works” confirms the utility of licking bits of a whiteboard, and then cites the findings of research into embodied cognition (as opposed to the now-defunct claims of NLP) in support. If we were to stray into the realm of discourse analysis, we might note all kinds of features that are objectionable, but let’s not go there, as they say. Thornbury has no better a record when it comes to his over-confident and under-researched comments about Emergentism – see an earlier post I wrote: “Emergentism: The Truth Revealed”. Suffice it to say that Thornbury is often guilty of making strident, unwarranted claims which we, his readers, should be ever-vigilant against. That he’s such a respected figure in the ELT establishment should put us even more on our guard.

Lots of campaigns have been suggested to promote critical thinking. I reckon you need to cultivate it, nurture it, keep your antenna on alert. But in the spirit of embodied cognition, and in particular of the work of Andy Clark and David Chalmers (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ksasPjrYFTg for an entertaining quickie), I suggest that somebody (Gavin??) develops an app which will watch over us while we read and beep loudly when basic tenets of rational argument are abused.


Atkinson,, D. (2010) Extended, Embodied Cognition and Second Language Acquisition. Applied Linguistics: 31/5: 599–622.

Clark, A. and Chalmers, D. (2011) The Extended mind http://consc.net/papers/extended.html

Thelen, E. (1995). “Time-scale dynamics in the development of an embodied cognition.” In Mind In Motion, ed. R. Port and T. van Gelder. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Wilson, D and Golonka, S. (2013) “Embodied cognition is not what you think it is”. http://journal.frontiersin.org/Journal/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00058/full#B34

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4 thoughts on “Embodied Cognition: What it is and how we deal with it

  1. Two very important lessons to be learned here:
    One, “That he’s such a respected figure in the ELT establishment should put us even more on our guard.” There is a tendency to treat certain figures in academia like Bob Dylan of Jackson Pollock, where disagreeing or not seeing the value of their work is seen by many people as the same as not being smart enough to understand it. Unfortunately many of us (including myself) feel as if we haven’t earned the right to disagree with such influential figures, owing to our inferior academic credentials or just a primitive instinct to yield to dominant individuals. As I sit here describing this feeling I know it’s irrational (any information Thornbury has is in principle available to anyone) but the feeling persists nonetheless. This is in its own way symptomatic of the problem, but I’m glad there are other bonafide academics like you who do this work of pointing out the ELT emperors’ various states of undress.
    Two, the brain-switching that is the premise of that Halloween episode of the Simpsons would not actually work.

  2. Hi Mark,

    The common and understandable feeling that your critical faculties aren’t as good as so-called experts and “rock stars of ELT” (as one blogger describes Thornbury) is what you have to get rid of. Critical thinking is a skill which improves with practice.

    I’ve cut and pasted the bit below from here: https://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/defining-critical-thinking/766

    A Definition:
    Critical thinking is that mode of thinking – about any subject, content, or problem – in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully taking charge of the structures inherent in thinking and imposing intellectual standards upon them.

    The Result:
    A well cultivated critical thinker:
    • raises vital questions and problems, formulating them clearly and precisely;
    • gathers and assesses relevant information, using abstract ideas to interpret it effectively comes to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards;
    • thinks openmindedly within alternative systems of thought, recognizing and assessing, as need be, their assumptions, implications, and practical consequences; and
    • communicates effectively with others in figuring out solutions to complex problems.

    Critical thinking is, in short, self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It presupposes assent to rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It entails effective communication and problem solving abilities and a commitment to overcome our native egocentrism and sociocentrism.

    (Taken from Richard Paul and Linda Elder, The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools, Foundation for Critical Thinking Press, 2008)

    As for the Simpsons, I’m sorry to say I haven’t seen the episode you refer to :-(

  3. Excellent post as always Geoff. Concise clear and well thought out. I like your response to Mark. One should never feel cowed by so called gurus or experts, a lot of what they spout is tripe and they need real people to cut their academic wings and bring them swiftly down to earth!

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