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Where is Embodiment going?

Friday, September 30th,   2011 [14:20 - 16:00]

SY_08. Where is Embodiment going?

Semin, G. R.


This plenary symposium is intended to occupy a special significance as an event supported collaboratively by ESCOP and the APS and part of a broader undertaking namely enhancing an integrative view of human functioning. The psychological sciences address phenomena whose understanding requires a multilevel, cross-disciplinary analysis of mind, brain and behavior in social context. The proposed symposium focuses on a perspective that has captured the imagination of scholars across diverse disciplinary perspectives in psychology, namely embodiment. There is an increasing interest in understanding how relatively invariant ecological, existential, material and biological conditions contribute to human functioning. In particular, the issue of how biologically given constraints shape human functioning in contexts that are socially situated has captured considerable attention in psychology. This development, also identified often under the umbrella of embodiment, has arisen in its current form in opposition to a traditional representational approach in psychology, namely conceptualizations of human functioning in terms of a closed loop of symbols or an internal model of the world. These recent developments in embodiment research have yielded an incredibly varied and fascinating collection of research findings inspired by different general frameworks. However, there is a growing and justified concern about the theoretical underpinning of these fascinating results and the mechanisms that are driving them. The promise that this emerging perspective raises is to be found in its potential to cut across a wide range of disciplinary visions and its integrative potential for psychology. The four contributors to this collaborative undertaking between ESCOP and APS present different instances of this growing interface between psychological disciplines.



SY_08.1 - Where embodiment is going: Deeper into the body and further into culture.

Glenberg, A.

Arizona State University, USA

Initial data from two projects suggest that understanding psychological processes in terms of embodiment can be significantly extended. One project investigates the embodied basis of statistical learning, which is the ability to learn from observation alone complex statistical regularities in the transitions between stimuli. According to the Neuromuscular Tuning theory a) people imitate stimuli by using neural mechanisms to drive muscular changes, b) imitating sequences of stimuli induces plastic changes in the brain so that transitions between successive neural and muscular states are produced efficiently, and c) people discriminate between high and low conditional probability transitions on the basis of the efficiency of imitating the stimuli: The brain has been tuned to transition smoothly between the practiced high conditional probability stimuli. More speculatively, this efficiency may be related to the brain’s consumption of glucose: When glucose is low, the brain values efficiency and hence easily discriminates between tuned and untuned sequences; when glucose is abundant, the brain doesn’t care as much about efficiency, and the ability to discriminate between the sequences deteriorates. Thus embodied cognition goes deep enough to reflect low-level bodily processes related to energy regulation. The second project brings an embodied analysis to cultural differences. Some cultures encourage the development of interdependent selves, so that people see themselves as strongly connected, even overlapping, with members of their in-group. Other cultures encourage development of independent selves. Our research demonstrates that interdependent personalities literally see themselves as closer to in-group members than out-group members. Furthermore, this difference in perception seems to reflect expected ease, or efficiency, of interaction. In fact, when we experimentally manipulate ease of interaction, pairs who have interacted easily see themselves as literally closer to each other than pairs who have had more cognitively demanding interaction. Thus, embodied cognition extends into social and cultural interactions.

SY_08.2 - Embodied cognition 2.0

Hommel, B.

Leiden University, N.L.

The recent years have provided increasing empirical evidence that human cognition is grounded in sensorimotor experience and, thus, embodied. This can be considered a proof of principle, an important step in laying the foundations for the study of embodied cognition-Embodied Cognition 1.0 if you will. But what are the next steps to take? I will consider three major empirical and theoretical challenges that the study of embodied cognition is facing. First, we need to move from demonstrating that sensorimotor processes are somehow involved in cognition to showing and explaining that and how cognition actually emerges from sensorimotor processes. Second, and relatedly, we need to explain how cognitive (i.e., covert) actions are derived from overt actions, that is, whether, to what degree, and how cognitive mechanisms emerge through the interiorization of sensorimotor action. And third, we need to demonstrate that, and understand how different bodies and sensorimotor opportunities really produce different cognitions and cognitive operations. This endeavor to build Embodied Cognition 2.0 is likely to require collaboration and empirical and theoretical integration across subdisciplines and disciplines, ranging from cognitive neuroscience, cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, and cognitive robotics to social psychology, linguistics, and cognitive anthropology.

SY_08.3 - Wiping the slate clean: How we wash off guilt, doubts, luck, and other traces of the past

Schwarz , N. & Lee, S. W.

University of Michigan, USA

Talk about morality often draws on metaphors of physical cleanliness, indicating that thought about “moral purity” is grounded in “physical purity”. Empirically, moral transgressions give rise to a desire to clean the body part involved in the transgression (e.g., to rinse one’s mouth after lying on voicemail, but to wash one’s hands after lying on email) and doing so attenuates the experience of guilt and the need to make amends. Going beyond the moral domain, recent work shows that physical cleansings can also remove traces of past behaviors that have no moral connotations. For example, cleaning one’s hands with an antiseptic wipe (as part of an alleged product test) is sufficient to eliminate post-decisional dissonance effects after making a difficult choice and to attenuate the impact of sunk cost on later decisions. The influence of physical cleansings is not limited to past experiences that people may want to wipe off (such as bad luck) but also extends to positive traces they’d rather keep (such as good luck). For example, gamblers bet more after a series of wins than after a series of losses -- yet washing their hands as part of a “product test” eliminates the impact of previous good as well as bad luck on subsequent risk taking. Current studies explore the moderators and mediators of “clean slate” effects.

SY_08.4 - The embodiment of abstract concepts and words: Why emotion matters

Vigliocco, G.


Within an embodiment framework, it has been argued that abstract concepts and words are learnt and represented as metaphorical extensions from our concrete knowledge. Thus, for example, exchanging ideas is seen as extension from exchanging objects and therefore is thought to be grounded on the same motor and perceptual processes. The alternative dominant view considers abstract concepts as not embodied, linked primarily to linguistic processes. Leaving open the possibility that such mechanisms play some role, we present a novel embodied view of abstract representation according to which our abstract knowledge would be grounded in our emotional states. In a nutshell, we argue that the distinction between concrete and abstract concepts is between concepts that are primarily grounded in our sensorimotor experience with the external world (concrete) and those also grounded in our inner emotional states (abstract). Such grounding in emotional states could have a key role in making abstract concepts learnable, given that these concepts are disadvantaged on a large number of other dimensions (such as e.g., familiarity, imageability, and age of acquisition, all of which favour concrete concepts and words). I will present results from series of studies that support this view. In particular, I will review recent work and present new results showing that: (a) abstract words tend to have statistically more affective associations than concrete words (not just for words directly referring to emotional states); (b) this difference in terms of affective associations has processing consequences such that, once all other factors are taken into account, subjects are faster in processing abstract words; (c) abstract word processing engages the neural system engaged in emotion processing and (d), emotionally valenced abstract words tend to be learnt earlier than more neutral abstract words, leading to the suggestion that the affective grounding might help especially at the initial stages of development.

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