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Embodied Cognition: Thinking with Our Hands

- January 24, 2008

We midwesterners seem to be an unusually taciturn lot in terms of both verbiage and body language. That is, we don’t have much to say and we don’t gesture much, either. By contrast, the East Coasters with whom I interact on a daily basis are veritable chatterboxes and wave their hands around so much while they’re talking (which is usually) that it’s dangerous to get within a couple feet of them.

If I’m reading new research from the emerging field of “embodied cognition” correctly, the East Coasters must therefore be better learners than we buttoned-up midwesterners are — not because they talk so much, but because of all that gesturing.

A good non-technical introduction to embodied cognition appeared recently in this Boston Globe feature story. After reading that piece, I followed up by delving into the work of Arthur Glenberg, who in this paper cites a study in which the authors provided a methodology for shifting the body into happy or unhappy states:

bq. Strack, Martin, and Stepper (1988) … noted that holding a pen in one’s mouth using only the teeth (and not the lips) forces a partial smile. In contrast, holding the pen using only the lips (and not the teeth) forces a partial frown. Note that having the face in a particular configuration is part of the bodily state corresponding to a particular emotion. Furthermore, Strack et al. demonstrated that these facial configurations differentially affected people’s felt emotions as well as their emotional assessment of stimuli. That is, participants rated cartoons as funnier when holding the pen in their teeth (and smiling) than when holding the pen in their lips (and frowning).

Now, that’s really pretty interesting. Intrigued, I followed the trail further, to work being done by Susan Goldin-Meadow and the members of her lab at the University of Chicago. And that in turn led me to this article, which was briefly mentioned in the Boston Globe piece, that demonstrates that forcing children to gesture while explaining the solutions to math problems actually enhanced their mathematical understanding. (Maybe that’s why I, as a non-gesturing midwesterner, was always so terrible in math.)

This is very cool stuff, indeed. A small but growing number of political scientists, such as Darren Schreiber at UCSD, are studying the brain in an attempt to achieve new understandings of the neural bases of political thinking. If the embodied cognition researchers are right, then we may well need to begin looking at body parts like the lips and hands as well as the brain.