embodiment (process of)

process of embodiment

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The process of embodiment is a development of a concept in the philosophy of *Maurice Merleau-Ponty and others that has found an application in the training of actors. Drawing on phenomenological insights, it attempts to bring body and mind closer together in the performer.

*Merleau-Ponty emphasized the body as the primary site of knowing the world, a corrective to the long philosophical tradition of placing consciousness as the source of knowledge, and maintained that the body and that which it perceived could not be disentangled from each other. The articulation of the primacy of embodiment led him away from phenomenology towards what he was to call “indirect ontology” or the ontology of “the flesh of the world” (la chair du monde), seen in his final and incomplete work, The Visible and Invisible, and his last published essay, “Eye and Mind”.


The term ’embodiment’ has had increasing currency since its redefinition in the mid-20th century as theatre practitioners such as Phillip Zarrilli and Erika Fischer-Lichte discovered much common ground between psychophysical training techniques and the phenomenonology of embodiment within modern philosophy.

In his Phenomenology of Perception (translated into English in 1962) Merleau-Ponty argued that people perceive and conceptualize everything bodily. He stipulated that our very consciousness is embodied, abolishing the idea of a separation of mind and body which stretched back to Plato. Drawing directly from Merleau-Ponty’s work, Zarrilli talks extensively about psychophysical training as a process of embodiment that gradually refines the “aesthetic bodymind” to “ever-subtler levels of awareness”. He also talks about Copeau’s work in terms of embodiment:

Copeau was precise about the type of embodied awareness that training should develop in the actor: “What is needed is that within them every moment be accompanied by an internal state of awareness peculiar to the movement being done” (Cole and Chinoy 1970). With each repetition of each exercise, for the nth time, there is this “something more” that can be found in one’s relationship to movement. It is repetition per se which leads one, eventually, to the possibility of re-cognize-ing oneself through exercise.

Embodiment is the process of uniting the imaginary separation between body and mind. It is the process within psychophysical training that generates ‘presence’ on stage. Fischer-Lichte notes that “Barba located presence solely on the pre-expressive level of artistic articulation.”(2008, p. 97) The process of embodiment would therefore translate to Barba’s techniques for ‘pre-expressive’ training: “The performer employs specific techniques and practices of embodiment enabling him to generate energy”. (2008, p. 98)

Ruffini explains that “In Stanislavski‘s ‘system’, the actor’s work is work at the pre-expressive level” (Ruffini, 1991, p. 153). Stanislavski’s system was concerned with “Construction of the organic body-mind” and achieved it through a process of embodiment where “[t]he actor’s body must be trained to respond to every minimal impulse of the mind”(1991, p. 152).

With regards to Grotowski’s processes of embodiment, Fischer-Lichte observes that

The actor no longer lends his body to an exclusively mental process but makes the mind appear through the body, thus granting the body agency. In training the actor, Grotowski avoids “[…] teaching him something; we attempt to eliminate his organism’s resistance to this psychic process. The result is freedom from the time-lapse between inner impulse and outer reaction in such a way that the impulse is already an outer reaction. Impulse and action are concurrent: the body vanishes, burns, and the spectator sees only a series of visible impulses. Ours then is a via negativa – not a collection of skills but an eradication of blocks. (Grotowski 1968:16) (2008, p. 82)

embodied cognition

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Embodied cognition is the theory that many features of cognition, whether human or otherwise, are shaped by aspects of the entire body of the organism. The features of cognition include high level mental constructs (such as concepts and categories) and performance on various cognitive tasks (such as reasoning or judgment). The aspects of the body include the motor system, the perceptual system, bodily interactions with the environment (situatedness) and the assumptions about the world that are built into the structure of the organism.

The embodied mind thesis challenges other theories, such as cognitivism, computationalism, and Cartesian dualism. It is closely related to the extended mind thesis, situated cognition and enactivism. The modern version depends on insights drawn from recent research in psychology, linguistics, cognitive science, dynamical systems, artificial intelligence, robotics, plant cognition and neurobiology.

Embodiment thesis

In philosophy, embodied cognition holds that an agent’s cognition is strongly influenced by aspects of an agent’s body beyond the brain itself. In their proposal for an enactive approach to cognition Varela et al. defined “embodied”:

“By using the term embodied we mean to highlight two points: first that cognition depends upon the kinds of experience that come from having a body with various sensorimotor capacities, and second, that these individual sensorimotor capacities are themselves embedded in a more encompassing biological, psychological and cultural context.”

— Eleanor Rosch, Evan Thompson, Francisco J. Varela: The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience pages 172–173

The Varela enactive definition is broad enough to overlap the views of extended cognition and situated cognition, and indeed, these ideas are not always carefully separated. For example, according to Michael Dawson, the relationship is tangled:

“In viewing cognition as embedded or situated, embodied cognitive science emphasizes feedback between an agent and the world. We have seen that this feedback is structured by the nature of an agent’s body…This in turn suggests that agents with different kinds of bodies can be differentiated in terms of degrees of embodiment…Embodiment can be defined as the extent to which an agent can alter its environment.” [Citations have been omitted]

— Michael Dawson: Degrees of embodiment; The Routledge Handbook of Embodied Cognition, page 62

Some authors explain the dependence of cognition upon the body and its environmental interactions by saying cognition in real biological systems is not an end in itself but is constrained by the system’s goals and capacities. However, they argue, such constraints do not mean cognition is set by adaptive behavior (or autopoiesis) alone, but cognition requires “some kind of information processing…the transformation or communication of incoming information”, the acquiring of which involves “exploration and modification of the environment”.

“It would be a mistake, however, to suppose that cognition consists simply of building maximally accurate representations of input information…the gaining of knowledge is a stepping stone to achieving the more immediate goal of guiding behavior in response to the system’s changing surroundings.”

— Marcin Miłkowski: Explaining the Computational Mind, p. 4

The separation of embodied cognition from extended cognition and situated cognition can be based upon the embodiment thesis, a narrower view of embodiment than that of Varela et al. or that of Dawson:

Embodiment thesis: Many features of cognition are embodied in that they are deeply dependent upon characteristics of the physical body of an agent, such that the agent’s beyond-the-brain body plays a significant causal role, or a physically constitutive role, in that agent’s cognitive processing.

—RA Wilson and L Foglia, Embodied Cognition in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

This thesis omits direct mention of some aspects of the “more encompassing biological, psychological and cultural context” included by Varella et al. The Extended mind thesis, in contrast with the Embodiment thesis, limits cognitive processing neither to the brain nor even to the body, but extends it outward into the agent’s world. Situated cognition emphasizes that this extension is not just a matter of including resources outside the head, but stresses the role of probing and modifying interaction with the agent’s world.

Philosophical background

In his Universal Natural History and Theory of Heaven (1755). philosopher Immanuel Kant advocated a view of the mind–body problem and the subject–object problem with parallels to the embodied view. Some difficulties with this interpretation of Kant include (i) the view that Kant holds the empirical, and specifically knowledge of the body, cannot support a priori transcendental claims, and (ii) the view that Kant holds that transcendental philosophy, although charged with the responsibility of explaining how we can have empirical knowledge, is not itself empirical.

José Ortega y Gasset, George Santayana, Miguel de Unamuno, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Martin Heidegger


and others in the broadly existential tradition have proposed philosophies of mind influencing the development of the modern ’embodiment’ thesis.

The embodiment movement in artificial intelligence has fueled the embodiment argument in philosophy and a revised view of ethology:

“Species-typical activity patterns must be thought of as emergent phenomena in three different senses of the word. They have emerged…through natural selection, ….by a process of maturation and/or learning, …and from interactions between the creature’s low-level activities and its species-typical environment.”

—Horst Hendriks-Jansen Catching Ourselves in the Act, p. 10

These developments have also given emotions a new status in philosophy of mind as an indispensable constituent, rather than a non-essential addition to rational intellectual thought. In philosophy of mind, the idea that cognition is embodied is sympathetic with other views of cognition such as situated cognition or externalism. This is a radical move towards a total re-localization of mental processes out of the neural domain.

Connections with the sciences

Embodied cognition is a topic of research in social and cognitive psychology, covering issues such as social interaction and decision-making. Embodied cognition reflects the argument that the motor system influences our cognition, just as the mind influences bodily actions. For example, when participants hold a pencil in their teeth engaging the muscles of a smile, they comprehend pleasant sentences faster than unpleasant ones, while holding a pencil between their nose and upper lip to engage the muscles of a frown has the reverse effect.

George Lakoff (a cognitive scientist and linguist) and his collaborators (including Mark Johnson, Mark Turner, and Rafael E. Núñez) have written a series of books promoting and expanding the thesis based on discoveries in cognitive science, such as conceptual metaphor and image schema.

Robotics researchers such as Rodney Brooks, Hans Moravec and Rolf Pfeifer have argued that true artificial intelligence can only be achieved by machines that have sensory and motor skills and are connected to the world through a body. The insights of these robotics researchers have in turn inspired philosophers like Andy Clark and Horst Hendriks-Jansen.

Neuroscientists Gerald Edelman, António Damásio and others have outlined the connection between the body, individual structures in the brain and aspects of the mind such as consciousness, emotion, self-awareness and will. Biology has also inspired Gregory Bateson, Humberto Maturana, Francisco Varela, Eleanor Rosch and Evan Thompson to develop a closely related version of the idea, which they call enactivism. The motor theory of speech perception proposed by Alvin Liberman and colleagues at the Haskins Laboratories argues that the identification of words is embodied in perception of the bodily movements by which spoken words are made.

More detail is provided in the sections that follow. (on wikipedia page)


Cognitive science and linguistics

George Lakoff and his collaborators have developed several lines of evidence that suggest that people use their understanding of familiar physical objects, actions and situations (such as containers, spaces, trajectories) to understand other more complex domains (such as mathematics, relationships or death). Lakoff argues that all cognition is based on knowledge that comes from the body and that other domains are mapped onto our embodied knowledge using a combination of conceptual metaphor, image schema and prototypes.

Conceptual metaphor

Main article: Conceptual metaphor

Lakoff and Mark Johnson showed that humans use metaphor ubiquitously and that metaphors operate at a conceptual level (i.e., they map one conceptual domain onto another), they involve an unlimited number of individual expressions and that the same metaphor is used conventionally throughout a culture. Lakoff and his collaborators have collected thousands of examples of conceptual metaphors in many domains.

For example, people will typically use language about journeys to discuss the history and status of a love affair, a metaphor Lakoff and Johnson call “LOVE IS A JOURNEY”. It is used in such expression as: “we arrived at a crossroads,” “we parted ways”, “we hit the rocks” (as in a sea journey), “she’s in the driver’s seat”, or, simply, “we’re together”. In cases like these, something complex (a love affair) is described in terms of something that can be done with a body (travel through space).



Main article: Prototype theory

Prototypes are “typical” members of a category, e.g. a robin is a prototypical bird, but a penguin is not. The role of prototypes in human cognition was first identified and studied by Eleanor Rosch in the 1970s. She was able to show that prototypical objects are more easily categorized than non-prototypical objects, and that people answered questions about a category as a whole by reasoning about a prototype. She also identified basic level categories: categories that have prototypes that are easily visualized (such as a chair) and are associated with basic physical motions (such as “sitting”). Prototypes of basic level categories are used to reason about more general categories.

Prototype theory has been used to explain human performance on many different cognitive tasks and in a large variety of domains. George Lakoff argues that prototype theory shows that the categories that people use are based on our experience of having a body and have no resemblance to logical classes or types. For Lakoff, this shows that traditional objectivist accounts of truth cannot be correct.

A classic argument against embodiment in its strict form is based on abstract meaning. Whereas the meanings of the words ‘eye’ and ‘grasp’ can be explained, to a degree, by pointing to objects and actions, those of ‘beauty’ and ‘freedom’ cannot. It may be that some common sensorimotor knowledge is immanent in freeing actions or instantiations of beauty, but it seems likely that additional semantic binding principles are behind such concepts. So might it be necessary, after all, to place abstract semantics in an amodal meaning system? A remarkable observation has recently been offered that may be of the essence in this context: abstract terms show an over-proportionally strong tendency to be semantically linked to knowledge about emotions. This additional embodied–semantic link accounts for advantages in processing speed for abstract emotional terms over otherwise matched control words. In addition, abstract words strongly activate anterior cingulate cortex, a site known to be relevant for emotion processing Thus, it appears that at least some abstract words are semantically grounded in emotion knowledge.

If abstract emotion words indeed receive their meaning through grounding in emotion it is of crucial relevance Therefore, the link between an abstract emotion word and its abstract concept is via manifestation of the latter in prototypical actions. The child learns an abstract emotion word such as ‘joy’ because it shows JOY-expressing action schemas, which language-teaching adults use as criteria for correct application of the abstract emotion word Thus, the manifestation of emotions in actions becomes the crucial link between word use and internal state, and hence between sign and meaning. Only after a stock of abstract emotion words has been grounded in emotion-expressing action can further emotion terms be learnt from context.

Artificial intelligence and robotics

History of artificial intelligence

The experience of AI research provides another line of evidence supporting the embodied mind thesis. In the early history of AI successes in programming high-level reasoning tasks such as chess-playing led to an unfounded optimism that all AI problems would be relatively quickly solved. These programs simulated intelligence using logic and high-level abstract symbols (an approach called Good old-fashioned AI). This “disembodied” approach ran into serious difficulties in the 1970s and 80s, as researchers discovered that abstract, disembodied reasoning was highly inefficient and could not achieve human-levels of competence on many simple tasks. Funding agencies (such as DARPA) withdrew funding because the field of AI had failed to achieve its stated objectives, leading to difficult period now known as the “AI winter”. Many AI researchers began to doubt that high level symbolic reasoning could ever perform well enough to solve simple problems.

Rodney Brooks argued in the mid-80s that these symbolic approaches were failing because researchers did not appreciate the importance of sensorimotor skills to intelligence in general, and applied these principals to robotics (an approach he called “Nouvelle AI”). Another successful new direction was neural networks—programs based on the actual structures within human bodies that gave rise to intelligence and learning. In the 90s, statistical AI achieved high levels of success in industry without using any symbolic reasoning, but instead using probabilistic techniques to make “guesses” and improve them incrementally. This process is similar to the way human beings are able to make fast, intuitive choices without stopping to reason symbolically.

Moravec’s paradox

Main article: Moravec’s paradox

Moravec’s paradox is the discovery by artificial intelligence and robotics researchers that, contrary to traditional assumptions, high-level reasoning requires very little computation, but low-level sensorimotor skills require enormous computational resources. The principle was articulated by Hans Moravec (whence the name) and others in the 1980s.

As Moravec writes:

Encoded in the large, highly evolved sensory and motor portions of the human brain is a billion years of experience about the nature of the world and how to survive in it. The deliberate process we call reasoning is, I believe, the thinnest veneer of human thought, effective only because it is supported by this much older and much powerful, though usually unconscious, sensorimotor knowledge. We are all prodigious olympians in perceptual and motor areas, so good that we make the difficult look easy. Abstract thought, though, is a new trick, perhaps less than 100 thousand years old. We have not yet mastered it. It is not all that intrinsically difficult; it just seems so when we do it.

Approach to artificial intelligence

Solving problems of perception and locomotion directly

Many artificial intelligence researchers have argued that a machine may need a human-like body to think and speak as well as a human being. As early as 1950, Alan Turing wrote:

It can also be maintained that it is best to provide the machine with the best sense organs that money can

buy, and then teach it to understand and speak English. That process could follow the normal teaching of a

child. Things would be pointed out and named, etc. (Turing, 1950).

Embodiment theory was brought into artificial intelligence most notably by Rodney Brooks who showed in the 1980s that robots could be more effective if they ‘thought’ (planned or processed) and perceived as little as possible. The robot’s intelligence is geared towards only handling the minimal amount of information necessary to make its behavior be appropriate and/or as desired by its creator.

Others have argued that without taking into account both the architecture of the human brain, and embodiment, it is unrealistic to replicate accurately the processes which take place during language acquisition, comprehension, production, or during non-linguistic actions. There have thus been suggestions that while robots are far from isomorphic with humans, they could benefit from strengthened associative connections in the optimization of their processes and their reactivity and sensitivity to environmental stimuli, and in situated human-machine interaction, and that the concept of multisensory integration be extended to cover linguistic input and the complementary information combined from temporally coincident sensory impressions.

The embodied approach to AI has been given several names by different schools of researchers, including: Nouvelle AI (Brooks’ term), Situated AI, Behavior based AI and Embodied cognitive science.


one source of inspiration for embodiment theory has been research in cognitive neuroscience, such as the proposals of Gerald Edelman concerning how mathematical and computational models such as neuronal group selection and neural degeneracy result in emergent categorization.

Rohrer (2005) discusses how both our neural and developmental embodiment shape both our mental and linguistic categorizations. The degree of thought abstraction has been found to be associated with physical distance which then affects associated ideas and perception of risk.

The embodied mind thesis is compatible with some views of cognition promoted in neuropsychology, such as the theories of consciousness of Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, Gerald Edelman, and Antonio Damasio.

The modeling work of cognitive neuroscientists such as Francisco Varela and Walter Freeman seeks to explain embodied and situated cognition in terms of dynamical systems theory and neurophenomenology, but rejects the idea that the brain uses representations to do so (a position also espoused by Gerhard Werner).


Research on embodied cognition is extremely broad, covering a wide range of concepts. Methods to study embodied cognition vary from experiment to experiment based on the operational definition used by researchers. There is much evidence for embodied cognition, although interpretation of results and their significance may be disputed. Researchers continue to search for the best way to study and interpret embodied cognition.

Infants as examples

Some criticize the notion that pre-verbal children provide an ideal channel for studying embodied cognition, especially embodied social cognition. It may be impossible to know when a pre-verbal infant is a “pure model” of embodied cognition, since infants experience dramatic changes in social behavior throughout development. A 9-month old has reached a different developmental stage than a 2-month old. Looking-time and reaching measures of embodied cognition may not represent embodied cognition since infants develop object permanence of objects they can see before they develop object permanence with objects they can touch. True embodied cognition suggests that children would have to first physically engage with an object to understand object permanence.

The response to this critique is that infants are “ideal models” of embodied cognition. Infants are the best models because they utilize symbols less than adults do. Looking-time could likely be a better measure of embodied cognition than reaching because infants have not developed certain fine motor skills yet. Infants may first develop a passive mode of embodied cognition before they develop the active mode involving fine motor movements.


Some criticize the conclusions made by researchers about embodied cognition. The pencil-in-teeth study is frequently cited as an example of these invalidly drawn conclusions. The researchers believed that the quicker responses to positive sentences by participants engaging their smiling muscles represented embodied cognition. However, opponents argue that the effects of this exercise were primed or facilitated by the engagement of certain facial muscles. Many cases of facilitative movements of the body may be incorrectly labeled as evidence of embodied cognition.

Six views of embodied cognition

(listed on wikipedia page)


intro’d to phrase/thinking .. while taking in Huber Dreyfus.. and what computers can’t do


same day adding page.. this fb share by (?) – overcoming trauma..w body .. not just talking thru is..

As Levine says, “When the person is in the traumatic state, those brain regions are literally shut down, they’re taken offline,” (Levine, 2013). For Levine, it’ is not until the person has dealt with and sufficiently resolved the physiological shock, that they really can deal with the emotions because the emotions actually will throw them further back into the shock.

The way that we go about resolving the physiological shock, according to Levine, is to help people have experiences in the body that contradict those of the overwhelming helplessness. Through gaining a mastery of our sensations, and reclaiming the power in our bodies, we come to a place of authentic autonomy, where, self-empowerment comes via the route of the body.

roots of healing ness

 Payne and Godreau were able to show that subcortical patterns could be altered by focusing on components of posture and muscle tension, breathing, and body sensation, (Payne & Godreau, 2013).

What research such as this tells us is that trauma affects much more than the way we think and the way we feel – as Van der Kolk would say, “It has nothing to do with cognition”. In many ways the body acts a barometer of traumatic experience – even if the symptoms occur without our conscious awareness. More importantly, not just does our physiology register traumatic experiences and the stress associated with them, it is the key to unraveling them. Through engaging the body, either with yoga, or a rechanneling of the active response, we begin the process of restoring the physical synchrony that characterizes good health — and freedom from the grasp of trauma.


Emrys Schoemaker (@emrys_s) tweeted at 1:23 AM – 8 Apr 2017 :

Descartes was wrong: ‘a person is a person through other persons’ | Aeon Ideas https://t.co/UM3ltLFiWM(http://twitter.com/emrys_s/status/850610107759165441?s=17)

..René Descartes. The 17th-century French philosopher believed that a human being was essentially self-contained and self-sufficient; an inherently rational, mind-bound subject, who ought to encounter the world outside her head with skepticism.

is there a way of reconciling these two accounts of the self – the relational, world-embracing version, and the autonomous, inward one? The 20th-century Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin believed that the answer lay in dialogue.

2 convos – ni ness

Nothing simply is itself, outside the matrix of relationships in which it appears. Instead,

being is an act or event that must happen in the space between the self and the world.

holmgren indigenous law

thurman interconnectedness law

Emrys Schoemaker (@emrys_s) tweeted at 4:38 AM – 8 Apr 2017 :

@JanetGunter And in recognising our relation to the physical world we find we ARE indivisible from material, divisions are arbitrary & we are embodied (http://twitter.com/emrys_s/status/850658987016044546?s=17)

Emrys Schoemaker (@emrys_s) tweeted at 3:36 AM – 8 Apr 2017 :

Yes!! The essentialist notion of individualism blinds us to interdependence: there is no such thing as individuals, only relations. https://t.co/be5knf2dXV (http://twitter.com/emrys_s/status/850643497573122048?s=17)



Metaphors for Extended Intelligence/AI and for human/machine co-evolution and nice thinking about thinking exercise.


most interesting article I’ve read in ages, embodied&distributed cognition @Joi @kaydeeb0y quantamagazine.org/the-thoughts-o… quantamagazine.org/the-thoughts-o…

The suggestion that some of a spider’s “thoughts” happen in its web fits into a small but growing trend in discussions of animal cognition. Many animals interact with the world in certain complicated ways that don’t rely on their brains. In some cases, they don’t even use neurons. “We have this romantic notion that big brains are good, but most animals don’t work this way,” said Ken Cheng,

Parallel to the extended cognition that Japyassú sees in spiders, researchers have been gathering examples from elsewhere in the animal kingdom that seem to show a related concept, called embodied cognition: where cognitive tasks sprawl outside of the brain and into the body.

If you do not have those receptors, that part of the world simply doesn’t exist

And then there are animals that appear to offload part of their mental apparatus to structures outside of the neural system entirely. Female crickets, ..pick up the sound using ears on each of the knees of their two front legs. ..system is set up so that the ear closest to the source of the sound will vibrate most strongly.. takes place outside of brain

webs built by infant and adult spiders of the same species.  . (infants) might be expected to slip up while performing a complex task. … But their webs seemed “as precise as that of their larger relatives,” Eberhard said.

no train

perhaps spiders outsource information processing to objects outside of their bodies — their webs.

Their work suggests that jumping spiders do appear to hold on to mental representations when it comes to planning routes and hunting specific prey…“How an animal with such a small nervous system can do all this should keep us awake at night,” Cross and Jackson write in an email. “Instead of marveling at this remarkable use of representation, it seems that Japyassú and Laland are looking for an explanation that removes representation from the equation — in other words, it appears they may actually be removing cognition.”

non rep

Alternatively, more traditional theorists label these structures and spiderwebs alike as extended phenotypes, a term proposed by Richard Dawkins. Extended phenotypes are information from an animal’s genes that they express in the world. 

It’s a subtle difference. But experts who subscribe to Dawkins’s extended phenotype idea, like Vollrath at Oxford, believe that webs are more like tools the spider uses. “The web is actually a computer, as it were,” he said. “It processes information and simplifies it.” In this view, webs evolved over time like an extension of the spider’s body and sensory system — not so much its mind. Vollrath’s lab will soon embark on a project to test just how webs help the spiders solve problems from the extended phenotype perspective, he said.

While Japyassú, Cheng and others continue to look for extensions of cognition outward into the world, critics say the only really strong case is the one with the most metaphysical baggage: us. “It is conceivable for cognition to be a property of a system with integrated nonbiological components,” Cross and Jackson write. “That seems to be where Homo sapiens is headed.”