We May Give the Brain Too Much Credit for Our Behavior

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We have been taught that thinking (cognition) happens in the gray matter housed in our skull.

It is natural for us to assume that everything we do is the result of complex mental computations that go on there. And it is logical for us to assume that if a person is not managing life well, the problem must lie between the ears.

Embodied Cognition

Embodied cognition is an idea that turns our belief about the brain’s central role in thinking on its head. This theory suggests that what the body perceives as we interact with the environment is just as responsible for our behavior, and getting us to our goals, as the brain.

This idea changes the brain’s job description.

  • Old job description: The brain translates incoming data, then uses that knowledge to order our unconscious and conscious behavior and actions.
  • New job description: The brain is one part of a broader thought system that processes perception and action as we interact with the environment.

This means the environment and our bodies are not just influences on our thought process but are essential mechanisms of thought processing.

How this Relates to Mental Health

The concept of embodied cognition has not altered mainstream perceptions of mental health or mental illness, but it might. Anyone who has holistic thoughts about well-being can relate to the implications of embodied cognition:

  1. Our sense of self and our experience of being in the world are aspects of a brain-body-environment thought processing system.
  2. What we call thought disorders are actually a disturbance of our brain-body-environment awareness and thinking system.

This expanded notion of cognition complements our current knowledge and treatment of mental disorders. Our brain is, after all, part of the thinking process, and current treatments address this. Yet embodied cognition does imply that the traditional psychological focus on brain function is too narrow.

Consider Schizophrenia

Because of embodied cognition, it has been theorized that the symptoms of schizophrenia are owed to a disruption of communication between the environmental, body and brain processing mechanisms. To put it another way, thinking becomes disembodied, losing its connection to the body and the environment.

The disembodiment leads to feelings of emptiness or loss of self as well as alienation from others and one’s surroundings. It necessitates navigating through life by performing everyday behaviors as separate, unrelated actions instead of fluid brain-body-environment behaviors.

Also Consider Melancholic Depression

Melancholic depression, in light of cognitive embodiment, might be viewed as “hyper-embodiment.” The body loses some of its ability to connect with the world and cannot fluidly process data from the environment. Without this connection, an individual is less attuned to others and feels both detached and emotionally stunted. The body becomes too solid, and the person feels trapped in a world of reduced possibilities.

Making this Information Practical

The theory of embodied cognition may someday change the way we view mental health and thought disorders. In the meantime, it is fascinating food for thought and inspiration.

  1. The theory of cognitive embodiment is yours to think about – or not. However, anyone with a mental illness can only help themselves by staying informed about the latest research and ideas in psychology and neuroscience. Keep an open, flexible mind.
  2. Continue to experiment with ideas and activities to find those that help you to cope with your psychiatric symptoms or to heal. Think holistically and pay attention to all aspects of your life: social, occupational, leisure, spiritual, mental, physical and emotional.
  3. Theories such as cognitive embodiment remind us how unique our experience of the world is and how integrated our life is with all that surrounds us.

Sources: Discover Magazine; Frontiers in Cognitive Science and Current Opinion in Psychiatry

Detail from "Encuentro", Remedios Varo Uranga (1908-1963)

 
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