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4/28/11

Lawrence Shapiro On Embodied Cognition: No Brain In A Vat Here



What is embodied cognition? A view in which cognition isn't from the brain alone, but which involves the brain, the body, and the environment. If you check the dictionary, you will find that cognition is described, in short, as using our minds in interaction with things to acquire knowledge and understanding. We think, we experience, we sense these things.

A philosopher of mind, Rolf Pfeifer has written a book on embodied cognition, titled How the Body Shapes the Way We Think. Others interested in embodied cognition include Alva Noë. Mind Shadows has an article on him here.

In an interview with Ginger Campbell, Shapiro observes that regarding the brain as intermediary between "inside" and "outside"--my terms, not his--tempts us to believe that the brain's function is isolated from the body's.
Think of the senses as inputs to the motor systems as outputs. This kind of thinking can lead to the famous thought experiment, the brain in a vat, in which the brain floats in a vat of chemicals, with electrodes attached to it. They in turn lead from a computer, which simulate in the brain various experiences such as soaring high in an airplane, climbing Mt. Everest, or having an orgasm. Click here for a Mind Shadows article on that.

Embodied cognition does not isolate brain from body and environment. Our bodies shape how we sense and process information in our interactions with the world.

To make a point on embodied cognition in his interview, Shapiro comments on the classic 1963 experiment with two kittens raised in total darkness by Alan Hein and Richard Held. Once in a while lights were turned on, with one kitten in one basket with holes. The kitten in it could walk, pulling the other who could not (no holes). The critical point is this: both kittens--those pulling and those being pulled--saw the same surroundings. However, the pulled kittens were passive participants. Their brains didn't use their motor systems as they experienced the environment. Apparently, as a result the pulled kitten remained effectively blind. This was tried repeatedly with various sets of kittens. The pulled felines could see but their brains didn't know how to interpret the sensory input. The lesson from this is that the brain is intimately connected to the body and the environment. It is part of the system, but not the whole.

Listen here

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