Embodied Cognition

Chronesthesia, the mental ability to travel in time, to relive past experiences and imagine future experiences, supposedly sets humans apart from animals. But a new study, also mentioned this week in the New York Times, finds that this ‘mind travel’ is actually intertwined with physical experience. For example: researchers found that subjects holding hot coffee were more likely to judge someone as “warm” then when holding a cold beverage, and heavy items were judged as more important than lighter ones. Similarly, the New York Times author writes about how researchers tied a subject’s memory of social acceptance to a warmer room temperature. The physical context affected the judgments of the research subjects; hence the article’s phrase “embodied cognition.”

One of the philosophical impacts of this, though not novel, is that perception of reality is partly determined by the context of the subject. The mind is embedded within a physical environment. Abstraction itself becomes more complex in a world without the mind-body duality. This idea, in my life, has affected how I view psychology and more specifically in my work, how I view mental illness.

The mind-in-environment approach is one of the reasons I was drawn to social work practice. Standard psychological assessment looks at the client as though in a vacuum. Many social workers, on the contrary, utilize an idea called Bio-Ecological Systems Theory when assessing a client.  There are five levels taken into account:

  1. Microsystem: Immediate environments
  2. Mesosystem: The connections between immediate environments
  3. Exosystem: External environmental settings
  4. Macrosystem: The wider cultural context 
  5. Chronosystem: The evolving patterns changes and events over the life course.

The individual is affected by a complex array of influences, and cannot be isolated. This approach dramatically changes how a practitioner views mental illness. Rather than looking at something as ‘all in the mind,’ we must take a more holistic approach and include body, environment, culture, time, etc. Cause and effect, responsibility and identity become more difficult to pin down in a world where everything is part of an interconnected web. This may be hard to grasp in the American psyche, where the individual is expected to ‘pull himself up by his bootstraps.’ Such a complex web can be daunting, but it also means that the world is resting on many shoulders and not just our own.

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