Embodied Cognition

Embodied Cognition

I really enjoy science podcasts, science writing, and trying to think rationally and scientifically when I observe and consider the world. Within science, when we approach the world to better understand the connections that take place, we try to isolate the variables acting on our observations or experiments. We try to separate ourselves from the world so that we can make an objective and independent observation of reality, free from our own interference and influence. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that we are part of the world, and that we do have an influence on it. No matter how independent and rational we want to be, we are still part of the world and interact with it, even if we are just thinking and observing.

 

Daniel Kahneman demonstrates how our thoughts and observations can lead us to have unintended physical manifestations in the world in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. He presents the reader with two words that normally don’t go together (I won’t reveal his experiment for the reader here). What he shows with his word association experiment is that simple thoughts, just hearing or reading a word, can influence how we experience and behave in the physical world. Anyone who has started sweating during a poker game and anyone who has shuttered just from reading the words nails on a chalkboard knows that this is true. We are physical systems, and simple thoughts, memories, and words are enough to trigger physical responses in our bodies. While we like to think of ourselves as being independent and separate from the world, we never really are.

 

Kahneman explains this by writing, “As cognitive scientists have emphasized in recent years, cognition is embodied; you think with your body, not only with your brain.” Our brains take in electrical information from stimuli in the world. Chemicals bind to receptors in our noses or on our tongues, and nerves transmit electrical information to the brain to tell it what chemicals are present. Light interacts with receptors in our eyes, and nerves from our eyes again travel directly into our brains. Thinking is a direct result of physical sensory input, and while we can’t physically touch a thought, our body does react to the thinking and experiencing taking place.

 

No matter how much we want to believe that we can be objective and separated from the physical reality of the world around us, we cannot be 100% isolated. We experience the world physically, and we can try to think of the world independently, but our senses and experiences are directly connected to that physical world. Our responses in turn are also physical, even if we don’t perceive them. We have to accept, no matter how scientific and objective we want to be, that we are part of the system we are evaluating. There is no independent God’s eye view, our cognition is embodied, and we are within the system we observe.

Trying to Change Others

Author Colin Wright has an interesting perspective of the efforts we make to try to change other people in his book, Some Thoughts About Relationships. For Wright, trying to change the person in our relationships is a very selfish act, limiting the growth of the other person and of ourselves, and preventing both of us from expanding who we are. He writes, “Finding someone you intend to change means you’ve decided that who they are, what they want, and how they live is inferior to who you are, what you want, and how you live.” By trying to change another person you are forcing them into a mold that you have preselected. You are not working with them to soften your own rough edges, and you are not allowing each other to grow according to independent desires, interests, and shared commitments and connections .

 

This selfish type of relationship is never going to be based on reality as you force another person to be an incomplete version of what you think a successful partner looks like. The other person won’t be able to fully express themselves, and you will only know a false version of them. There are parts of ourselves that we know well, parts of ourselves we don’t know well, parts of others we know well, and parts of others that we don’t know well. Assuming that you can change another person into what you want assumes that you fully understand yourself and the other person, something undoubtedly impossible.

 

Wright continues, “approaching relationships this way means you’re partnering with someone who you consider to be a block of raw material that you can chisel into whatever shape you prefer. You want to whittle away who they are so that they become the person you want them to be, or whom you feel you should want them to be. This typically results in negative complexes and disappointment on both ends.”

 

When you set out to change the other person in a relationship you are setting out to force them to be an incomplete version of themselves. Because we can never fully understand even ourselves, we can never predict and prescribe who another person should be. Development as an individual, both within and outside relationships, is filled with value judgements about relationships, about other people, about ourselves, and who we think we want to be and be with. Allowing both ourselves and the other person in our relationship to be complete human beings allows for growth, both personal and as a pair, and working together to understand this growth is the only way you can help develop another person.

Space in a Relationship

How much independence one has in a relationship is something that is rarely discussed openly and honestly within a relationship, but it is an important consideration for a healthy and successful partnership. The challenge in finding the right level of independence is that it is unlikely two people will have the same need for space and the same need for intimacy. Throughout his books, author Colin Wright provides us insight into his life, and he often refers to his need for time on his own. His reflections on his time alone give him a unique insight into the importance of space in relationships.

 

In his book, Some Thoughts About Relationships, Wright creates a policy for approaching independence and writes, “Having space in a relationship means that you’re able to get time alone. It means being able to tuck away somewhere and read without being distracted by someone who is, lets be honest, quite distracting for many wonderful reasons.” There is a pressure, especially in romantic relationships, to always be near your partner, and finding time together in a world that moves fast and demands much of our time for work is quite important, but Wright thinks we should also discuss the time we need to ourselves. Failing to be honest about how much independence and time we need on our own is in some way hiding ourselves from the person we care about.

 

For Wright, it is important to find the right balance of time to ones self to be able to recharge and be content with who we are. It is hard to be a fully committed and connected individual in a relationship if one does not feel confidence and fulfillment in their own self. Allowing ourselves or our partner to have the space and time that they need will allow for that confidence and individual fulfillment that each person needs to bring to a relationship.

A Full Life

The end of Howard Zinn’s letter of advice to James Harmon for his Book Take My Advice is a single sentence with a completely new idea for me.  In my life I have always felt pressure to live in ways that my parents, co-workers, employers, friends, and one day possibly children would find impressive. I have always wanted to make my parents proud and have always tried to live up to pre-set standards, and in this has had negative affects for me with extra amounts of pressure on my actions. In the last line of his letter Zinn writes, “Live in such a way that your children and grandchildren will be proud of you.” At the time that I read that I left myself a note saying, “Don’t just strive to be someone your children would look up to, but live that life.”
How I have interpreted this quote is that the important idea for Zinn is to develop an identity that does not stand of injustice, does not accept the status quo, and pushes for a life of independence that is interesting, unique, and creative.  The impression of Zinn’s message is that children and grandchildren will not be impressed by stories of how one studied for years to become a lawyer or work for a large corporation to make big bucks.  Nor will a child be fascinated with a story of a climb up a corporate latter that encouraged suites and sacrificing family time for weekend business calls.
Zinn’s quote is difficult to unpack and accept because striking out on ones own in a creative journey is difficult and risky in more ways than just financial.  The corporate world of suites and increasing workloads for fewer employees is a path that many choose because we often find that we need to make personal sacrifices to provide a lifestyle that will provide opportunities for the rest of our family.  This is the greatest challenge for me at this point of my life. I am not sure which direction to go, and how to live a life that can provide for a family financially, without taking away from the relationships that I have. I do know that I can fill my life with interesting thoughts and actions that will help me live a full life regardless of my career choices. At this point I can only strive to build my mind so that I build creativity in my free time to help me find the full and interesting life that Zinn writes of.