Review: Embodiment theory and education: The foundations of cognition in perception and action (Markus Kiefer & Natalie M. Trumpp)
by Kaitlyn May
Embodiment is currently a ‘hot topic’ within the field of education, and so I was thrilled for it to be a part of this week’s discussions. Although this article takes more of a cognitive science/neuroscience approach rather than anthropological, it places this week’s topic, embodiment, into a cultural environment that we are all well familiar with: school. For this reason, I felt this article would be fruitful for discussion.
In essence, cognitive psychology and neuroscience are beginning to understand the value of experience to learning. The authors begin with an example that even non-educators can easily dissect: a teacher can introduce an unfamiliar instrument by 1) lecturing on the instrument and its characteristics; 2) showing a video of the instrument; or 3) taking the students to an orchestra to physically observe, touch, and hear the instrument. Though each method will support learning, each will do it differently and produce different effects. With each progression, the instruction places more of an emphasis on engaging the students’ senses. The question then becomes, which method supports learning most effectively? For this reason, there is a current debate about whether cognition is embodied: is cognition grounded in our senses, and our actions grounded in our environment? In this way, education is beginning to consider the same topics as neuroanthropology, namely the role of the cultural environment in cognition and the need for viewing the brain as embedded in its environment.
I would like to highlight Box 1 of the article, where the authors discuss methods for testing embodied cognition. Though not a part of the main narrative of the article, the authors briefly discuss methodologies, and this discussion parallels those we have had in class. The authors discuss using traditional neuroscience methodologies—functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalogram (EEG), primarily— in a traditional lab setting as a first step in assessing the validity of embodied cognition theory. Rather than take the methods directly into the environment, the authors propose to instead remain in the laboratory. Participants will complete various cognitive tasks and analytic focus will be given to whether sensory and motor areas of the brain are activated in the task. If the sensory and motor areas are activated, this points to an importance of the environment in guiding cognition. If they do not, it would appear that the need for embodied learning is less critical. To me, this methodology seems neuroanthropological. Though they do not take the research directly into the environment, they use a logical argument to make a first small step towards studying the brain in the wild, while minimizing the issues with taking a neural methodology outside of the lab (i.e. cumbersome equipment, need to control external variables to obtain a strong signal, lack of theoretical knowledge of obtaining a signal outside of a lab).
The authors begin with a discussion of the embodiment of reading and writing. Though reading is typically thought to be purely perceptual, recent research indicates that reading is heavily influenced by writing techniques; the sensory-motor regions activated during writing are also activated during reading. The authors discuss how writing environments have changed through the years; an increasing reliance on technology makes writing on computers and mobile devices much more common even in childhood. Because of this change in environment, the authors propose a need for further research in the embodiment of writing and reading. They present a few recent studies which suggest the importance of handwriting to reading and suggest that the deep reliance on sensory-motor systems in handwriting point to the embodied nature of reading and writing.
The authors then move into a discussion on the embodiment of memory. Because this is something that we have already discussed in class, I will not unpack the logical argument for the embodiment of memory, but instead present the authors’ argument for the importance of considering the embodiment of memory within instructional practice. Within the context of education, understanding the embodiment of memory is important in order to understand best practices to support learning. Research suggests that learning and memory are best supported by action; doing something is more memorable than simply reading something, or even observing somebody else doing something. Because of this, understanding embodiment is critical to educational practice.
The article then transitions into a discussion of the embodiment of conceptual memory for objects. Concepts held in semantic long-term memory include our sensory-motor experiences with the environment. Much like memory for events, conceptual memory for objects appears to deeply rely on sensory-motor experiences. The authors discuss various neuroscience studies pointing to activation of sensory-motor areas during conceptual tasks, such as word learning, language processing, and concept processing. Moreover, the authors point out that conceptual and perceptual processing overlaps in the sensory regions of the brain, both functionally and neuroanatomically. In other words, activation is seen in similar places for both types of processing. The authors conclude this section with evidence from experience-dependent expertise, and the affect this has on the brain. This brief discussion parallels the textbook’s discussion of Capoeira and Taijutsu. The authors provide an example within music. Professional musicians activate auditory association cortex when processing conceptual knowledge about musical instruments, whereas musical novices do not. Further expertise studies confirm this point; repeated interaction with an experience to the level of an expert affects the brain.
The last section of the article discusses the embodiment of conceptual memory for numbers. Because accessing number magnitudes (i.e., the size of the number) relies on a mental number line, there is a visuo-spatial component to numerical cognition. A common example suggesting the embodied nature of numerical cognition is the frequency with which children count with their fingers, and the established importance of this practice to learning. Moreover, these finger counting habits differ by culture and as a product of the language used to describe numbers. In other words, which fingers people use, which hand or hands people use, when finger counting differs as a product of both the geographic location and language—both elements of culture. Though numerical concepts are fairly abstract, they appear to be embodied in perception and action.
Education is beginning to realize that cognition is embodied, a combination of external stimuli and internal states. Kiefer and Trumpp (2012) provide a comprehensive overview of embodiment research within education, exploring topics such as memory, reading, writing, and number concepts. Within the field of education, research on embodiment demonstrates a need to consider the criticality of sensory and motor experiences, but also a need for educators to consider the bidirectional relationship between internal and external states and the individualities of students.
1. Do you find the authors’ proposed methods to be neuroanthropological? Do you see their method as a good first step towards building the field of neuroanthropology, or as disregarding the importance of anthropological methods?
2. What can research of embodiment within the cultural environment of school suggest to us about embodiment in other environments?
3. How does this paper inform neuroanthropology?