I have posted 7 pieces on embodied cognition and it is time to ask whether I have come any closer to a description of what it is. Each post was looking at something very different from the others. Whether or not I’m closer to what embodiment is but I sure know what I think it isn’t. Here is L. Shapiro’s view of the other kind of cognition:
Cognition, on the traditional view, is the same kind of process one finds in a calculator. An organism’s sense organs serve as input devices, translating stimulation from the environment into a syntactic code that the nervous system can then manipulate according to various rules that are either innate or learned. This symbol manipulation is cognition, and its products are additional symbols, some of which might be translated into a form that causes bodily motions or other sorts of behavior. The nervous system, on this account, performs the same function that a CPU does in a computer. For this reason, traditional cognitive science has typically claimed that cognition is computation and that minds are programmes that run on brain hardware. Of particular note in this description of traditional cognitive science is the insular nature of thought. Cognition is cut off from the world in the sense that cognitive processes operate only on symbolic deliverances from the sense organs. Conceivably, were a psychologist able to create sensory code, she could deliver to the nervous system of an organism in her laboratory the same symbols it would have received were it roaming a jungle or a university. In such a case, the organism’s cognitive processes would not differ from those of the freely roaming organism. Because cognition begins and ends with inputs to and outputs from the nervous system, it has no need for interaction with the real world outside it.
… the greatest success stories emerging from traditional cognitive science involve analyses of symbol driven tasks that lend themselves to easy algorithmic description, like playing chess or solving the tower of Hanoi puzzle. In contrast, building a robot that can move about a cluttered environment, which seems to call for cognitive capacities far less impressive than those necessary for chess, is a terribly difficult engineering problem from the perspective of traditional cognitive science. Robots that depend on symbol manipulation to perform activities that would be easy for a cockroach might take days to calculate a course through a busy room and tend to be very slow and inflexible.
It was pointed out by D. Wolpert that treating cognition as a computer algorithm results in a computer that can play good chess but is rubbish at picking up a chess piece, moving it, and stopping the move clock in a reasonable length of time. What seems to us hard is easy, and what seems easy is hard.
To quite unfairly parody the brain-is-a-computer attitude, here is what the extreme sounds like to me. The brain calculates and therefore is a type of general digital computer, so further, it is a Turing machine (or if not can be stimulated by one). Further a machine will some day be created into which a real human brain state can be ‘uploaded’. This electronic copy of someone can operate in a stimulation of its body and environment and thus be immortal. There need be no biochemistry in the whole system. This is the ultimate ‘en-vatted’ brain. (Of course, I do agree that computer science makes large contributions to understanding brains.)
It is all very well to know what embodied cognition is not, but we really want to know what it is. Well, it is about how a biological organism deals with its environment. It is organisms that eat, move, chase, escape and whatever else they do; the brain is only part of the organism and it does not eat or move etc. As soon as we picture an multicellular animal that moves, we know we need some sort of system for the movement. The animal must answer the questions like where am I? Where do I want to be? How can I get there? “Look before you leap”, or according to the old joke, “I can’t yump if I got no place to stood.” What the animal needs is inter-neurons between the sensory neurons and the motor neurons to do some real time, real life type cognition, or in other words it needs a brain. Underneath all the cleverness, cognition is about the survival and flourishing of a real organism in a real world. Embodied cognition is about how the brain is fitted to its body and the environment the body exists in. We can see this embodiment in many ways that may seem disparate, but are all evolved biological adaptations to improve cognition.
In the previous posting I have taken 7 very different sorts of embodiment: posture, facial expression, space, the gut, morals, handedness, language. They are linked below and so are a number of earlier posts that touched this subject.
Links to embodied cognition series:
Other links to embodiment: