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Take that Descartes! “How the body shapes the mind”

By Rupert P Cole, on 5 September 2012

Here in Aberdeen, the British Science Festival kicked off with a fascinating series of talks on recent research into the way bodily experiences affect even our most abstract mental facilities and knowledge.

UCL’s own Gabriella Vigliocco, professor of psychology, organised the panel. Professor Vigliocco and three fellow professors in the field tackled the mind-body problem – one of the most notorious headaches of Western philosophy.

Mind over grey matter?
Stefano F. Cappa, professor of neurology at Milan’s San Raffaele Scientific Institute, gave the first of the talks. Professor Cappa introduced us to the key questions and experiments in cognitive neuroscience.

If we take for granted that the brain has something to do with the mind, then what is its relation? Alluding to Alan Turing’s computer analogy, Cappa asked is the brain “hardware”; the mind “software,” like a program? If so, how does the brain compute, or problem solve?

MRI experiments have mapped sensorimotor processes so that we know which bits of the brain correspond to the movements of individual body parts. Further, scans show that brains respond in the same way to sentences or words, so that by hearing the word “kick,” the brain shows activity in the region associated with foot movements.

But what about abstract concepts, such as “love,” “luck” or “loss”? Cappa’s research shows these too relate to bodily processes. He found that when subjects were fed the phrase “loss of money,” the same brain regions that respond to feeling pain lit up in the scan. So, as it turns out, losing money is physically painful!

A shady affair
Professor Gün R. Semin (Utrecht and Koç University) spoke next. His talk was intriguingly called “Why the Bride does not Wear Black?” Why, indeed.

Professor Semin set up an experiment that tested how fast men and woman process the gender of names when the names appeared in either light or dark shades. The results were remarkable. Men processed dark shades twice as quick as light ones; women, the exact opposite.

We see this phenomenon in everyday life and commerce. When a waiter was asked to serve couples, without knowledge of who ordered what, Semin found 80% of men received coke, 20% sprite; 95% got salami pasta, and the other 5% chicken. There were many more examples. Watches, iphones and sunglasses were similarly telling in a survey of shopping choices.

Semin came to the conclusion that perceptions of brightness and darkness drive gender-related decisions. At this early stage of research, it is hard to say whether it is a social or a hard-wired evolutionary trait. But we do now know, why brides never wear black.

How our bodies help our minds
Professor Arthur Glenburg (Arizona State University) began at the basics, asking what are brains for? Thinking? Talking? Experiencing? Glenburg believes that all cognitive process are bodily based, stressing:

brains are for action.”

Glenburg’s research looks at how physical experiences can improve mental cognition in educational practise. His results suggest children retain and understand reading material better when given a physical toy to act out the words on the page.

Success in this new educational programme (“Moved by Reading”), could imply that the theory of “embodied cognition” is on the right track.

“Science needs passion”
Professor Gabriella Vigliocco’s talk, “The Role of Emotion in Abstract Thinking”, provoked us to reconsider the notion that things like scientific and mathematical reasoning are somehow separate from our emotional side.

Professor Vigliocco conducted a set of experiments. First, participants were asked to grade a large number of words on how concrete they were, starting with 1 as not at all, to 7 as very concrete. Next, they graded the words in terms of their emotional response, 1 being negative, 5 neutral, and 9 positive.

The statistical upshot was that abstract words tended to have more emotional associations than concrete words, which were on the whole neutral. Further experiments revealed that the higher the emotional response, the faster a participant would process the word.

New research is currently investigating whether emotional development is prerequisite for learning abstract concepts. Could it be theoretical physicists are more emotionally advanced than the rest of us…?

All the talks were highly thought-provoking. “The overarching message,” Vigliocco said, “is that we cannot talk about the mind without taking our bodies into account.”

It had been an excellent initiation to my first time here at the festival. With my mind full of fresh ideas, I decided to take my body into account and head for lunch.

Image:  Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’ (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Rupert Cole is a History of Science, Technology and Medicine MSc student in UCL Science and Technology Studies.


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