All acknowledgements for the content of this text go to Lawrance Barsalou.
Knowledge is key to life. It is our most valuable asset. It builds the foundations for our understanding of the world. Knowledge is exceptional but figuring out how it works has proven to be an extremely challenging task. The human conceptual system represents our knowledge about the world. It organizes the knowledge that we acquire about the world categorically. Throughout the decades researchers have proposed many theories that try to explain this conceptual system. The leading one is called the semantic memory approach. Semantic memory is believed to be a distinct unit, which is separate from the episodic memory and also from the brain’s modality-specific systems such as action, vision, perception and introspection. The theory assumes that all the information we receive from these systems is first converted into amodal symbols, then transferred to the semantic memory system and finally stored there as knowledge. (The Transduction Principle).
Receive Information -> Convert into amodal symbols -> Store in semantic memory.
This standard theory is accused of having some weak spots, therefore it would be beneficial to familiarize ourselves with an alternative approach: the grounded cognition theory. It has been around for thousands of years, dating back to ancient philosophers. It argues that the conceptual system is not modular, but instead uses the brain’s modality-specific systems.
Imagine a person looking at a cat. His/her visual system would produce ventral stream activation. Rather than information being converted into symbols that stand for the image of the cat and then transferred to the semantic memory system, grounded theory assumes that nearby association areas partially capture the state of the ventral stream and later use this state of activation to represent the knowledge. Likewise if the cat meows, this particular piece of information gets captured by another association area and then gets integrated with other types of information we have received from this cat - thus creating a multi-modal memory of the experience. Multi-modal memories help us simulate a huge spectrum of details about the experience. If you later hear the word cat, your multi-modal memory is going to be activated and information about how the cat looks, how it sounds, smells and feels is going to be simulated. In general, grounded cognition supporters reject the notion that: “amodal symbols represent knowledge in semantic memory” (Barsalou, 2008).
The theory can be further illustrated with the help of the following examples:
Let’s imagine the situation in which someone describes a particular scene to you. When you start imagining how it looks, how it feels, how it smells, you are not simply thinking about it, you are actually reliving the entire situation in your sensory system. If your friend explains to you how to kick a ball, you are representing what he is saying in your motor system. Studies done with fMRI have shown that the same brain regions become active just by thinking about an action as when you are actually doing it. So for example if you are sitting on a chair and someone tells you the priming word run, your brain will activate a program and simulate running, leading you to be already prepared for the anticipated action. As a consequence you would be able to stand up faster.
The state of your body plays a very important role too: if you currently are in a state, which you associate with positive affects, you are much more likely to evaluate something higher or better, than if you are in a state associated with negative affects. If, for instance, you are asked to evaluate a piece of writing and your body is in a state associated with a positive affect, you think it’s a good piece of writing. If it’s in a state associated with negative affect, you think it’s a poor writing. It has been shown that the environment also affects how you think. Lets take an example with this homework. If you are drinking something cold while reading, it’s very likely that you would evaluate it lower. Conversely if you have a warm drink in your hand and you are sitting with a straight body, it is very likely that you would evaluate it higher. Therefore, I am now hoping that you are drinking a cup of hot tee.
Facial musculature is said to have an effect on our cognition too. Frowning can actually have a negative impact on our general mood. This is also true for smiling – smiling can have a positive effect on our mood. This means that we can indirectly control our emotions by directly affecting our physical condition. Our head actions, our body posture, our facial expression –they all determine to a certain degree our emotional state and the way we think. This is also true for temperature. Colder rooms are associated with more negative emotions and it has been shown that temperature has a huge impact on the need of affiliation and closeness:
Recent research on embodied cognition has shown that feelings of social warmth or coldness can be induced by experiences of physical warmth or coldness, and vice versa(…), people tend to self-regulate their feelings of social warmth through applications of physical warmth, apparently without explicit awareness of doing so. (Bargh, J., Shalev, I., 2012)
Evidence exists to support the thesis that when people represent knowledge, they also simulate the things they are thinking about in their motor and visual systems. In a way, they use their body to think, without ever being aware of it. As said earlier, environment can also serve as support for cognition in various ways. Different situations and smells can contribute to the emergence of distant, forgotten memories.
To further illuminate the concept, let’s introduce the case in which we are about to give a presentation in front of a huge auditory. Why is it that we often feel anxious, why do our hands start shaking and sweating, why does our breathing turn shallow, our face red, why do we start stuttering before the presentation has even begun? This could only be possible if the imaginative process was somehow related to our modalities. We would never feel like that if our imagination was detached, separated in a distinct unit, as proposed by the semantic memory approach. We feel like we are there, even though we are simulating the entire experience in our heads. We are actually reliving the presentation within our body. It produces the same emotional response as if everything was happening for real.
The key elements of grounded cognition have vastly influenced the way we look at cognition nowadays- more and more people reject the notion that cognition works like a computer-like computational device. Researchers are on the verge of a huge perspective shift and a giant step further in understanding how the mind and the brain work. New paradigms are emerging that emphasize the importance of affect, emotions, social interaction and environment in forming our thinking. This brilliant idea can be readily used in our everyday lives to improve greatly the way learn, memorize and form our opinions.
Barsalou, L., (2008, April 14),
Brain's Modality-Specific Systems (Video File)
Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jdzI9FN0jww
Barsalou, L., (2010, February 3),
How we think: Grounded Cognition Shakes Up Psychology (Video File)
Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZsckkdFyPM
Barsalou, L., (2008), Grounded Cognition http://www.cogsci.ucsd.edu/~ajyu/Teaching/Cogs202_sp12/Readings/barsalou08_grounded.pdf Bargh, J., Shalev, I.,
The substitutability of physical and social warmth in daily life.
Emotion, Vol 12(1), Feb 2012, 154-162
- Quote paper
- Vladislav Tsekov (Author), 2014, Grounded Cognition, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/356504