As a young person my life was upended and redirected when I first took dance classes.
It wasn’t merely because dance was fun. Or because it was an outlet for creative expression. It was because I instantly grasped that dance and movement are of overwhelming importance in our lives.
That awakening set me on my career path of more than 45 years, placing human movement at the center of the quest for health and the pursuit of meaning in life.
Now, new trends in neuroscience are echoing the insights about body movement that swept me away when I was a young person. The new paradigm that’s emerging is known as “Embodied Cognition.”
What’s different about “embodied cognition” as compared to a more traditional view in neuroscience?
I’ll draw you a diagram.
In traditional “computational” neuroscience, the primary driver of action is thought. Nothing happens until the brain decides to do it. (Acknowledging, of course, that the brain’s decision can be unconscious.) A human is organized hierarchically with the all-knowing brain at the apex.
But if we take the viewpoint of embodied cognition, the primary driver of action is movement as an adaptive response to the environment. The hierarchy is inverted: the motor system is fundamental; it calls on the nervous system as needed to fine-tune its response.
This makes lots more sense as a way of understanding human behavior.
We like to think that our lofty thoughts are integral to who we are. I certainly value my thoughts! And I think that my thoughts are what makes my life important in the overall scheme of things.
But the fact is that developing a brain capable of ever-more-sophisticated “thought” is not one of the environmental pressures driving human evolution.
What drives evolution is the need for the motor system to respond adaptively to the environment. If humans can be said to occupy one end of an animal spectrum, what sets us apart is the sophistication with which our motor system functions.
Your muscles aren’t the mere “servants” of your brain; movement sophistication is built in from the ground up.
Here’s an example:
All cells, going back millions of years of evolutionary history, try to maintain their shape. If some outside force tries to distort the cell, internal mechanisms resist the stretch. That’s no surprise; one of the fundamental principles of biological survival is to maintain structural stability.
That means that an individual muscle cell will automatically try to contract when a stretching force is applied to it. The brain doesn’t have to tell it what to do.
From the point of view of traditional neuroscience, the brain, in order to create a coordinated response, has to factor into its computations the self-serving behavior of each muscle cell and, as needed, override their individualistic responses.
In the terminology of neuroscience, that might be called “central inhibition of spinal reflexes.”
That’s a messy explanation.
The alternative perspective is that the individualistic response of a muscle fiber is a brilliant starting point from which to build more complex behaviors.
As “simple” as that cell’s response is, it’s surprising how much of our more complicated behavior is built around it. For example, when you’re walking and you swing your right leg forward, you’re stretching the cells in your right hamstring muscle. That means that they’re going to “automatically” take internal action to resist the stretch. And — coincidentally? — when you subsequently land on your right leg, the exact muscle you need to activate to stabilize your body weight over the supporting right leg is……the hamstring. How convenient (in other words, how elegantly designed) is that?
The perspective of embodied cognition sheds light on how we produce movement behavior. But that’s not all. Future research following the path of embodied cognition is potentially revolutionary. Here’s why:
What truly sets humans at one end of the animal spectrum is our complex cooperative behavior. Three main ingredients of human social glue are:
1. Language (auditory signaling)
2. Facial expression (visual signaling)
3. Touch (tactile signaling)
In the world of traditional computational neuroscience, these three aspects of social behavior are “cognitive” performances. Each of these signaling pathways carries “cognitive meaning” and we’re unique in our abilities to integrate these signals and create a social world from them.
That’s true enough. But at the same time, each of these three signaling channels is also a “movement performance.”
Language is the specialized use of the muscles of the lips, tongue, and elsewhere to encode information.
Facial expression uses the muscles of the face to communicate social cues.
Touch requires movement with subtle qualitative variation to convey specific emotional information.
Viewed from this perspective, a whole new world of scientific understanding can emerge. We can reconceptualize many of the different levels of human experience, including even the moral, psychological, and spiritual dimensions of life. (Did you know that the cerebellum, which predicts the results of muscle activations in order to feed-forward corrective signals to fine-tune our movements, also predicts the moral and emotional results of behavior in order to feed forward adaptations in those realms, too?)
That’s why I believe that embodied cognition represents the future of neuroscience.
“Embodiment is the surprisingly radical hypothesis that the brain is not the sole cognitive resource we have available to us to solve problems. Our bodies and their perceptually guided motions through the world do much of the work required to achieve our goals, replacing the need for complex internal mental representations. This simple fact utterly changes our idea of what “cognition” involves, and thus embodiment is not simply another factor acting on an otherwise disembodied cognitive processes.” Frontiers of Psychology 12 Feb 2013
Like me, there have probably been times in your life when you feel most relaxed, most energized, most at ease with the world, and most connected to your inner self.
Next time you notice that you’re in that kind of state, you can choose to connect that sense of well-being to the thoughts that are flowing through your mind. Or, alternatively, you can choose to correlate that sense of well-being to your experience of moving through the world and the status of your motor system.
Your choice. It’s your dance.