Patterns of Embodiment

Every theory of the mind is (ultimately, if not immediately) a theory of human and nonhuman experience. One can study ion channels and neurotransmitters as if they were like any other biological or biochemical substance, but the study of the mind is not the same as the study of the pancreas. While we might invoke any number of sub-cellular processes, these processes get their meaning and relevance from being related to experience. Come to think of it, the pancreas isn’t that different. We are interested in it as doctors and scientists primarily because it is someone’s pancreas.

To the extent that we take experience seriously, we should take the world of qualia and intentionality as constitutive of mental life. The qualitative and intentional aspects of the mental world should be treated on par or better than the causal aspects of the mental world such as neurons and synapses. If we take experience seriously, we should start our investigation of the mind with two preliminary hypotheses:

  1. Ordinary experience is embodied experience. The topic of investigation is ordinary experience, which is that of an embodied, perspectival being embedded in a world of other objects of varying degrees of interest.
  2. Further, as Gibson pointed out, our ordinary, embodied experience is not static, but dynamic; it is a world of ambulatory experience. Embodiment is a verb, not a noun.

Imagine a salesman trying to sell you the latest vacuum cleaner. He describes the superior new motor, asks you to hold the handle and experience the ease with which the machine dusts the hardest spots, he takes out a pamphlet and shows you all the features and then finally clinches the sale with a money back guarantee. From a sensorial perspective, the locus shifts from language to vision to touch and then back to language again. We should also note that the locus shifts from one agent to another and back, with objects in the world serving as intermediaries. I believe that the proper topic of investigation in the mind sciences should be these flows: flows of material and flows of information that are combined into patterns of embodiment. The purpose of regularity theory in the mind sciences is to describe and explain these patterns. Once we consider patterns of embodiment as the basic phenomena of mental life (i.e., the units worthy of investigation) we are also bound to acknowledge two things:

  1. The weakening of earlier boundaries between modules. Patterns of embodiment cut across modules. The natural units of inquiry are flows of matter and information, not the visual system or the language module.
  2. Embodied cognition, as we understand it right now, has to be modified. While the mind is spread across the brain, body and the environment, different patterns are spread out in different ways. Therefore, we have to unravel and isolate threads (of embodied patterns) that are currently bundled together.

We should be willing to accept that there is no such thing as embodiment per se, rather, there are separable patterns of embodiment, each with its own bodily structures. These patterns of body-mind-environment are nothing but flows of matter combined with flows of information. Each pattern — say a combination of gesture, speech and action — can be studied in relative isolation without a priori unifying them in one entity called the body or one entity called the being-in-the-world. As of now, we don’t know what that unity will look like; to assume that everything comes together in the body is to assume the conclusion.

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