Monday 1 July 2013

Grounded vs. embodied cognition: a (hopefully uncontentious) note on terminology

Our Frontiers paper made the case that embodied cognition is, by definition, a fairly radical affair. We argue 
...if perception-action couplings and resources distributed over brain, body, and environment are substantial participants in cognition, then the need for the specific objects and processes of standard cognitive psychology (concepts, internally represented competence, and knowledge) goes away...
We argue that this is compulsory; as soon as you allow the perceived environment to play any kind of critical role in cognition, it's game on for what Shapiro calls 'replacement style' embodied cognition. This is why we don't think that we're just at one extreme end of a continuum of embodiment research; we think the rest of the field is making a category mistake. Chapter 2 of Chemero (2009) does an excellent job of laying out the history here; representations come from the structuralist school of thought, embodiment from the functionalist school. They are, quite literally, two different kinds of approach and mixing them is just an error.

I need to talk about this other stuff, though, and I'm tired of calling it 'not embodied cognition'. For one thing, the critical tone gets in the way of the argument. Shapiro calls it 'the conceptualisation hypothesis' and while this is basically accurate, it's a slightly non-intuitive technical term I'd have to explain all the time. So I want to be slightly cheeky and rename that other work, while picking a name they will hopefully not mind. This work, I think, is really grounded cognition (as per Barsalou, 2008) and that's how I'll talk about it from here on in.

Here's the rationale: the major problems with representations, embodied or otherwise, has always been how they get their content. Representations have to take input and use an internal, mental simulation of the relevant part of the world drive behaviour in response to that input. If this is to succeed, then the simulation has to be accurate along the relevant dimensions. In other words, the content of the representation has to be connected to the world somehow; it has to be grounded

Most of the 'not embodied cognition' work we talk about assumes that representations still do all the work of causing behaviour, but with the sexy twist that the grounding problem is solved by using states of the body to shape and constrain the contents of the representation. So I'm hoping that it's not controversial to refer to this work as grounded cognition. In fact, this term has been regularly applied to this kind of work (Borghi et al 2013) note that a distinction between grounding and embodiment is becoming more common). 

I really want to emphasise it, though, to bring the key distinction back to light:
  • Grounded cognition is still about mental representations, just ones that are shaped by the body. The key move is the grounding, shaping internal content with external, modality specific factors.
  • Embodied cognition replaces representations with our activity in a richly perceived world. The key move is the embodiment, emphasising the role of the body and it's place in the environment in creating cognition.
If you want to do grounded cognition, that's fine; just know what you're doing and give it the right name (and expect us to argue with you :). The point is just that grounded is not the same as embodied and I'm tired of having arguments premised on this misunderstanding.

Barsalou, L. (2008). Grounded cognition. Annual Review of Psychology, 59, 617-645.  Download 

Borghi, A. M., Scorolli, C., Caligiore, D., Baldassarre, G., & Tummolini, L (2013). The embodied mind extended: using words as social tools. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, DOI 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00214

Wilson, A., & Golonka, S. (2013). Embodied Cognition Is Not What you Think It Is. Frontiers in Psychology, 4 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00058


  1. Enjoyed this. 3 comments come to mind. 1 is that I would rather think that representations are older than the structuralist school and trace back at least to Kantian phenomenal experience. 2 is that you have to be careful with the word functionalist, because another word problem in psychology is distinguishing Dewey's functional psychology (which is the proper foundation of embodiment)and functionalism as a theory of mind that speaks of "multiple realizability" and is thus dualistic and chock full of representations. 3 is that I agree so much with your distinction between grounded and embodied, that I'm starting to think that the word "embodied" no longer needs to be followed by the word "cognition". Cognition has so long been associated with representationalism that it's no wonder the category error is made. Whatever it is that is embodied is not cognition in the traditional sense. I don't know what the appropriate substitute is, embodied psychology maybe?

    1. Thanks for the comment.

      I'm happy for the history to go back further than structuralism, I just like Tony's exposition in that chapter. It makes it very clear that representations and embodiment come from two distinct schools of thought.

      I'm not worried about multiple realisability; Heft had a nifty chapter on it which I blogged here and I think his solution in ecological optics is lovely.

      I worry too that 'embodied cognition' carries too much baggage, but the world is full of psychologists making up names for things and I don't want to be that guy. I thought it was worth a go to reclaim the territory first, see if that helps. I think the key thing that distinguishes radical embodiment is Gibson, so I think the name should include 'ecological'. But that too has baggage, so it's a problem!

  2. I think this distinction is spot on (and indeed, this difference between embodiment and grounded cognition is logical, and widely used, for years). It also clearly marks the challenges for a replacement style embodied cognition - it has to be able to explain a lot of the cognitive feats that theories currently ascribe to representations. That won't be easy, but at least it will keep you busy :)

    1. You're right, this isn't new, but I thought I'd use it to clarify a few things.

      Replacement style cognitive science has the same problem as the good old fashioned; explain why human behaviour is the way it is. So it's nothing new!