MET:Embodied Cognition

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This is a new page written by Debra-Ann (Debbie) Davidson, February 2011.

Embodied Cognition is a cognitive science in which the mind, body, and the environment interact, enabling learners to acquire or construct new knowledge (Cowart, 2005). This triad of influences affords learning in goal-directed, real time environments that engages the senses, perceptions, and prior experiences (Kerka, 2002). The learner learns by doing in a social context where he interacts with the materials and with experts and novices alike to construct his own meaning. Embodied cognition is related to Situated Cognition/Learning Theory and constructivism. It also has sub-fields in Artificial Intelligence, Psychology, Neuroscience and Social Science.

Although the human body is absent from online environments, web 2.0 tools make creating, participating, and collaborating possible in learning situations, through the use of folksonomies and virtual environments, such as Second Life (Alexander, 2006). Embodied Cognition in instructional design provides learners with opportunities to learn complex concepts in practical, meaningful ways because the concepts are placed within the contexts in which they originally emerged: a community of practitioners. Thus concepts are now re-contextualized.


Embodied cognition is a reaction against Cartesian Dualism posited by René Decartes and which informed instructional design for many centuries. Cartesian Dualism articulates a distinct separation between the mind and the body. Learning, according to this theory, takes place solely through the mind (Sodi, 2006). The mind/body duality actually predates Decartes, and was espoused by writers such as Plato and St. Augustine (Barnacle, 2009). Decartes, like St. Augustine before him, distrusted information gathered from the body, because he felt that the body was inherently corrupt, and therefore deceiving (Barnacle, 2009). The learning theories developed in the early part of the 20th century, such as Cognitive Processing Theories, supported this duality.

The writings of Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology theorists who recognized the body’s significance in acquiring information, influenced the development of embodied cognition. It is the writings of Merleau-Ponty that has influenced embodied cognition the most. He posited the view that learning takes place through interaction with things, objects and situations (Dreyfus, n.d.). When students learn concepts that are taken out of contexts, they often cannot apply them to unique situations. For instance if someone is learning to drive a stick-shift and is told to always shift gears when the needle on the speedometer points to 10, when the driver is faced with a heavily loaded car, or when the car is going uphill, blindly following this rule may cause the vehicle to stall (Dreyfus, n.d.). An experienced driver will hear the engine losing power and feel the car struggling. He will then shift to a lower gear.

Apart from Phenomenology, embodied cognition has it’s foundations in epistemology and ontology, and is supported by disciplines such as feminism and anthropology. Feminists recognize that studying our physiology opens up ways of understanding how embodiment influences the way we function in day-to-day living (Barnacle, 2009). Anthropologists, for instance, advance the notion that our ancestors’ brains were hardwired to allow them to advance if a situation was safe, or to retreat if a threat was imminent (Isanski and West, 2010), and that they depended upon situated learning to hunt for food.

Implications for Instructional Design

Three basic tenets define embodied cognition: 1) it is goal-oriented and takes place in real time 2) embodiment determines learning outcomes 3) cognition is constructive (Cowart, 2005). Learning is most effective when it is placed in a context that is very similar to real-life scenarios and requires the learner to solve problems that would most likely be encountered in real life. The third tenet dictates that learning takes place in social contexts where individuals use their prior knowledge to solve problems that are of common interest. The second tenet states that our physical form and capabilities determine how we understand phenomena and interact with the world. For instance, a child will catch a ball with its hands; while a puppy, lacking opposable thumbs, will catch the ball in its mouth.

Instructional Design that takes into account embodied approaches to learning must present learning environments that allow students to learn by doing. They must present problems, cases or projects to the communities of learners that are both relevant to the domain and interesting to the learners. Such environments must recognize and value students’ prior knowledge which they bring with them to the learning situation. When students bring their prior knowledge and experiences to knowledge-building activities, they develop a sense of self, which is vital to the learning process (Barnacle, 2009, p. 27). In such scenarios, students do not adopt the views and prejudices of their teachers, but build their own knowledge through discovery; consequently, students are able to take ownership of their new knowledge.


Wilson (2002) attacks the arguments supported by Anthropologists that we are evolutionary designed to learn by doing. Anthropologists argue that our earliest ancestors who were hunters devised ways of getting food, and ways to prevent themselves from being eaten, and they did this while on the hunt (p. 5). Wilson suggests that humans must have done some of their planning prior to going on the hunt. This, according to Wilson, meant that humans solved problems without being in the situation in real-time. She also points out evidence supplied by Anthropologists themselves that our earliest ancestors were not hunters, but gatherers: they were vegetarians.

She examines the triadic influences of embodied cognition--mind, body, and envionment--in the context of systems theory and the philosophy of science, and concludes that a) such a system is a facultative one because it changes as the individual moves between environments, and as such is an open one b) this system contravenes the purpose of science, which not to study causal relationships, which according to Wilson embodied cognition clearly does, but to “find underlying principals and regularities" (p. 8). She argues that rather than overthrowing earlier cognitive theories, embodied cognition should serve as yet another tool with which to understand human cognition.


Alexander, B. (2006). Web 2.0: A New wave of Innovation for Teaching and Learning. Educause Review, 41(2), 32-44.

Barnacle, R. (2009). Gut instinct: The body and learning. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 41(1), 22-33. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-5812.2008.00473.x

Cowart, M. (2005). Embodied Cognition. Retrieved from

Dreyfus, H., (n.d.). A phenomenology of skill acquisition as the basis for a Merleau-Pontian non-representationalist cognitive science. Retrieved from

Isanski, B & West, C. (2010). The body of knowledge: Understanding embodied cognition. Retrieved February 21, 2011 from

Kerka, s. (2002). Somatic/Embodied learning and adult education. Retrieved from

Sodhi, M. (2006). Embodied knowledge: An exploration of how social work practitioners incorporate embodied knowledge into practice (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from

Wilson, M. (2002). Six views of embodied cognition. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 9(4), 625-636.

Recommended Sites

Academic Commons (no date). Embodied Learning. Retrieved from

Bowling Green State University (no date). What does it mean to embody learning? Retrieved from

Harris, A. (2010). Embodiment Resources. Retrieved from

Further Reading

Clark, A. 1997. Being There: Putting Brain, Body, and World Together Again. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Gallagher, S. (2003). How the Body Shapes the Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Glenberg, A. (1997). What memory is for: Creating meaning in the service of action. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 20, 1-55.

Heidegger, M. (1996). Being and Time (J. Stambaughtrans, Tran). Albany: State University of New York Press.

Husserl, E. (1980) Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy - Third Book: Phenomenology and the Foundations of the Sciences(T. E. Klein & W. E. Pohl, Trans). Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Husserl, E. (1983). Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy—First Book: General Introduction to a Pure Phenomenology (F. Kersten, Trans). The Hague: Nijhoff.

Husserl, E. (1989). Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy - Second Book: Studies in the Phenomenology of Constitution (R. Rojcewicz & A. Schuwer, Trans). Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Lakoff, G., and Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy In the Flesh: The Embodied Mind And Its Challenge To Western Thought. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962). Phenomenology of Perception (Colin Smith Trans,) New York: Humanities Press. Translation revised by F. Williams, 1981, reprinted, 2002.

Zahavi, D. (2003). Husserl's Phenomenology. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Varela, F. J., Thompson, E. & Rosch, E. (1991). The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.