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From the Academic Dean: Embodied Cognition
Posted 04/30/2015 10:41AM

This winter I had the privilege of returning to The Learning and the Brain conference in San Francisco, which provides professional development on the latest research in neuroscience and psychology and their potential applications to education. One theme from this year’s conference was Embodied Cognition, the idea that the mind is not only connected to the body but that the body influences the mind. Empirical research on embodied cognition has exploded in the past 10 years. That emerging body of research recognizes

1) what occurs in classrooms can have profound effects on learning, and

2) the brain did not develop in classrooms.

Regarding brain development and learning and school, thousands of years of civilization is competing, so to speak, with millions of years of existence.. One of the keynote speakers was Seion Beilock from the University of Chicago’s Human Performance Lab, author of, How the Body Knows its Mind, which details the science behind how we can use our body to perform at our best and discusses how the health of one’s mind is profoundly linked to the health of one’s body. Beilock tells us, “When you appreciate the power of the body in changing the mind, you function better.”

Take for example, the teaching of Physics. In the following video, we can see Prof. Walter Lewin, a famous astrophysicist from MIT, demonstrating angular momentum and torque. That demo aims to help students visualize physics in action. Such demonstrations have surely aided learning. But Beilock’s embodied cognition research impresses upon us the benefits of physical experience in learning. That is, when hands-on learning occurs -- when students can physically participate in the physics demonstration themselves, hold the apparatus, feel the weight, experience the motion, as we see in this demonstration of gyroscopic precession -- then long-term retention of the Physics concepts is aided. In fact, in one of Beilock’s studies, students who were given opportunities to participate in physical demonstrations (as opposed to simply watching demos) performed better when later tested on those concepts. During that study, fMRI data showed activation, during quizzing, of both sensory and motor systems in the brains of students who physically participated in physics demonstrations.

Embodied cognition moves beyond our mid-20th century view that “the mind was thought of as a computer program separate from the body with the brain as general-purpose hardware.” That view was an extension of sorts from Descartes’ dualism, that our body is irrelevant to understanding how we think, learn, and feel. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “In general, dominant views in the philosophy of mind and cognitive science have considered the body as peripheral to understanding the nature of mind and cognition.” However, proponents of embodied cognition now argue, cognition “is deeply dependent upon features of the physical body.” In short, the mind is inherently embodied.

That interplay between body and brain is wonderfully detailed in the following Ted talk from USC neuroscientist Mary Helen Immordio-Yang, in which she argues the neurobiology of emotions shapes the way we learn and urges us to recognize the way we live is not just biological but also socio-cultural: our biological and social survival mechanisms are housed on the same neurological connections. And in studying inspiration, research shows our body and brain co-regulate in our experiencing motivation and purposefulness.

How is York incorporating embodied cognition into teaching and learning? In Physics courses, students find opportunity for active participation in demonstrations such as those discussed above, and we are also experimenting with some engaging, heuristic movement in other courses as well. In English courses, to aid students’ close reading skills, to support their focus while identifying key punctuation, and to help them feel their way through the emotional resonance of a passage, we encourage techniques taught by the Royal Shakespeare Company where by students walk a space while reading a passage and then make a precise movement (¼ turn left or right, turn 180, jump, stop, etc.) every time they encounter a certain punctuation mark. See English 8 students embodying Juliet’s soliloquy from Act IV scene iii of Romeo and Juliet. And for Algebra II, see how Ms. Williston has students dance and move to music as they embody the graph of a function.


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