Disembodied cognition?

Original article was published by Marta Stelmaszak Rosa on Artificial Intelligence on Medium


Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash

Some of the most recent, biggest breakthroughs in robotics and artificial intelligence draw from the theory of embodied cognition, which is “deeply dependent upon features of the physical body of an agent, that is, aspects of the agent’s body beyond the brain that play a significant causal or physically constitutive role in cognitive processing”. Its proponents will argue that we draw from our natural and social environments when we think, and we need our bodies to do so. This would be particularly clear to you if you’re a kinaesthetic learner, but if you ever use any gestures or body movements as you talk, you should get the idea as well.

Undeniably, there’s something to the embodiment thesis which I can relate to. I think best when I write (not even type), I remember some things better if I touch them, I’ve always preferred to read a book to Kindle. Many cognitive processes seem to come much easier to me if I involve my body, in one way or another.

But if we accept this theory, what does it entail for the world of digital? So little of our bodies and environments get put to work when we’ve engaged in cognitive processes demanded by pixels, data and screens. We seem to be using mostly, if not only, our minds and fingers, occasionally voice.

What I’m wondering about is what gets lost when we disembody our cognition? In what ways is knowing, learning, thinking different when the body is no longer part of it? I, for one, seem to lose some kind of plenitude and permanence: ideas feel lighter and more fragile. But what is that we gain in return, and is it worth it? Lighter and more fragile, thoughts demand less commitment and are easier to change and mould (…if it’s a good thing…). So I may be losing plenitude and permanence to gain plasticity. But perhaps the biggest gain is a collective one: disembodied cognition may be levelling the playing field by not privileging some bodies over others.