Interactions in learning represent far more than the act of clicking a button or a hyperlink. Our physical bodies are intricately tied up with shaping our experience of the world. Learning designers can apply embodied cognition research to our work.
How We Think About Thinking
For several decades, cognitive science regarded the mind as an abstract information processor, fairly analogous to a computer. There is growing evidence, however, that we think not just with our brains, but in collaboration with our bodies too. And even more important, that interactive experiences can promote cognitive performance.
These close ties between mind and body arise from the theories of Embodied Cognition, which is concerned with the many ways in which cognition is grounded in the body and its interaction with the environment. This has deep implications for online learning.
Apparently, there is much more to cognition than mental representation. According to Michael Anderson of the University of Maryland’s Institute for Computer Studies, “Cognition exploits repeated interaction with the environment, not only using the world as its own best model, but creating structures which advance and simplify cognitive tasks.”
The Evidence is Compelling
Evidence that the mind-body connection is stronger than previously thought is compelling. In the embodied view, anything going on inside the brain might depend on what’s going on in the body and how that body is reacting to it’s environment.
First, think about the use of speech gestures. Research shows that people use their hands to speak for more than face-to-face communication. In fact, people use speech gestures on the phone and in the dark, when no one can see them.
Furthermore, several studies showed that both congenitally blind and sighted children used similar speech gestures when they were explaining a series of tasks they had completed. In addition, both groups used gestures at the same rate. (Iverson and Goldin-Meadow, 2001). Apparently, gestures help us plan and produce speech, reflecting the close connection between mind and body.
Other compelling samples of research that support Embodiment Theory are listed below with the researcher’s name in parentheses.
- Working through a design challenge is often more effective than just thinking it through. (D.A. Schön)
- Subjects who were given a difficult spatial relations puzzle showed distinctive patterns of eye movement right before they arrived at the solution. They seemed to unconsciously solve the problem by enacting potential solutions with their gaze. (Michael Spivey)
- Children who were told to gesture while thinking, solved arithmetic problems that would normally be too difficult for them to solve. (Susan Goldin-Meadow)
- Actors have an easier time remembering their lines if they gesture or move. (Helga Noice)
- Gesturing has been shown to lighten the cognitive load for both adults and children when explaining mathematics. (Susan Goldin-Meadow)
Applications to Online Learning
Embodied Cognition is telling us that effective learning takes place in a dynamic environment that includes interaction and manipulation. I think we can simulate these experiences even if they are digitally-based. People learn by doing.
In addition, brain science is proving that our sense of the body extends to the tools we use. This implies that when users produce an action through a mouse or a gestural interface, it can correspond to performing that action in the physical world. Interactions are a powerful element of improving cognitive performance and a proven way that we make sense of the world. Let’s make more use of them.
Michael L. Anderson, Embodied Cognition: A Field Guide. Artificial Intelligence, 149 (2003) 91–130.
Iverson, J. M., & Goldin-Meadow, S. The resilience of gesture in talk: Gesture in blind speakers and listeners. Developmental Science, 2001, 4, 416-422.
What do you think about the mind-body connection in learning? Comment below.