Manipulating the body, measuring the body, and tinkering in the name of Psychology

New scientific approaches often rise with the availability of new methods, and can stall when those methods do not evolve further. New methods can be particularly influential if they allow a wide range of application without demanding a lot of resources. In the hands of creative graduate students, such methods can quickly turn into productive tools. The field of embodiment, the topic of this special issue, is no difference. In this text, I trace one development that has contributed a lot to the current state of the field: manipulating the body to influence thought. I then outline another one that may take it beyond its current level: measuring how thought influences the body.


Embodiment refers to an idea that has excited many psychologists in the past years. The idea of embodiment is that the way our mind works is deeply rooted in the way our body works. In particular, one of the ideas discussed by researchers in this field is that the ideas we hold about the world – our mental toolbox to understand the world, to categorize it, and to provide it with labels – is based on the way our body interacts with the environment. What do they mean by that?

For some concepts, this is obvious. Take colours as an example. Our colour concepts develop from the interaction of the cones in our retina with light of different wave lengths entering the eye. The three different types of cones respond to three different wave lengths. From these differences, our brain and mind construct the colours red, blue, green, and every other colour. These colours do not actually exist in the world – light consists only of different wave lengths. Colours are entirely the product of how our retina and brain interact with the world. If we had different cones, or a different number of cones, we would see different colours. So, here our brain creates embodied concepts in the first place. It is fun thinking about the consequences (the Radiolab Podcast has a great discussion of this []).

In other areas the embodiment claim idea is more controversial. For instance, when we judge the importance of a book, we are supposed not to judge it by its cover, but to ponder the knowledge that is written down in it, the beauty of its language, and to compare its wisdom and impact to those of other books. Importance sure sounds abstract and intangible – it is a different kind of concept than colour, right? However, that does not seem to be the way our mind works.

Instead, the embodiment approach argues, even seemingly abstract concepts like importance are rooted in bodily experience. The reason is that in order to understand abstract concepts, we connect them to more concrete experiences. We ground cognition in the body (Barsalou, 2008; Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). Often, metaphors give away the groundings we construct. For importance, one of the crucial sensory dimensions seems to be weight. Embodiment researchers love to scour metaphors to track down those sensory dimensions, and indeed it is easy to find metaphors that connect importance to weigh.

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