Psychology Embodiment and Embodied Cognition
Stephen Flusberg
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0023


Embodied cognition (EC) is a movement within the field of cognitive science that seeks to explore the ways in which cognitive processes may be grounded in the sensorimotor capabilities of an agent that is situated in a complex, real-world environment. On this view, the body of the agent structures and constrains the nature of the mind, perceiving and thinking are largely done in the service of action that is carried out in real time, and cognition more generally emerges from the dynamic interplay between the organism and its environment. In practice, no single unified theory of EC exists. Rather, EC may be thought of as a general research program, or framework, that consists of a variety of related claims, methodologies, and approaches to studying cognition and behavior. Interest in EC has developed among all the major subfields of cognitive science, including linguistics, cognitive and developmental psychology, neuroscience, artificial intelligence and robotics, philosophy, and anthropology. Research on EC can be found in most of the leading journals representing these fields. Some researchers focus on how cognition is situated in the real world and how it must rapidly unfold in the service of pragmatic goals and actions. This may include offloading certain cognitive tasks onto the environment itself, such as using pencil and paper to help perform mathematical calculations. These ideas have led some theorists to suggest that the mind literally extends into the environment and that cognition can be understood only as a function of the dynamically coupled agent-environment system. Other researchers focus more on the cognitive abilities of the agent in isolation and investigate how higher-level cognitive processes, such as language and abstract thought, may be grounded in lower-level sensorimotor systems in the brain. Still others look at how features of the body itself can figure into various cognitive operations, for example, through the use of gesture. EC is often presented as an alternative to classical approaches within cognitive science, which have attempted to describe cognition in terms of discrete, amodal, symbolic information-processing mechanisms divorced from any particular physical instantiation. However, even among proponents of EC a range of perspectives exist on such foundational issues as the nature and function of representation in any theory of the mind. That being said, insights from EC provide new ways of conceptualizing many different subjects, from perception and mental imagery to language and abstract thought.

General Overviews

Though EC is a relatively recent movement in the cognitive sciences, a number of accessible books and articles serve as general and thorough introductions to the wide range of ideas that are currently under investigation. Cowart 2005 provides an accessible online introduction to EC. Varela, et al. 1991 is often regarded as the book that kicked off the modern EC movement in cognitive science, and Gibbs 2006 presents a detailed summary of much of the empirical support for embodiment in different areas of research in psychology. Barsalou 2008 offers a more concise overview of the evidence that higher-level cognition is grounded in perceptual and motor systems in the brain. Clark 1997 and Shapiro 2011 provide broader philosophical overviews of the EC framework, while Chemero 2009 outlines a methodological and philosophical framework for a more radical form of EC that does not include mental representations at all. Wilson 2002 puts forth the idea that EC actually consists of several somewhat orthogonal claims that should be investigated and evaluated independently. Scholars interested in more applied programs such as robotics or artificial intelligence should look to Brooks 1999, which summarizes the behavior-based approach to robotics that is grounded in real-world navigation and behavior.

  • Barsalou, L. 2008. Grounded cognition. Annual Review of Psychology 59:617–645.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.psych.59.103006.093639

    This review article summarizes the theoretical and empirical support for the view that conceptual knowledge is supported by modality-specific neural mechanisms rather than amodal symbol systems. Barsalou is a leading figure in this area of research.

  • Brooks, Rodney A. 1999. Cambrian intelligence: The early history of the new AI. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    This collection of essays outlines the behavior-based robotics program in artificial intelligence that views cognition as an emergent consequence of perception and action systems. The book is divided into two halves, the first focused on the engineering of these robots and the second focused on the philosophy of this approach to AI. Behavior-based robotics stands in stark contrast to classical approaches in artificial intelligence that focus on explicit cognitive and representational processes.

  • Chemero, A. 2009. Radical embodied cognitive science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    This book outlines a research program for a radical embodied cognitive science based on the tools of dynamical systems theory and the ontology of the ecological approach to perception in Gibson 1979 (cited in Perception). Chemero suggests that this book should be viewed as analogous to Fodor’s classic, The Language of Thought, which outlined the research program for the classic, computational approach to cognitive science.

  • Clark, A. 1997. Being there: Putting brain, body, and world together again. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    This highly accessible book argues that cognition emerges from the dynamic interplay between the brain, the body, and the environment. Author’s position is notable for maintaining some of the conceptual tools of classical approaches to cognitive science (e.g., representation) while at the same time highlighting that cognition is necessarily embodied.

  • Cowart, M. 2005. Embodied Cognition. In Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by James Fieser and Bradley Dowden.

    This online article provides a succinct overview of the EC research program in cognitive science, touching on the motivations for the movement, its general characteristics, and how it compares and contrasts with more traditional approaches.

  • Gibbs, R. 2006. Embodiment and cognitive science. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Author summarizes the empirical and theoretical support for the role of embodiment across a wide variety of topics in cognitive science, from perception and action to concepts and language, reasoning, and development.

  • Shapiro, L. 2011. Embodied cognition. New York: Routledge.

    This philosophical overview compares and contrasts the traditional approaches to cognitive science with various arguments found in the EC literature. Isolates and critiques three major claims of EC: (1) the structure of the body constrains the concepts an organism can acquire, (2) an organism’s interaction with the environment replaces the need for classical representations, and (3) the body and world are (partially) constitutive of the cognitive system as a whole.

  • Varela, F. J., E. Thompson, and E. Rosch. 1991. The embodied mind: Cognitive science and human experience. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    This is perhaps the founding text of the contemporary EC movement. In it, the authors present their enactive view of cognition that highlights the dynamic, spontaneous aspects of embodied experience that bridges the subjective/objective duality inherent in traditional approaches to cognition. The book is notable for its unique reliance on Eastern, Buddhist approaches to mind and experience.

  • Wilson, M. 2002. Six views of embodied cognition. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 9:625.

    DOI: 10.3758/BF03196322

    Author outlines six different claims that have been investigated by supporters of EC and evaluates each of them independently on the basis of empirical support. This brief paper serves as a wonderful introduction to the wide variety of somewhat independent ideas being explored in the EC movement.

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