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The Physical World, Time Travel, and Embodied Cognition

skim's picture


 At the least, everyone is aware of the fact that the brain is vital when interacting with the environment. The brain produces thoughts, activates memory, and registers both physical and emotional sensations – pain, hunger, excitement, anxiety, love, etc. With its variety of functions and capabilities, the brain truly is the most mysterious and esoteric thing to behold. Despite the mystery, the brain and neurobiology are actually very reflective, related to, and influenced by the environment and other cultural/social factors – the physical world plays a rather large role in our comprehension, analysis, and existence in it/of it. Therefore it only makes sense that we can digest abstract thought more easily when we warp and use our physical space to align with our thoughts. In this web paper, I will explore whether or not the role of the physical environment and the manipulation of this environment is necessary in the understanding, digesting, and learning of abstract thought and concept.

In a series of studies conducted by Nils B. Jostmann, Daniël Lakens, and Thomas W. Schubert, it has been concluded that the abstract notions of “importance,” “justice,” and cognitive elaboration are related to the physical property of weight. In the first study, participants were given clipboards (of varying heaviness) with foreign currencies and asked to deduce the value or the purchasing power of these unfamiliar currencies. Those with heavier clipboards consistently assumed that the foreign currencies were more “important” or more valuable while those with the lighter clipboards consistently attributed less value to the foreign currencies. In the second study, participants were presented with a context where a university committee denied students the opportunity to express their opinions regarding study abroad grants and were asked to judge the “fairness” of the situation. Results showed that participants with the heavy clipboards found the situation to be more unfair than did those with the light-clipboards. Furthermore, participants with the heavy clipboards found it to be more important that the committee listen to students and to their opinions. These studies show that the physical property of weight can alter the embodied conceptualization of importance and justice. Other studies revealed that the heavier clipboards encouraged more elaborate thinking (i.e. the connecting of the quality of life in Amsterdam to the effectiveness of the mayor of Amsterdam). The heavier-clipboard participants were more engaged and compelled to consider these issues more seriously and as more important. These conclusions suggest that as “much as weight makes people invest more physical effort in dealing with concrete objects, it also makes people invest more cognitive effort in dealing with abstract issues.”1 People do interact with their physical environment. To a clear extent, this physical world has an effect over our cognition, perhaps in producing some kind of stimuli that aids in the formation of these abstract conclusions.

Another abstract concept is chronesthesia, the awareness of the past and the future, which enables the human mind to mentally travel through time. Along with an autobiographic and a semantic memory system, humans have a chronesthetic dimension of memory, as proposed by Endel Tulving. Chronesthesia helps people recall past events in order to help them interact successfully in the future: “the higher-order process of chronesthesia…allows people to update information critical to surviving, thriving, and dealing with changes in their world.” 2

A new study by Lynden K. Miles, Louise K. Nind, and C. Neil Macrae takes this further and attempts to study how temporal information is processed when engaging in chronesthesia. In “Moving Through Time,” Miles, et al, explore how the body responds to chronesthesia with literal physical movement (movement that is associated with the given thought). This conclusion refers to how chronesthesia must be represented in the sensorimotor systems that regulate movement “integrating temporal and spatial information in a directional manner.” 3 In other words, when we experience mental time travel, we are subconsciously purposeful with our movements. In their study, participants were blindfolded and asked to partake in an experiment regarding mental imagery. While engaged in mental time travel, the magnitude and direction of postural sway of the participants were measured. The participants consistently showed that episodes of retrospection triggered a slightly backward leaning motion, whereas anticipation/episodes of prospection triggered a forward leaning motion. Even when speaking about the future or the past, one used phrases like ‘I’m looking forward to seeing you’ or ‘I’m reflecting back on the past.’ The process in engaging in chronesthesia reveals that we do use our physical environment to internalize abstract thoughts more easily – either through physical movement or through spatially metaphorical speech. Though this interaction with the physical environment may be subconscious, it is still clearly there, and it testifies to the strength of embodied cognition.

Embodied cognition, arguably, is necessary for the social development, evolution, and stability of the human race. It is a field that asserts that all aspects of cognition (thoughts, concepts, memory, ideas, etc) are determined by the aspects and form of the human body. It can be argued that our own human history relies on such a field. We are social beings, who constantly attempt to expand our influence, erect new technologies, to create more cohesive social groups, to shift towards this idea of “progress” – but all of this requires an understanding of temporal and spatial movement, even if this understanding comes at a very shallow or subconscious level. To expand our influence demands an awareness of abstractly spatial distance; i.e. to where do we want our influence to extend? Shifting towards progress and social/scientific/cultural evolution requires an understanding of mental time travel – an anticipation, investment of the future and a consideration of future possibilities. In the end, embodied cognition reveals that the environment is truly necessary for many kinds of mental cognitive processes to occur successfully. Some cognitive processes (why do we lean one way when speaking of the past or present, why does weight affect the value of importance of the topic at hand, etc) cannot be fully explained without attributing it to embodied cognition and the form of the body. The environment and the physical world is an outside source, an external stimulus and/or participant that has a clear and evidential effect on cognition and the brain – it is completely necessary in conducting abstract cognition.

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  1 Jostmann, Nils B., Daniel Lakens, and Thomas W. Schubert. “Weight as an Embodiement of Imprtance” Psychological Science 20.9 (2009) Psychological Science. Wiley Interscience. 14 Aug 2009. Web. 16 Feb. 2010 <>

  2 Murray, Bridget. "What makes mental time travel possible?" Monitor on Psychology 34.9 (2003): 62. American Psychology Association. Web. 15 Feb. 2010. <>.

 3 Miles, Lynden K., Louise K. Nind, and C. Neil Macrae. "Moving Through Time." Psychological Science 21.2 (2010). Psychological Science. Sage Journals Online, 8 Jan. 2010. Web. 16 Feb. 2010. <>.




Liberman, Nira, Yaacov Trope. “The Psychology of Transcending the Here and Now.” Science 322.5905 (2008). Web. 17 Feb. 2010. <>.


Angier, Natalie. "Abstract Thoughts? The Body Takes Them Literally." The New York Times. 1 Feb. 2010. Web. 13 Feb. 2010. <>.


Carlson, Neil. Physiology of Behavior. 10th ed. Boston: Pearson Education,, 2010. Print.




Paul Grobstein's picture

"embodied cognition" and loopiness

The "embodied cognition" idea is a powerful one in lots of contexts.  See for example George Lakoff's Metaphors We Live By, Philosophy in the Flesh, and The Political Mind.   Yes, indeed, "the environment is truly necessary for many kinds of mental cognitive processes."  But there may as well be an intriguing "loop" here if Emily Dickinson is right: if we construct the sky, and other aspects of the environment, then we are influenced by an environment to which we ourselves contribute.