An Intro to Embodied Cognition

A primer on what embodied cognition means and how it relates to the design practice.

7 minute read

Originally posted on

Underneath a lot of what we cover in is embodied cognition, a fairly recent development psychology and cognitive science. Embodied Cognition seeks to explore the relationship between how we use our bodies and how we think/what our brains do. It’s about looking at a thinking organism holistically as opposed to focusing on the brain, including the motor system, perceptual system, and the body’s interaction with the current environment. In short, EC is the reason why, sometimes when you’re stuck, the best thing you can do is go for a walk.

We’ll dive deeper into the connections between EC and UCD later, but we wanted to take the time to really explore embodied cognition by itself to make sure we have those bases covered before muddying the waters. Aside from all of the pop-psy studies and research examples, the best way to understand embodied cognition (and its ramifications) is to first look at the traditional cognitive explanations and then contrast that with what we’ve learned recently.

Classic Expanations of Behavior

The early works in cognitive science focused more on the functional aspects of our mind/brain and less so on the experiential elements (which was the realm of psychology). In his groundbreaking text Cognitive Psychology (1967), Ulrich Neisser brought together the world of cognitive and information processing, covering perception, pattern recognition, attention, problem solving, and memory, and providing the field its first comprehensive textbook. Neisser had problems with the prevailing behaviorist ideals of the time and used this book as an opportunity to present an alternative explanation.

Before Neisser, though, was Chomsky’s critique of B.F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior, in which Skinner argued that language was a learned behavior. Skinner was the predominant force in American Psychology at the time, leading behaviorist camp. There’s certainly more to read about behaviorism, but in brief, behaviorists are your “classical conditioning” folks. Stimulus, response. Behaviorists focused on animal behavior, so there was very little consideration given to the internal processes that lead to that behavior.

Traditional cognition focused on the internal process “in the narrow sense”; that is, processing done by the central nervous system (i.e. the brain). It was a step in the right direction from behaviorism, but there were many things left unexplained, including humans using the environment to provide clues and context, mirror neurons, and procedural vs. declarative memory. As David Kirsh points out, our incredible capacity for tool use is something that can only be explained through embodied cognition.


Enter Embodied Cognition

The traditional view of the environment we operate in is that it is an obstacle to be overcome and accounted for by an internal algorithm our brains operate. Research proved that to be untrue; that we have high-quality, direct perceptive access to our world, and we can use that capability to inform our decisions and processing. This opens the floodgates of cognition, enabling both the environment and the body itself to play a crucial role. As a few Standford philosophers put it:

Embodied cognitive science, by contrast, has modeled cognition as the product of dynamic interplay between neural and non-neural processes, with no general fracture between cognition, the agent’s bodily experience, and real-life contexts.Here the body is viewed as constraining, distributing, or regulating cognitive processing. Specifying how the body performs these functions in particular environments raises the prospect that cognition itself is neither bounded by the brain, nor perhaps even by the body itself. — Wilson, R. A., & Foglia, L. (2017). “Embodied Cognition”.

Wilson and Foglia argue there are 3 major functions/roles the body plays with respect to cognition:

  1. Body as Constraint: the properties and current arrangement of our body impact the possibilities our cognitive system considers.

  2. Body as Distributor: the body distributes cognitive load between neural and non-neural structures.

  3. Body as Regulator: the body regulates activity over space and time, ensuring a tight coupling between processing and action.

In other words, our understanding of thinking is shifting from a view that emphasized what we do in our heads toward it being something we do with our whole being. That memory problem you’re having? You might not be in the right physical orientation (e.g. sitting) or in the right physical space (e.g. a boardroom) to remember, or to process the information available to you. Put another way:

When you see a cup sitting on the table in front of you, you are not just having a visual experience. In addition to the activation of neuronal clusters in parts of your visual cortices, you are experiencing that cup as something that you could reach for, grasp, pick up, and raise to your lips to quench your thirst. The cup affords not just a visual form; it also affords pick-up-ability. — Johnson, M. (2007). “The Meaning of the Body”.

To put it another way, embodied cognition helps explain why your physical and emotional state impacts the way you think. If your heart is racing, your brain functions differently. We’ll dive deeper into the role of body state and emotion another time.

Thanks for all the science-y mumbo jumbo, but what does it all mean?

In case you haven’t gathered by now, there’s often much more going on than what it seems on the surface. One of the core principles of human-centered design is that the process of creating should be iterative. As Lindgaard and Wesselius point out, that cyclical process requires switching between attending to/processing the whole and focusing on particular details. We are constantly creating a metaphor and then exploring it. Creating a physical/visual representation of that (i.e. sketches, wireframes, etc.) allows us to experience not just the physical relationship but the metaphorical relationship as well.

Externalizations such as sketches and prototypes support the conscious comparison and projection of structural relationships. But they also support the unconscious, embodied simulation of structural relations. — Lindgaard, K., & Wesselius, H. (2017).“Once More, with Feeling: Design Thinking and Embodied Cognition”

In other words, with every single sketch you make, you’re experiencing the relationships between the elements as if you were interacting with an actual interface, and you’re making connections about the content and its structure. This is likely why designs get better with iteration: we more thoroughly understand those relationships and can produce better ways of representing and displaying it.

Lindgaard & Wesselius draw another analogy that’s near and dear to our hearts as they discuss David Kirsh’s research on how dancers learn movement phrases. As they put it:

The notion that incomplete, analogue and gestalt representations are better for learning complex dance phrases resonates with our understanding of sketches and prototypes as representations of the implicit dimension of experience. — Lindgaard, K., & Wesselius, H. (2017).“Once More, with Feeling: Design Thinking and Embodied Cognition”

Kirsh also brings up several interesting points about the aforementioned role of tool use and embodied cognition. First, he addresses the opportunities for novel and powerful designing “tangible, reality-based, and natural computing”. Essentially, every object we interact with provides us different ways of thinking and of interacting with the world. This seems particularly relevant in the context of designing for VR.


How to use the body to make design better

Kirsh’s research with dancers sheds important light on one of the ways you can use embodied cognition in your design practice. In short, dancers learned movement phrases better by “marking” (performing a distorted/truncated version of the phrase) than just by thinking about the movement. So, if you’re designing something, you should physically try to interact with it and see how it feels, even if it’s just on paper. Mimic the behaviors and motions to see if it makes sense.

This is the exact advice given by Don Norman in his seminal text “The Design of Everyday Things”, where he recommends pretending to cook a meal on a stove in-store before buying it. There are certain design pitfalls we cannot see/predict by just looking/thinking; we must do. This holds true in the context of watching others, as well: mirror neurons only get you so far. Kirsh again shows that dancers get a fuller understanding of movement by trying it themselves than they do watching others try.

You also might want to consider representing your interface/design in different forms. The way you interact with a wireframe is going to be different than the way you interact with an interactive prototype, and different still than a physical manifestation. There’s the infamous story of Steve Jobs carrying a wooden block around during iPhone 1 development to get a better sense of what it would feel like. Find cheap/quick/easy ways to change the way you interact with your prototypes/designs.

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