Science gradually debunks long held myths. It relentlessly peels away the cosmetic ideals with which we adorn ourselves. Warm-up your contemplative mind with this excerpt from a recent Science News report, Body In Mind. It takes another step towards taking the ‘sapiens’ out of Homo sapiens (Latin: sapiens = wise man).
Body In Mind (Click on link for the full report)
For the past 30 years, standard theories of cognition have assumed that the brain creates abstract representations of knowledge, such as a word that represents a category of objects. This abstract knowledge gets filed in separate neural circuits, one devoted to understanding and using speech, for example, and another involved in discerning others’ thoughts and feelings. If that’s so, then cognition operates on a higher level apart from more mundane brain systems for perception, action and emotion. Mental life must occur in three discrete steps: Sense, think and then act.
The new approach, often called embodied or grounded cognition, turns standard thinking on its head. It argues that cognition is grounded in interactions among basic brain systems, including those for perception, action, memory, emotion, reward and goal management.
These systems increasingly coordinate their activity as an individual gains experience performing tasks jointly with other people. Complex thinking capacities—in particular, a feel for anticipating what’s about to happen in a situation—form out of these myriad interactions within and between individuals, somewhat like the novel products of chemical reactions.
In short, people often act in order to think and learn, using immediate feedback to adjust their behavior from one moment to the next.
According to this view, bodily states—say, smiling—stimulate related forms of cognition, such as feeling good or remembering a pleasant experience. Researchers emphasize that the ability to think about an observed action or event, such as a friend biting into a peach, stems from neural reenactments of one’s perceptual, motor and emotional states—biting into your own peach.
“It’s really through the body, and the dynamic coupling of neural systems for perception, action and introspection, that cognition emerges,” says developmental psychologist Linda Smith of Indiana University in Bloomington.
Distinctions made between mind and body help reinforce our belief in free will. This, “if I can think it, I can do it” sense of personal control is too tempting to resist. Alas, it is misleading; it neglects much of biology’s role in thought and action, and the interplay between them. The separate mind – body paradigm promotes an overly positive human self-image, i.e., we’re not mere animals, we’re Homo sapiens, wise and learned animals and therefore ‘superior’.
The Chinese word Xin may offer a more accurate view of mind and body. Xin (心) translates as: heart; mind; feeling; intention; centre; core. This blurs the sharp distinction between heart and mind, feeling and thinking. The mind – body division falls away. Chapter 56 hints at what remains… This is known as mysterious sameness.
Seeing cognition as less ‘superior’ than we presumed can only increase self-understanding. Bursting this ‘superior’ bubble exposes free will for the myth that it is. With that, we come one step closer to full membership in the animal kingdom.