The Embodied Mind, Part Deux
In The Embodied Mind, Cognitive Science and Human Experience (1992); Francisco Varela,
Evan Thompson, and Elaneor Rosche idenitfy the need for a circular relationship between
cognitive science and human experience. Cognitive science is the term used to indicate that the study of (mind) is in itself a worthy scientific pursuit (Gardner,1985) It is comprised of a loose affiliation of disciplines generally taken to consist of linguistics, neuroscience, psychology, sometimes anthropology, and the philosophy of mind. An important pole of cognitive science is occupied by artificial intelligence—thus, the computer model of the mind is a dominant aspect of the field. Research into the affordances of technological artifacts is what makes emerging and conditions and practices in cognitive science parallel and/or interdependent with emerging conditions and practices in design.
Cognitive Scientists have recently uncovered tangible evidence that the current configuration of self or individual thinking being, is fundamentally fragmented, divided or nounified (Varela). The concept of a fragmented self is nothing is nothing new to Western science & philosophy. Ever since Descartes and the origin of the mind-body problem, an ongoing debate in the West has been whether the mind and body are one, or two, distinctly separate things. In Design, dualism manifests itself through an over-emphasis on the subject/object relationship, without integrating the user/context and object/context relationships into the design process.
Varela, Thompson & Rosche argue for a shift in philosophy within cognitive science from Cartesian dualism to that of Embodied Cognition. The concept of embodiment around 500 BC through an understanding of basic human experience unfamiliar to most Westerners but that the West can hardly continue to ignore—the Buddhist tradition of meditative practice and pragmatic, philosophical exploration (mindfulness meditation). The notion of a fragmented, or nounified self is the cornerstone of the entire tradition. Buddhist philosophical tradition argues that it is a matter of basic human experience that the mind can wander and be unaware of its relationship to the body. However, basic human experience need not to be mindless, disembodied, and fragmented. To change habitual mindlessness Varela, Thompson, & Rosche (in parallel with/ Buddhist tradition) suggest a change in the nature of reflection, from an abstract, disembodied activity, to an embodied (mindful), open-ended activity. Embodied reflection is reflection through which body and mind have been brought together. Embodied reflection is not directed towards experience alone, but the act of reflection and/or cognition is a form of experience itself. Embodied reflection can cut the chain of habitual thought patterns and preconceptions such that it can be open to possibilities other than those contained in one’s current representations of life space.
Varela, Thompson & Rosche present their theory for cognition as embodied action titled Enactive Embodied Cognition. The theory consists of two key points for designers. First, Perception consists in perceptually guided action. The subject both interacts with and is shaped by its context. The subject and its context must be seen as bound together in reciprocal specification. Second, Cognitive structures emerge from the recurrent sensorimotor patterns that enable action to be perceptually guided The object appears to the subject as affording certain kinds of actions, and the subject uses the object with his body and mind in the afforded manor. Form & function, normally investigated as opposing properties, are aspects of the same process, and organisms are highly sensitive to their coordination. The activities performed by human beings with basic-level objects are part of the cultural, consensually validated forms of the life of the community in which the humans and objects are situated—they are basic level activities (actions).
In design, initial development of embodied cognition, is akin to the development of a skill. Take designing with type, for instance, one is initially taught the basic formal systems at work in typefaces perhaps through assignments dealing with the relationship between a character and its negative space. A designer gradually gains awareness of the inter-dependent relationships between form, function, and format (sub/obj/context) through repeated engagement in the task. Initially, the relationships between conceptual intent and visual outcome is quite underdeveloped. Theoretically, a designer might know what to do, but be physically unable to do it. As the designer pr(act)ices, the connection between intention and action becomes closer, until eventually any thoughts of a figure that is separate from its ground slowly gives way to an understanding of their interdependence. A designer may experience a condition that feels neither purely mental nor purely physical; it is, rather, a specific kind of mind body unity called embodied cognition(aka.flow). For designers, ongoing development of embodied cognition affords an increasingly open-ended approach to design problems. Using embodied cognition in the design thinking process could help identify latent problems within a culture or community and specify those paths towards potential resolutions (design interventions). This could be seen as an essential tool in the design process when addressing wicked problems, specifically in relationship to designing for human experiences.
1. Varela, Thompson, Rosche. (1992) The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. MA
2. Rosche (1978) Principles of Categorization, In Cognition and Categorization. NJ
3. Thompson (1986) Planetary thinking/planetary building: An essay on Heidegger and Keiji.
4. Gardner (1985) The Mind’s New Science: A History of the Cognitive Revolution. NY
1. In designing for the Museum Visitor Experience, how might the development of a user path be an excersize in embodied reflection?
2. Where do interfaces exist in museum visitor experience when using the enactive embodied cognition model of subject/object/context working together interdependently?