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What is embodied and analogical learning?

The fact that the brain is embodied is crucial to understanding how brains function when they are learning. The brain is not just inside the skull like a walnut in a shell. It is a body-brain, connected with and responsive to every part of the body. And every part of the body contributes to all the functions of brain we commonly call mind.

Between sensory perception and cognitive knowing is the embodied brain busily constructing what we eventually recognize as thought—that is, meaning we are aware of and can act on. What we call thinking is just the final step in a long process of knowing that takes place throughout the body before we consciously discover that we know something.

To learn, the brain must associate any new experience with what it already knows. These analogical/metaphorical connections, accompanied by changes in body state (emotion), occur below the level of awareness, as neural networks are created and elaborated. These networks are based on somatic (body-based) impressions that begin in infancy and become increasingly complex in light of successive experiences.

Experts in many fields—cognitive science, philosophy of mind, psychology, neuroscience, and artificial intelligence—note: learning is a whole-body experience in which emotion and analogy play major roles. [See what experts say; you can pause and resume scrolling column .]

Instructors, trainers, coaches, mentors, faculty, advisors, and professional developers—in fact, any adult—can benefit from understanding how to facilitate learning with the embodied brain in mind.

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What Experts Say:

The biological mind is, first and foremost, an organ for controlling the biological body…Minds are not disembodied logical reasoning devices. —Andy CLARK, Being there: Putting brain, body, and world together again.


Cognition is embodied, you think with your body, not only with your brain. –Daniel KAHNEMAN, Thinking fast and slow.   


 Movement is fundamental to the very existence of a brain.—John RATEY, The user's guide to the brain. 


You don’t think just with your brain; you think with your body too… intelligent thinking [is] impossible without the body.—David GELERTNER, The muse in the machine.


The mind is inherently embodied. Thought is mostly unconscious. Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical. . . You don't have a choice as to whether to think metaphorically. —George LAKOFF & Mark JOHNSONPhilosophy in the flesh: The embodied mind and its challenge to Western thought.


Through metaphor, body and mind are inextricably intertwined. –John GEARY, I is an other: The secret life of metaphor and how it shapes the way we see the world.


The source of cognition is not just the naked brain, but the brain in concert with the sensing, acting body …[as it] intervenes with the environment. —Andy CLARKBeing there: Putting brain, body, and world together again.


Reason requires both logic and metaphor.—Robert HASKELLCognition and symbolic structures: The psychology of metaphoric transformation.


[We] discount and marginalize the importance of our embodied nature, as though it were something incidental about us, rather than essential to us: our very thinking, never mind our feeling, is bound up with our embodied nature. –Iain McGILCHRISTThe master and his emissary: The divided brain and the making of the Western world.


Emotions are not [merely] a form of thought, not an additional way to think, not a special cognitive bonus, but are fundamental to thought.—David GELERTNER, The muse in the machine.

Brains operate . . .not by logic but by pattern recognition. . . . It is likely that early human thought proceeded by metaphor . . . which continues to be a major source of imagination and creativity in adult life.—Gerald EDELMAN, Second nature: Brain science and human knowledge.

All meaningful thought is embodied. Neural circuits in the brain with no connections to the body would not be about anything, and so could not characterize meaningful thought. --George LAKOFF, How brains think: The embodiment hypotheses.mp4

Facilitating Learning with the Adult Brain in Mind

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© Kathleen Taylor and Catherine Marienau, 2016