Cognitio 2007

Jessica Lindblom

Minding the Body in Social Interaction and Cognition

Jessica Lindblom
School of Humanities and Informatics, University of Skovde,

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     Last modified: March 15, 2007

The common view of social interaction in cognitive science is that agents relate to each other in much the same way as they relate to other parts of the external world, that is by having more or less explicit internal representations of each other, which then are manipulated internally (cf., Augoustinos & Walker, 1995; Kunda 1999). Accordingly, the still dominant view of the role of the body in social interaction and cognition is as a trivial ‘appendage’ to the real intellectual language and mind. Therefore, actions such as body posture, gaze and gesture are still commonly considered to be nothing but the visible outcomes of mental intentions and contents which are transmitted from one mind to another. Nevertheless, the standard models of mind such as representational or computational are still oversimplified, despite their complexity, since they altogether neglect to consider the many effects of embodiment (Gallagher, 2005).

Recent work in embodied cognitive science and related disciplines indicates that the experience of a living body has several important roles in social interaction and cognition. For example, empirical evidence from social psychology has shown how social thought and judgments can be affected by bodily states, emotions, actions and motivations (cf., e.g., Barsalou et al., 2003; Niedenthal et al., 2005a, 2005b). These findings suggest that the body might be used as a resonance mechanism in the process of perceiving others, and it has been suggested that so-called mirror-neurons function as the neurobiological underpinning for these social embodiment effects. It has been argued that the mirror system allows one to adopt the point of view of conspecifics by matching or simulating their mental states with a resonant state of one’s own, i.e. putting oneself in another’s ‘shoes’.(e.g., Dautenhahn, 1997; Gallese & Goldman, 1998; Gallese, et al., 2004). Gesture constitutes a pan-human ability that may provide important information to a listener, since gesture offers the speaker the means for expressing thoughts difficult to articulate in speech (Goldin-Meadow, 2003; McNeill, 1992). Moreover, besides reflecting thoughts, gesture may also shape them, since gesture enables us to process ideas that are obscured. As a result, gesturing functions as a vehicle of thought. The mirror neuron system and embodied simulation processes are also suggested to be involved in gesture and spoken language, since linguistic meaning is proposed to be grounded in bodily action (cf. Arbib, 2005; Glenberg & Kaschak 2002; Rizzolatti & Arbib 1998). In particular, Mead’s loop considers the relational aspect of social interaction, and explains in what ways gesture and speech functions both inwardly and outwardly through self-activated and self-responding mirror neuron mechanisms (McNeill, 2005). Thus, these embodiment effects imply that one’s own understanding of social interaction is more than the exchange of communication signals or to consider bodily actions as mere body language.

Thus, I suggest that embodiment is the part and parcel of social interaction and cognition in the most general and specific ways, in which dynamically embodied actions themselves have meaning and agency. I will present an integrated and interdisciplinary framework for the embodied nature of social interaction and cognition. In addition, some detailed observational fieldwork on embodied actions captured in a spontaneous social interaction in situ is used to illustrate how some of the most crucial aspects of social interaction are grounded in experiences and processes of bodily activity. The result emphasizes the relational aspects of embodied social interaction and cognition, because whenever humans act/think/communicate they are always in interaction, either with themselves or with other interactants.

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