Being Embodied

Many thanks to Adrian Harris, an Associate Trainer with Integration Trainng.



What is embodiment theory and why should you care? Descartes is most famous for his belief that ‘I think, therefore I am’. He wrote:

“my mind, by which I am what I am, is entirely and truly distinct from my body, and may exist without it.”

That idea has been hugely influential, but unfortunately it’s wrong. In reality we are embodied beings: You have a body that’s always located somewhere and at sometime. So what? Contrary to what Descartes claimed, your mind and body are part of a single unified system. That means that what you think, how you feel and ultimately perhaps who you are, emerges from your fleshy embodied existence.

According to Joshua Davis, Professor of Psychology at Columbia University, embodiment is “a new paradigm that we are shifting towards.” Embodiment theory is having a profound impact on fields as diverse as artificial intelligence, business, teaching and therapy. In fact it would be difficult to name any discipline that wasn’t influenced by it. This short series of blogs is intended give you a brief overview of embodiment theory and why it matters to you. I can’t really hope to do any more than whet your appetite, so I’ll be giving you just a taste of the smörgåsbord of embodiment thinking.


The embodied mind: embodied knowing and thinking

Even if you haven’t seen The Matrix, you’ll be familiar with the idea of a wired-up brain in a vat that thinks it has a body. Up until recently that idea seemed quite plausible, but actually it’s nonsense. Artificial intelligence researchers started with similar assumptions so thought that if they had a complex enough computer, they could achieve AI. Progress was painfully slow until they embraced an embodied approach to artificial intelligence, creating robots that interacted with the world rather than computers in metal boxes like a brains in a vat. Research has now concluded that the mind, our reasoning and our knowledge are embodied.

There are very different ways we can know something. For example, I know in a conscious way that Paris is the capital of France. But I also have another, deeper emotional, sensual knowing of Paris – the smells of Paris, the taste of Paris, that odd little back street that I couldn’t tell you how to find but that I could walk to with ease. My Ph.D. research focused on this kind of embodied knowing, which is personal, experiential and usually context-specific.

We’re very familiar with factual knowledge, but tend to ignore fuzzy, wordless knowing even though we rely on it all the time. Polanyi famously wrote that “we know more than we can tell” and he calls this ineffable knowledge “tacit”. Quintas and Jones, experts in business management, neatly sum up embodied knowledge: It “depends on people’s physical presence, on sentient and sensory information, physical cues and face-to-face discussions, is acquired by doing, and is rooted in specific contexts”. You won’t find this knowledge documents but “in organizational routines, processes, practices and norms”. Whenever an expert acts without the need to theorise about it first, they are drawing on embodied knowledge. Malcolm Gladwell explores how experts can make brilliant judgements in an instant. A basketball player has no time to consciously evaluate all the parameter before making a move. They rely on “court sense”, the ability to “take in and comprehend all that is happening around him or her” (Gladwell). Embodied knowing is a vast subject that is under-researched, but it is fundamental to who we are. As the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu puts it, “What is ‘learned by the body’ is not something that one has, like knowledge that can be brandished, but something that one is”.

Not only is our knowledge embodied; our thinking is too. The new field of embodied cognitive science emerged from the insight that the body “grounds and shapes human cognition” (Rohrer). Lakoff & Johnson – a double act comprising of a cognitive linguist and a philosopher – claim that “What our bodies are like and how they function in the world… structure the very concepts we can use to think.” They demonstrate that we think using metaphors that are grounded in our embodiment. For example, we almost always think of ‘more’ in terms of being ‘up’: We talk about ‘price rises’ or ‘stocks plummeting’. That’s an embodied metaphor based on our experience of health and life as being up and sickness bringing us down. This might sound implausible, so let me give you some real life examples. Yale psychologist John Bargh showed that people holding a warm cup of coffee – as opposed to a cold one – tended to judge someone they’d just met as trustworthy. It seems that simply holding a warm coffee leads us to feel ‘warmer’ towards other people. Not convinced? In research at the University of Toronto, people were asked to remember a time when they felt either socially accepted or snubbed. They were then asked to estimate the temperature of the room. Those remembering when people had been friendly, judged the room to be on average 5 degrees warmer than those who were recalling being coldly snubbed. On Lakoff & Johnson’s model, both examples illustrate the embodied metaphor “Affection Is Warmth”.

The bodymind system is what philosopher Andy Clark calls the “biological skin-bag” body, and like many others he claims that our thinking extends out into the world. Clark provocatively asks “Where does the mind stop and the rest of the world begin?” He claims that we often use the world around us to helps us think. He’s not alone: Lakoff & Johnson suggest that the environment “is part of our being” and anthropologist Tim Ingold agrees; the organism (mindbody) and environment (place) are “one indivisible totality”. Peterson elegantly sums it up, concluding that the self is “an emergent reality, blossoming out of the interaction of mind, brain, body, and environment”.

Let’s ground that theory in a couple of examples. I’ll start with a mundane example; the computer game Tetris. A Tetris player has to rotate the geometric shapes falling down the screen to fit them into slots at the bottom. Calculating the correct rotation using the computer takes about 300 milliseconds, whereas doing it in your head takes about 1000 milliseconds. That’s a pretty obvious case of using something in the world to help us think, but Connelly and Clandinin take it to another level with a lovely example of how bodymind and place interact in schools and colleges. They begin with the insight that the lives of teachers is intimately tied to various cycles – weekly patterns of lessons, cycles of semesters, terms, etc. As a result cyclicity “is something we know in our bones, with our guts, in and through our feelings and moods”. Clandinin explains that this cyclic pulse of school life  accumulates over time so that experienced teachers “come to ‘know’ their classrooms rhythmically”. Their embodied understanding of the cycles of the school helps them through the year: “They know the down times will be followed by up times; they know that cyclic disruptions are temporary; they know that the end of a cycle whether it is day’s end, week’s end, or year’s end is characterized by special features and that activities will be experienced differently at these times”.

In this example it sound like it’s more that just the place that’s integrated into the teachers thinking. Clark asks whether our mental states “could be partly constituted by the states of other thinkers?”. We have a cultural resistance to this idea because the belief in a separate individual self is particularly strong in the West. But maybe our commitment to this idea is like believing in a flat Earth. Consider the phenomena of ’emotional contagion’ – “the ways in which feelings can be passed between people with the result that their moods can shift and change” (Blackman). Theresa Brennan concludes we’re not “self-contained” at all and the illusion of separateness distorts our experience. The evidence from systems theory, cognitive science and elsewhere is clear: “Mind is shared between people. It isn’t something you own; we are profoundly interconnected. We need to make maps of we because we is what me is!” ( Siegel, 2010).

The practical ramifications of embodiment theory are enormous. By applying some of the research on embodied knowing and thinking, you can have more efficient meetings, be a more effective trainer or coach and probably live a more fulfilling life! In my next post I’ll explore what embodiment theory can tell us about leadership, presence and stress management.

Dr Adrian Harris is a researcher, trainer and humanistic counsellor. He is the editor of Embodiment Resources ( and blogs at Bodymind Place (



Descartes, [1640] 1968. Discourse on Method and the Meditations, trans. F.E. Sutcliffe. Penguin Books.

Clark, 2003. Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence. Oxford University Press.

Blackman, 2008. The body. The key concepts. Berg.

Bennan, 2004. The transmission of affect. Cornell University press.

Gladwell, 2007. Blink. Back Bay Books.

Harris, 2008. The Wisdom of the Body: Embodied Knowing in Eco-Paganism. PhD Thesis, University of Southampton.

Ingold, 2000. The Perception of the Environment. Routledge.

Kerka, 2002. Somatic/Embodied Learning and Adult Education

Lakoff and Johnson, 1999. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. Basic Books.

McNerney, 2011. A Brief Guide to Embodied Cognition: Why You Are Not Your Brain

Siegel, 2010. The Mind that Changes the Brain. Two-day conference, New York.
Williams and Bargh, 2008. ‘Experiencing physical warmth promotes interpersonal warmth’. Science, 2008. 322: p. 606-607.


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