Embodied Cognition And The Body’s Role In Thought With Rebecca Fincher-Kiefer, PhD

Welcome back to the Healing Pain Podcast with Rebecca Fincher-Kiefer, PhD

In this episode, we are discussing embodied cognition and the role of bodily processes in thought. In the field of pain care, we strongly lean on theories of how the brain works and how we can use the nervous system to modulate pain. Many of these theories are rooted in the idea that the brain is the seat of cognition and views the brain as a CEO, which controls both thinking as well as our body.

However, newer theories such as embodied cognition take a different perspective which emphasizes the significance of the physical body in our cognitive abilities. Embodied cognition is a theory that draws on the work from the fields of psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, physiology, and even artificial intelligence. This new research points towards bodily processes in forming how our cognition is generated.

We are joined by Professor Rebecca Fincher-Kiefer, PhD, who is a Professor of Psychology at Gettysburg College and discusses the potential application of embodied cognition. Her research interests include the investigation of embodied cognition and how all that we know and understand is grounded in our bodies.

She’s on the cutting edge of this field of study, which includes the publication of a textbook called How the Body Shapes Knowledge: Empirical Support for Embodied Cognition. In this episode, you will learn all about embodied cognition and its potential influence on pain, health, and human behavior. Without further ado, let’s learn about embodied cognition and meet Professor Rebecca Fincher-Kiefer, PhD.

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Embodied Cognition And The Body’s Role In Thought With Rebecca Fincher-Kiefer, PhD

Rebecca, Welcome to this episode of the show. We are excited you are here.

Thank you for having me.

This topic of the embodiment is what we are going to focus on and the body’s role in thought. We have danced around it on this show for years but we have never taken a deep dive into embodied cognition, which I know you are somewhat of an expert, and you have written a textbook on it. I want to point people to that textbook. It’s called How the Body Shapes Knowledge: Empirical Support for Embodied Cognition. You can find that on Amazon or APA website.

It’s a wonderful book on embodied cognition that, if you are a researcher or a clinician, it’s a great read. It’s a deep dive into embodied cognition. I know you are going to help us make some connections with regard to our health, wellbeing, and chronic pain. Tell me how you became interested in the topic of embodied cognition because it’s rather new still as far as theories and research is considered.

You are right that as far as theoretical work goes, it takes a long time for a theory to be developed. It takes even longer for that theory and experimental work to make it into applied settings. While people have been talking about embodiment from philosophical perspectives, cognitive science, and even in computational work, it is a theory that is quite new in experimental cognitive psychology. It has been tested for many years but that feels new to some of us.

I’ve got interested because my previous research in reading comprehension was suggesting interesting aspects of perceptual experiences that one might have when they are reading. That immediately means that you are perceptual experiences give rise to certain thoughts and might inform these thoughts. That’s part of the essence of embodiment and embodied cognition that your body informs thought.

Around that time in the ’90s and the early 2000s, I was looking at that body of literature and that research to teach an Advanced Laboratory course in Cognition. I had typically taught about other topics, for example, comprehension and different types of memory. Embodiment struck me as something that would be fascinating to students, and it has proven to be so.

You are saying that what we are reading can impact what we are perceiving.

I would take it one slightly different way. What we are reading gives rise to thoughts, and those thoughts have been informed by our body. Therefore, those thoughts also give rise to bodily reactions. Our ability to understand what we are reading probably comes from the physical and sensory experiences that we have had developmentally. It even goes back further than that. The survival and evolutionary perspective on this theory are very strong but what we are reading is understood because of our experiences.

We are going to go into some details here. The term body cognition can be a lot for people to chew on. What is a definition that you might use or explain to people what embodied cognition is?

It’s a pretty confusing mini phrase there because it can mean a lot of things to a lot of different people. Different disciplines have used this phrase in very different ways. For an experimental cognitive psychologist who’s trying to understand how we learn, remember process information, and all of those cognitive processes. The theory of embodied cognition is a theory that suggests that all of our knowledge is shaped by and comes about because of bodily experiences, the sensory and physical experiences. Those physical and sensory experiences build our mental representations of thought.

HPP 271 Rebecca | Embodied Cognition
How the Body Shapes Knowledge: Empirical Support for Embodied Cognition

Everything I said was a lot to chew on, too. By this time, students are rolling their eyes and going, “What the crap is she talking about?” If I may, I can give a quick example that is a little sexy example but it does help sometimes concretize this pretty abstract thought. This is one that’s very well-worn. It’s not even the best example of embodiment but it’s one that catches people and allows them sometimes to understand it.

Imagine being born, and in those initial moments, try to make sense of your world. The first experience you might have is being brought to your mother’s chest or your father’s chest and experiencing a very physical experience, a very bodily experience of warmth. It’s a temperature experience. In fact, even babies that don’t get that skin-to-skin contact right away are put in a warm situation.

As we begin our very long and arduous journey to build knowledge, one of the first things we have experienced is physicality. It’s a temperature. The thought is that perhaps, we understand very abstract concepts like love or attachment because of a physical experience that we have the moment we are born where we are being touched and being warmed. That allows us to understand attachment and love right away. That’s the body informing thought. There we go. We have an initial embodied cognition possibility.

An experimental psychologist would say, “That’s interesting but how do we test that?” In experimental psychology, we have hypotheses. The whole point of science is to test this hypothesis, so we say, “Maybe it’s true that we represent this abstract concept of love through warmth. How do we test it?” We can get some people to come into our laboratory and hold a warm cup of coffee.

As they are holding a warm cup of coffee, we are asking them myriad questions like, “What’s your major?” One of the questions happens to be rated on this scale, and it is, “How attached do you feel to your family members or to your friends that’s spent in a number of different ways? Tell me how close you feel to these individuals.” You compare that rating data to people who are holding a neutral temperature cup of coffee.

You’ve got people holding a warm cup of coffee and people holding a neutral temperature, and you find that people experiencing warmth say they feel closer to their family members. They feel more loved and affiliative than people holding the neutral cup. One might immediately say, “That’s an association you have between warmth. That doesn’t necessarily mean that physical temperature is constitutive of knowledge.”

A good way to further test that is to say we are going to put people in a room, and ask some people in the same room to write a brief paragraph of a time when they felt particularly included. They felt loved, supported, and close to others. You get another group of people in that same room to write a paragraph about a time in which they felt excluded. They felt lonely and not supported. They then finish that paragraph.

You start asking them a few questions like, “What do you think about this or that? What’s your major?” One of those questions is, “What do you think the temperature of this room is?” The people who have written an essay where they have activated their knowledge of a time in which they felt included judge the room to be warmer than the people that have thought about feeling excluded. These pieces of converging evidence suggest that this abstract concept of love and attachment may be grounded in the physical experience of temperature.

As you are speaking, it sounds to me embodied cognition is more of a bottom-up approach to looking at cognition. From your perspective as an experimental psychologist, how would that be different from other theories or branches of psychology? Is embodiment a bottom-up approach? Is it also taking into consideration top-down theories?

I would say in the first brush that embodiment sounds very much bottom-up in the sense that knowledge starts with your body. If that was a takeaway message, it’s not a bad one. It’s probably a pretty accurate one. The problem is that you get top-down happening very quickly thereafter. In cognitive psychology, when the discipline itself was first formed, it was built in the ’50s and ’60s by a number of other disciplines by psychologists but also by physiologists, computer scientists, and philosophers, especially because computer science was coming to the fore at the same time as cognitive psychology.

When cognitive psychologists were grappling with the, “How do we think about the mental representation of knowledge?” Computer scientists were saying, “Figure that out because we want to put it into a computer so that we can simulate human thought.” In doing that, they built all kinds of models of thought that had to do with what you would now call a top-down approach, which means nodes that represent concepts.

HPP 271 Rebecca | Embodied Cognition
Our physical and sensory experiences build our mental representations of thought.


You’ve got fire, and how do we understand fire? The people would free-associate fire so that we could understand what people think about when they think about fire. You get red and flames. You’ve got all these other concepts. Those nodes were attached to other nodes, and the links of the paths between those nodes were very important because it meant how quickly you think from one concept to another. Models of mental representation of fault were built based on everything I said. That’s very top-down because that’s how you think about other concepts with other concepts in mind. It’s very top-down but the problem with those models is that thought was never grounded in anything.

It was what Harnad as a philosopher and Arthur Glenberg emphasized as a symbol merry-go-round problem. One symbol is connected to another symbol but where is the reference? What do you think about that? Embodied cognition, Art Glenberg, Lawrence Barsalou, and some others who built this theory said, “We need to understand where knowledge comes from.”

It can’t be this symbol merry-go-round problem where you think of one concept because you have thought of another concept. What’s the reference? What is it attached to? What is it grounded to? That’s where we get this idea that our knowledge must come from someplace. As Dennis Proffitt likes to say, “What would be the better vehicle than coming from our body? Where else can it come from?” You are right. It is a bottom-up process in that way.

That challenge is a little bit of a traditional cognitive theory because they even teach a top-down model of thoughts that lead to feelings, and then your feelings lead to a behavior. That’s used in many traditional Cognitive Behavioral Therapy approaches for chronic pain and lots of psychological approaches that are used throughout the world.

However, this theory, specifically of embodied cognition, tells us that the sensations coming from your body through the various pathways, sight, hearing, touch, sound, and interoception, which adds in a whole other layer of senses which a lot of people aren’t even aware of, is what informs what happens potentially cognitively. It’s happening so fast that you don’t recognize a difference between the sensation coming in and being processed and the knowledge gathering and then the thought forming from it.

I see where you are coming from. Everything that you said is accurate. It’s a huge challenge to traditional cognitive theories of the mental representation of thought that from the ’60s all the way to the 2000s or late ’90s, that’s what everybody assumed cognition was and how it was represented in this. It wasn’t that those ideas or theories, which were very detailed, hadn’t been tested. They have been tested not only through computer science and robotics. Linguists were also testing these theories.

They were assumed to be true because that’s how people think about thinking, “I have this thought, and then I have this thought.” It took a while for us to point out or at least recognize the emptiness of that theory in some ways, which is, “Where did those thoughts first come from?” Once you push that issue, you understand how the body is essential to thought.

As you are speaking, the two populations of people who this applies most toward and is exciting for them, and it’s specifically exciting for the world of physical rehabilitation because we have always said for people with chronic pain, “You can’t just apply a cognitive approach to this problem.” That in some way, we have to use the body. We still are not clear about exactly how to do that yet, but this theory starts to support that. The other population is those struggling or living with PTSD.

As you talk about this, why haven’t we shared this more with those two populations of people and the professionals that treat them? Still to this day, we live in a society where the brain is valued. The brain is almost placed on a pedestal. A lot of what we do in this show is talk about the brain and the nervous system. The more I have learned, and from reading your book, especially there’s a lot of detail in there, it helped me with the idea that my brain extends from outside my skull throughout my entire body.My brain is not this organ encased in our skull the way we think of it.

My brain goes throughout my entire body. Instead of chunking it down into a peripheral nervous system, central nervous system, and enteric nervous system, I started thinking of things now like, “I have a nervous system.” A big part of that nervous system is what’s happening from below my chin. That informs how I perceive things in my life, so perception is a big part of this model as well.

Some of the most interesting phenomena supported or explained by this theory have to do with the perceptual phenomena that are very hard to deny that your body is critical in our perception. Sensory experiences are very physiological. They are very biological in nature, so we have light information coming in and impinging upon our retina and the cells that receive the information from our retina. That’s all very physiological but it’s the interpretation of that that we call perception.

HPP 271 Rebecca | Embodied Cognition
If you are in pain, you perceive the world differently.


How our body helps us perceive the world is clearly an area of embodied cognition. Dennis Proffitt, his students, and colleagues have a whole theory of embodied perception that’s very specific, so embodied cognition being a more global theory, and embodied perception being a path. It suggests that if you are fatigued, burdened by a backpack, depleted in your resources or pain, you perceive the world differently. That’s because, as Art Glenberg says, “Cognition serves action.”

If our body is going to be informing our thought, then it would make sense for us to perceive the world differently if we are burdened. Burdened is a big term. We can be burdened because we have a weight on our back. Therefore, we are going to see a particular distance as further away than people who don’t have a burden on their back because our body needs to capture that information and say, “As cognition is serving action, I can’t act on that very readily, so I better see that distance as further away because now I need to expend my energy differently.”

I would like to build that out a little bit because, in your book, you provided an example of a patient with a walker, which is so impactful for physical therapists and others in rehab. Can you describe that scenario in the book of the patient with the walker and how it impacts perception?

We may be misremembering a couple of things. This research on pain, particularly in the slant and distance perception research, wasn’t necessarily specific to having a walker. There is some interesting research on children that have used walkers. That’s very empirical and basic science that I will mention very quickly. Part of this is, “Does movement develop thought?”

That’s research that shows young children who are given the opportunity to be in walkers pre their own personal locomotive activity. They are not able to locomote out on their own but they have put in a walker, and they can walk around and explore the world. Those children that have been given that experience show perceptual skills that children that don’t have that experience. That’s some interesting information about how action can build a perceptual skill.

The other pain research you are talking about is in the area of how we perceive distances. It’s consistent with the literature that I spoke of before, which is people that have their resources depleted either because of pain, weight or gender. Women perceive distances differently than men. People with shorter legs perceive distance differently than people with long legs.

There are a number of these examples of the fact that it’s almost an illusion that when we perceive what Proffitt calls an extent out away from us, it will be affected by our own bodily characteristics. If we are in pain, we will perceive that distance is further. That can’t be changed. You can’t try to talk somebody out of that. That’s how you perceive the world that a slant is steeper and a distance is further if your body needs more energy to traverse it.

You said illusion, and there are some of the world’s major pain researchers who a lot of our audience will know who they are, have theories that say pain is an illusion. That’s never stuck well with me. A better way of how we can potentially improve that is to say that pain impacts our perception of our experience that’s happening around us. Would that fit well with embodied cognition?

Absolutely, and it’s a much better and more accurate clarification.

There’s a TED Talk of a major researcher saying pain is an illusion. I was like, “That’s tough if you are someone with chronic pain.” Your research informs it’s not pain, that’s the illusion. The pain is there but the physical sensation you are experiencing in your body and how it impacts your perception of your experience is what’s going on.

It’s the cognition that’s the illusion. It’s not a physical experience at all. I don’t know that literature and that TED Talk. In cognitive psychology, we talk about illusions, and many illusions are very functional. We have them because our brain is telling us something important for our world, life, and survival. We needed to have a cognitive system that would say, “If you are low on resources, you better not run up that hill because that hill is steep, and you need to conserve those resources. See the hill as steeper because then, you will more appropriately use the resources that are available to you.” That’s the illusionary part. We need to be very careful with that term. I probably used it too lightly.

HPP 271 Rebecca | Embodied Cognition
Language is a reflection of what we learned through action.


The other aspect of embodied cognition is an evolutionary perspective of how we evolved as humans. There’s some theory and maybe some myths out there that as our brain grew, that’s how we evolved. Although some of this research points potentially toward as we start to move in different ways, that’s what allowed our brain to become bigger and evolve. Without the movement aspect of it, we may not have the brains we have now.

That’s consistent in the sense that action is so important to cognition. From the evolutionary perspective, there’s some interesting work and thoughts on how embodiment provides us with perhaps some insight into animal cognition. As we move up the hierarchy of species, that progresses in the development. Some of it is about scaffolding our knowledge. We learn something because of movement, and then some species have the ability to develop language that continues to contribute to knowledge representations because the language is a reflection of what we learned through action.

Lower species may not have that as well as higher-order species, so we say, “She has such a warm personality or he leaves me cold.” Why do we use this terminology? Was it because grandma said it? Is it a colloquialism or is it because language reflects thought? Embodiment says the metaphors that we use are very powerful because they give us a reflection of how we have understood that concept.

We are like, “She’s a warm person.” It’s weird to give a temperature attribute or description to a personality. It’s because what we are trying to say is this person is loving, and I understand love because I understand the physicality of warmth. The warmth gave me that understanding. This is part of how embodiment can work downward in some way and explain some animal cognition. It may be that animal cognition has that base of embodiment in the absence of the scaffolding of language that we use to understand things, too.

You mentioned metaphor. There’s a lot of study around metaphor in the chronic pain space. Some metaphor study exists in an approach called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which uses metaphor. Let’s give a real-life example of how metaphor and embodied cognition intersect. If a patient has knee pain, and they go to their orthopedic surgeon, and the orthopedic surgeon takes an X-ray and then holds the X-ray up and says, “You have very advanced arthritis in your knee. You have a lot of degeneration. There’s a lot of wear and tear happening here. It’s bone on bone.” Wear and tear and bone on bone are metaphors that are used frequently in the physical medicine space. They should not be used that frequently. How do you think of that as a scientist who studies embodied cognition?

That might be a stretch for me. There are a number of ways that I would address that question. One is that some of that is not metaphorical at all. Bone on bone and degeneration means something very literal. My interpretation of that if I were the patient may be degeneration is a pretty strong negative word and has negative connotations, and bone on bone sounds bad. The metaphor that I’m using now is an auditory description of something very physical, and there are some interesting things about that.

I might be pushing it out a little bit too far but let me go there, and you can bring me back if I haven’t helped you. The metaphors of saying things like, “You need to move forward,” when you tell something you need to move forward from this, whether it’s a pain or a problem, that’s metaphoric. Why do we say that? Why do we say moving forward? In our evolutionary and developmental past, when we had to get something, we had to move forward. We had to, in our physical space, get something. We need to approach something, and approach movement is moving forward.

When you use that metaphor, it typically makes assessable knowledge about achieving things or being more motivated. It’s a very positive metaphor. It’s meant to be a positive metaphor. When we are stuck in something or at a standstill, those are negative metaphors that, in an embodied way, represent you are not progressing. You are standing still.

If we try to push that into an applied world, which is difficult to do and needs to be tested, and I try not to go there too far since it’s not my expertise but where that goes is if you are going to do exercise, make sure you do an exercise where you are “moving forward” so that you are not just running in place but maybe you are boxing and doing something competitive.

You may be moving forward, dancing or something where you are physically moving forward has been shown, and there is some research that suggests this to be a better form of exercise for people who feel stuck than doing something like a stationary bike or running in place. Go out and run outside that you are literally moving forward. That is an action that informs thought that makes you feel better. There’s some evidence in terms of mental health issues like depression where you apply the actions that are consistent with the metaphors that the language has been scaffolding the cognition about you are progressing because you are moving forward.

You are scaffolding the language, and it’s demonstrating what action to take. I don’t mean to simplify embodied cognition because it’s not necessarily simple. In some ways, it almost seems like a reverse of Cognitive Therapy or Cognitive Theory to me, except what’s happening in our body is so vast. The theory of interoception hasn’t even been fully developed for us to understand what’s happening there.

HPP 271 Rebecca | Embodied Cognition
People who are aware of bodily clues tend to be more empathetic towards others.


That topic is ripe for investigation. I have some new studies on my desk that I hope to get to with my students this semester in my course Embodied Cognition on Interoception. There’s some new research that suggests that people are more sensitive to intercepted cues. For example, they can count their own heartbeat. This is not something that anybody can do easily but some of it’s a little deceptive. It’s people who believe they can or are sensitive to their own heartbeat.

Those people that are particularly aware of bodily clues and cues tend to be more empathetic towards others. It’s another path of embodiment that’s like, “I understand you because I’m watching you act, and when I act that way, I feel this way. If I can understand your actions, then I can be empathetic towards you. I can understand you better because I’m watching you behave in a way.” If I understand my own internal signals, I might be particularly sensitive to somebody else’s internal signals. That’s an interesting aspect of the cognition of empathy.

A lot overlaps there with mindfulness-type theories and approaches. For example, if you are aware of a loving-kindness meditation, which has been known to increase things like empathy and compassion, we still think of that as a very cognitive approach because you say certain words or phrases like, “May you be happy or may you be safe.” It’s thinking and saying those things.

From an embodiment perspective, as I’m in that meditation, if I can also have an awareness of my heartbeat and my heart is beating relatively steady, and I identify a steady heartbeat as calm or peaceful, then that’s part of that entire experience. That can inform that entire perception or experience of what happens during that meditation. Conversely, if something the teacher says gives me anxiety and my heart starts beating faster, that’s another example of how this could be applied potentially.

There is interoception and proprioception. Trying to understand these kinds of signals from our body is an interesting offshoot of the theory and can be wrapped up quite nicely at times as well.

I’m curious. You are not a licensed clinical psychologist but you do have a PhD in Psychology, so you are interacting with a lot of psychologists. What advice would you give to a psychologist who’s using a purely cognitive approach to working with their clients with regard to embodied cognition?

I’m so far away from clinical psychology, so I wouldn’t want to pretend that I know what a purely cognitive approach would look like. I would hate to presume what a particular approach I would suggest to patients with any kind of issues. Embodied cognition as a theory will start to work its way into more clinical settings as the theory gets tested, retested, and replicated. We see that there is an appropriate path to the application. I’m very hopeful about that.

There are a lot of interesting things in terms of mindfulness, these things that we have talked about or in exercise. Let’s take facial posture as an example because there have been some interesting posture effects that are consistent with embodied cognition. If you smile, even when you are not consciously aware of the fact that you are smiling, you are going to see things and feel more positive, etc. That’s only interesting because the participant who’s smiling doesn’t know they are smiling.

It goes the other way around, too. If you are frowning and you’ve got brown lines that are constantly in that frowning state, then you are going to feel more negative. That body will inform your thought, and you may perseverate on that. Botox injections have been shown that you relax those frown lines with Botox injections. People in the experimental literature have trouble comprehending negative sentences.

I have read at the beginning that Botox may be a therapeutic solution to perseverative depressive thoughts. If you can get your facial posture out of that mode, it will inform your cognitions in a different way. Those are the kinds of things that I have seen but I don’t know what a more traditional cognitive approach would be.

Maybe they can do face yoga because they have that now. Rebecca, it has been great speaking with you. I know this is a heavy topic but you have made it simple for us, so we appreciate it. Again, I want to point everyone to the book, How the Body Shapes Knowledge: Empirical Support for Embodied Cognition. Please let our audience know how they can learn more about you and follow your work.

Thank you. I would do the same thing. I would point to the book. It is available on Amazon and through APA. It is a heady book. It’s a book that is not easy to get through because it’s rich with empirical data that supports this theory. That’s what’s so important for eventually getting the theory to move into applied settings that you and your audience are interested in. I hope it makes it there. I hope the book does serve as a starting point for those kinds of conversations and research that supports them.

We have lots of neuroscience geeks who follow this show, so they will be checking it out on Amazon. I want to thank Rebecca for joining us. At the end of every episode, I ask you to share this episode with your friends and family on your favorite social media platform, which is probably LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. If you are there, tag me, @DrJoeTatta, and I will make sure to tag you back. We will see you in the next episode.

Thank you.


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About Rebecca Fincher-Kiefer

HPP 271 Rebecca | Embodied CognitionRebecca Fincher-Kiefer is a professor of psychology at Gettysburg College and has taught courses in introductory psychology, human cognition, statistics, experimental methods, and an advanced laboratory course in thinking and cognition for more than thirty years. She received her PhD in cognitive psychology from the University of Pittsburgh, and her research concerning processes involved in reading comprehension has been published in peer-reviewed journals in experimental psychology.

She became interested in the theory of embodied cognition years ago and began teaching her advanced laboratory course from that perspective but found that there was no text available for students that organized and synthesized the experimental findings in this area. That was the impetus for her to write her book, ‘How the Body Shapes Knowledge: Empirical Support for Embodied Cognition’.

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