What is Embodied Cognition and How Can it Help Your Back-to-School Prep?

by ParentCo. August 10, 2017

children playing with skipping rope

Right about now, many parents are worrying what summer may have stolen from their kids’ heads.

“Our days have been so laid back, will the gains my child made in math last year be erased over the summer?”

“Yikes, I just realized we haven’t had a family reading night in weeks. Will this mean our kids will fall behind?”

“Now that summer school is over, what do I do over the next month to make sure there’s no slippage come September?”

These are valid concerns. Research confirms that the accumulation of summers without consistent learning activities will take a toll on a child’s potential. A 2013 Baltimore study showed 65 percent of the reading achievement gap between low and high socio-economic ninth graders could be traced to what they learned – or failed to learn – over their cumulative childhood summers.

A scary thought, for sure. Yet if your child or teen has played outside over the summer, gone to the park or walked the dog on a regular basis, hiked, swam, played badminton, or enjoyed water balloon fun, you’ve done a lot to avoid summer brain drain. Physical movement activates brain cells; the more physical activities, the greater likelihood of readiness and receptivity to learn new things. In fact, an emerging new field called “embodied cognition” prioritizes sensorimotor experiences – bodily active engagement with our environment – as critically important elements for thinking processes.

Dr. Monica Cowart of Merrimack College uses this helpful example to explain embodied cognition.

The various sensorimotor experiences that occur while performing an action in a particular environmental context further specify the type of categories/concepts the organism is capable of forming. For instance, it is common for a small child to have a basic understanding of concepts related to macroscopic objects, such as grass, that are likely to exist in her immediate environment, while having little to no real understanding of concepts related to microscopic objects, such as bacteria, that might be found in the same environment…she has sensorimotor experiences that are directly linked to the macroscopic objects in her environment, and these experiences serve as the foundation for concept formation. Not surprisingly, direct experience of microscopic entities will most likely occur later in the child's life, when she is introduced to tools, such as a microscope, that will enable the detection of these entities.

There’s a good case for expecting this little girl to love high school biology because she loved romping in nature when young.

Authors Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal explain embodied cognition in this way in their thought-provoking book, “Stealing Fire.”

reflect a sea change in how we think about thinking. They move us from "disembodied cognition," the idea that our thinking happens only in the three pounds of gray matter tucked between our ears, to "embodied cognition," where we see thinking for what it really is: an integrated, whole-system experience….And today, with so much of our emotional and social lives mediated by screens, we’ve become little more than heads on sticks, the most disembodied generation of humans that has ever lived.

Kids wouldn’t need fidget spinners to expend excess energy if they were involved in full body spinning, swirling, twirling, or swinging more often.

Brains work well with bodies that move

When my sons struggled with spelling, I decided to try a more “whole system spelling experience.” I pulled out the old trampoline so they could use their arms, facial expressions, and hands to mime out the letters for each word while they were jumping. I stood by and reminded them of the correct letter if they couldn’t think of it. With a few repetitions, they “jump-spelled” the words correctly. Later, they wrote down the words, engaging part muscle memory, part visualization (since they were remembering in their mind’s eye what body posture they formed for each particular letter) and part cognitive recall.

At ages six and nine, my boys thought “jump-spelling” was a fun game. From my research, I considered it seriously significant to their academic success. I knew that the more I involved their bodies in their schoolwork, the more likely they would experience themselves as competent learners. And they did.

Rats taught me about the relationship between thinking and movement – lots of rats from the groundbreaking 30-year research of Dr. Marian Diamond at the University of California at Berkley. Diamond (who died recently) was one of the founders of modern neuroscience.

In her seminal studies, she observed rats living in cages without toys, and other rats in cages surrounded by toys such as wheels and balls, which enabled them to push, roll, climb, and happily move their bodies in more positions than the rats in toy-less cages. Diamond found that those rats grew less dendrite and synaptic structures than the rats living with the toys. These cages she called “enriched environments” since they supported the development of larger and heavier rat brains.

Yet compared with the wild rats in the Berkley hills outside of Dr. Diamond’s laboratory, even “enriched cages” fell short. The rats in their natural habitat who were running, climbing, and moving about naturally with other rats had more and denser neurons than any laboratory rat.

Movement matters for mood

The outdated notion that our brain is the only neural-networked organ in our body has been replaced by these fascinating facts:

  • The heart has about 40,000 neurons that play a central role in shaping emotion, perception, and decision-making.
  • The stomach and gut, referred to by scientists as the enteric nervous system, contain more than 500 million nerve cells, 100 million neurons, and 30 different neurotransmitters. Now dubbed the “second brain,” the gut also contains 30 neurotransmitters, including 90 percent of the body’s supply of serotonin, regulating our moods and feelings of well-being.
  • Both heart and gut regularly “talk” to the brain, and vice versa. Some scientists now refer to this triad as “our three brains.”
  • Bodies that walk, run, jump, reach – exercises that not only work through all manner of movements but also aid in the communication of those neural networks in the brain, heart, and gut – making for more emotionally-stable, self-regulated children and teens.
  • Even small changes to our body posture can have profound effects.

Try it yourself by assuming the posture of Wonder Woman or Superman: hands on hips, elbows wide open, legs solid, feet firmly planted. Observe how your breathing changes and how you feel. Naturally more confident, right? No wonder little ones want to don those capes. The visceral changes automatically produce different thoughts and attitudes.

Harvard psychologist Ann Cuddy researched this “power pose” and found that, with as little as two minutes spent in the pose, subjects showed a 20 percent increase in testosterone and a 15 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol.

Build confidence and reduce stress for the upcoming school year by encouraging Wonder Woman and Superman play now. Then, to create other embodied thinking activities for your kids, think: whole system experiences and lots of movement

Embodied cognition is as easy as setting up an obstacle course with pillows for a five-year-old or a neighborhood treasure hunt for an 11-year-old. Be the parent to bring jump rope and hopscotch back on your block. Why not? You will soon see positive changes in how your child handles academic challenges. Expect to notice increased attentive focus, stick-with-it-ness, as well as better memory and intrinsic motivation. With more embodied cognition experiences you can anticipate a renewed curiosity and zest for learning, too. Count on it. That’s the design of the brain/heart/gut system.

And, when the school year starts, don’t forget to spend two minutes in that power pose yourself to protect your parental confidence. Then when you say, “Time to do your homework,” your voice and attitude will mean business, making compliance the only option.



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