Louder Than Words

by Benjamin K. Bergen

The thesis of this book can be boiled down to a single statement:

We think by means of embodied simulation.

The author presents a tidal wave of experimental evidence demonstrating the truth of the thesis. He doesn’t claim that embodied simulation is the only basis of thinking, but he certainly shows that it underlies a great deal of our thinking, both linguistic and otherwise.

I think he proves his case. That’s that.

Oh, you want to know what “embodied simulation” is? 

Well, OK, I’ll explain it, but this may take a while. Although concepts of embodied simulation were proposed as far back as the 1950s, the ball really started rolling in the aftermath of one of the greatest discoveries in neurophysiology: the discovery of “mirror neurons” by Giacomo Rizzolatti and his team at the University of Parma in Italy. Dr. Rizzolatti and his collegues will surely win a Nobel Prize for this work when it has been fully digested by the academic community. 

Mirror neurons are clusters of neurons that trigger when you move some part of your body, AND when you see somebody else moving the same part of their body. A good example of mirror neurons at work is your reaction upon seeing somebody hit their thumb with a hammer: you wince. Why on earth would you show a pained reaction when you’re not feeling any pain? Because the mirror neurons observing the external action trigger internal responses appropriate to that action. You feel a kind of empathetic pain. 

Mirror neurons are also the basis for “Monkey see, monkey do” learning. We really do a lot by watching other people doing things. An even better example is our ability to mimic a sound we hear another person making. Just hearing it makes it easier to produce. 

Embodied simulation is the next higher level up; it uses mirror neurons to assemble together a larger mental construct. Usually these larger mental constructs are in some way anchored to direct bodily experience. We therefore end up thinking in terms that are, at root, bodily experiences. This is the basis for the “embodied” part of the phrase.

The most common expression of this lies in metaphor. We say that an employee is an underling of the boss — he is below the boss in some sense. We say that we cannot grasp a point made by another; here the abstract concept of understanding is metaphorically tied to the concrete experience of grasping. Or we don’t see the point — here the abstract concept is linked to a physical sensation. 

I’ll give just one example of an experiment demonstrating this more precisely, because most of the experiments Mr. Bergen describes are rather involved. Consider the way we think about time. It is an abstract concept, so how do we relate it to our bodily experiences? Most people metaphorically link time to perceptible spatial concepts. We say that the time for some task is too short; that Christmas is too far away to wait for; that an old event is too far in the past to worry about. 

So some bright folks got an idea to test this. All they did was show their subjects a computer monitor on which a bright dot drew a horizontal line. There were nine different line lengths that could be presented. The total amount of time taken to draw the line was also variable; there were nine different time lengths that could be used to draw the line. There was no correlation between duration of drawing and length of the line; the dots moved faster or slower to obtain the required length and time.

Thus, there were 81 different combinations of length and time in the animations presented to the subject. Immediately after seeing the line drawn, the subject was asked to replicate either the time duration or the line length. The time duration was indicated by clicking the mouse once, then a second time at the end of the duration period. The length was indicated by clicking on the starting and ending points of the line (which by now had disappeared) on the screen.

Here’s the wacky thing: although there was zero correlation between the duration of drawing the line and the length of the line, the results from the test subjects definitely showed a correlation. In other words, subjects who saw a long line consistently overestimated the duration of the drawing. Subjects who saw a short line consistently underestimated the duration of drawing. Thus, the length of the line affected their perception of the time duration. Our perception of time is closely tied to our perception of space.

There’s a lot more in the book — possibly too much. I lost interest halfway through, set the book aside for a few months, then finished it later. Perhaps it’s because the concept of embodied simulation is, to me, a no-brainer. The mind and the body are not separate; they are a single entity and the mind perceives the universe in bodily terms. What else do we have to gauge our perceptions against? The only thing we really know about the world is our own body.