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TIDESS team with globe

One Way We Learn: Embodied Cognition

In a previous post, we mentioned that the TIDESS project had begun data analysis on our study to describe how people learn from interactive data visualizations. One of the underlying theories that we draw on to inform this work is the theory of embodied cognition. Embodied cognition is the idea that our body shapes our mind, or even performs some of the same meaning-making processes as our brain does. In other words, our body interacts with the environment, and we learn from that experience. Well, what does that mean exactly? In his paper, Embodiment and embodied design, Dr. Dor Abrahamson gives a great example:

File:A dog plays on a seesaw with children in Scotland,.jpg

Credit: William Reid, National Geographic

Imagine a child standing, as in the picture above, at the center of a seesaw. When this child shifts his weight from one side to another, the seesaw tips toward the side with more weight. Through embodied cognition, the child is learning about an idea of balance. He is physically experiencing that adding more weight to one side of the seesaw causes that side to be heavier than the other and thus move downward.

Although the example above involves learning from a physical activity, embodied cognition can also be involved for learning in other modalities, such as language. One key figure in the development of embodied cognition was George Lakoff, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. He discusses in his book, Metaphors We Live By, that language is shaped from our body as well as shaped from our mind. For example, when we think of being “happy” or “sad”, we can associate those two emotions with the words “up” and “down”, respectively. That’s why we hear some people say, “Cheer up, mate” or “I’m feeling a little down today”. This association of up with happy and down with sadness is known as a conceptual metaphor. These metaphors shape our perception of our feelings, and thus we learn to use certain words associated with physical, bodily experiences to describe our emotions and experiences.

Within the context of learning, there are numerous studies that demonstrate the power of embodied cognition. By engaging learners through physical demonstrations and exercises, rather than stating information as in a lecture or text, learners are able to learn the concepts better. Embodied cognition also goes hand in hand with learning through visualizations. For instance, in our recent study, our interface displayed visualizations of Earth’s ocean temperatures. We then had our pilot participants engage with this interface. Our pilot participants used their perceptions from their senses and acted through their gestures in ways that could aid learning. It is these tasks that we hope to understand in our study.

Both our tabletop and sphere provide us the interactive technology for our participants to engage with and learn about the Earth’s oceans. As a senior in Biology at the University of Florida who joined the project this past summer, I’m fascinated to see if participants learn more about geoscience through embodied cognition by using their senses and performing actions on our tabletop and sphere.

by Peter Chang


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