Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Embodied Cognition: What it means to "Throw like a Girl"

By Jenn Lee

Jenn Laura Lee is a PhD candidate in neuroscience at New York University. Her scattered neuroethics projects involve advancing harms reduction policies for illicit drug use and re-evaluating the ethics of animal experimentation.

While I tell myself now that I’m just “not the athletic type,” the reality is that I might have been. Back in middle school, I recall actually really enjoying track and field, basketball, and soccer. But at just the age when girls reach peak athletic shape, a socially-imposed understanding of “femininity” begins to forge a new, contrived relationship between one’s self and one’s body.

The rehearsal of gendered social performances run deep enough to mould even our most basic bodily movements. In Throwing like a Girl, Iris Young dissects this phenomenon through the philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (who was, coincidentally, one of Simone de Beauvoir’s first romantic interests).

Many are familiar with de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, in which she describes some of the structural biological differences between men and women that have perhaps led to female oppression. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, also a preeminent phenomenologist of the 40’s and 50’s, argued mainly for the primacy of embodiment – meaning that any sweeping claims about the nature of the external universe must first take into account our physical bodies and how they move, perceive, sense, and interact with the outside world. He would argue that if we want to study consciousness, we can’t only study the brain – we must concurrently strive to understand the basic sensorimotor phenomena which feed the brain everything it knows.

The concept of embodied cognition is taking off in cognitive neuroscience. The embodiment thesis suggests that “features of cognition... are deeply dependent upon characteristics of the physical body of an agent, such that the agent’s beyond-the-brain body plays a significant causal role, or a physically constitutive role, in that agent’s cognitive processing."

This is, of course, a hot topic in Artificial Intelligence (AI) research. Turing himself remarked that in order for AI to think and speak like a human, it would probably not only need heavy-duty cognitive processing power; it would require fully human-like peripheral sensorimotor capabilities (touch, sight, movement), as well.

Image courtesy of Pixabay
Drawing on basic principles of embodied cognition and feminist theory, Young’s hypothesis suggests that despite the purely physical, genetically-encoded differences between the sexes, one’s being a woman prevents her from achieving her full physical potential because, to some degree, she is constantly engaging in cognitive self-objectification.

Her proposal is elegant, and complete: Women are used to being looked at and acted upon, like objects rather than subjects; and this conditioning changes even our most fundamental cognitive processing at a basic, sensorimotor level. We have been conditioned to see ourselves in relation to the objects of our environment, rather than free and autonomous agents within it.

When, for instance, a ball is thrown to me, I have a tendency to think that it is being thrown at me, and will run, duck, and hide, instead of trying to catch it. Or when girls learn to ride bikes or ski, they often see themselves as the object of a motion, rather than its originator.

Absolute strength aside, women are less likely than men to throw a ball or lift a box with our full weight and corporal potential because we are conditioned to believe we are delicate objects; we have been taught to constantly second-guess our chances of successfully completing physical tasks. Through social feedback, we become cognitively confined by our own bodies. Rather than seeing the body as an avatar through which we can achieve our ends, we perceive the body as a hindrance which must be overcome.

The cognitive component to Young’s argument cannot be overstated. Our relationship with our body is critical to determining how we even so much as perceive the world around us. Consider recent neuroscience papers which demonstrate that visual processing is modulated by active flight in drosophila (fruit flies). This could essentially demonstrate how the very act of dynamically controlling our bodies changes the way we visually process the world in real-time.

Recent fMRI studies have moreover shown how the planning and perception of actions may be influenced by one’s body posture. Popular science outlets have moreover found clickbait fodder in studies showing that “power posing” (assuming a broad, upright posture of dominance) produced lower cortisol and higher testosterone levels in both men and women, leading to socially advantageous behavioral changes. The implications of this finding are particularly disturbing when paired with the observation that women are rewarded for taking up as little space as possible in social situations, both literally and metaphorically. I shudder to think of the cognitive effects that being taught to “sit like a lady,” “walk like a woman,” and “throw like a girl” might have on the way a woman perceives her sense of self, her body, and the obstacles and challenges in her environment. It is especially jarring to think that the effects of being taught to physically shrink oneself might become so deep-rooted throughout childhood as to impact cognition at the level of primary sensory perception and sensorimotor modulation.

Young’s paper touches on the related idea of the “male gaze” and its equally profound effects on bodily comportment. In my track and field days, I can certainly recall girls holding back in shot put simply because they were afraid of how it would look to other people (full physical exertion is deemed masculine and therefore unattractive). Perhaps owing to this constant third-person scrutiny, Young suggests that young girls are typically conditioned to be “field-dependent” learners, in contrast to their field-independent male counterparts.

Image courtesy of PublicDomainPictures
The idea of field dependence as cognitive style was one of the earliest of its kind, advanced by Herman Witkin in the 60’s. Empirical support for this gendered trend is quite extensive. Women are more likely to perceive themselves as continuous with their spatial environment, while men tend to perceive themselves as independently-moving, central agents within it (think: Sims character vs. first-person shooter). Unsurprisingly, this cognitive style suggests women are conditioned to be heavily context-driven when performing basic tasks. For instance, female performance in a clerical task seemed to be far more affected  by whether their examiner appeared “approving” or “disapproving” throughout, reflecting a “greater attentiveness to the attitudes of those around them.”

I’ve moreover often wondered why horse-back riding was such a female-dominated sport, and Young’s essay shed light on this for me. The classic Freudian explanation is that young girls crave the ability to tame and control a wild, powerful animal (representative of the id). Girls (lacking a phallus, and therefore hopelessly incomplete) are attracted to and wish to possess powerful, phallic creatures like horses.

Young’s theory might explain this “innate” draw in a much more scientific (and less misogynistic) way. If it’s true that women have a conditioned tendency to see themselves in relation to the actors of their physical environment, then horseback riding is quite naturally appealing to young girls, being one of the only “empathetic” solo sports in which one must position oneself in relation to another agent in order to succeed (coaxing the horse to change direction and praising it constantly for achieving one’s ends). Contrast this to an impersonal sport like dirt-bike riding, wherein women are more likely to feel like the object of a movement, rather than its first-person initiator.

To what degree does society shape bodily comportment, which then shapes cognition, and vice versa? In general, we need to do a better job addressing the social roots of gendered trends in cognition. Similarly, embodied cognition can help inform social analysis in ways that are surprising and seldom explored. As the themes of neuroethics expand to encompass those of neuroexistentialism (addressing questions of choice, free-will, and authenticity), fascinating essays like Young’s are a good reminder that critical social theory will play an increasingly prominent role in neuroscientific inquiry.

Want to cite this post?

Lee, J. (2016). Embodied Cognition: What it means to "Throw like a Girl". The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2016/09/embodied-cognition-what-it-means-to.html

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