How the Brain Uses Physical Experiences for Cognition

How the Brain Uses Physical Experiences for Cognition

By: Curtis Kelly

It is hard to read or talk about the brain without someone saying “it is a totally amazing machine. It does this or that.” We can all share in the wonder, because, indeed, it is amazing. The awe comes from how this simple organ, a mere 3% of our body mass, can perform such unbelievable feats, such as organize light frequencies into creatures and objects; paint the world in colors; organize sound frequencies into communication symbols; organize wants, needs, and behaviors into collaboration; and so much more. It is a pretty long list.

As for “simple organ,” I try to avoid using the computer metaphor, but in this case it helps. Just as a computer is a massive wiring together of circuits, the brain can also be seen as a massive wiring together of neurons. That’s it. Just a huge network. And basically, everything it does arises from two qualities: 1) what is connected to what and 2) whether neurons fire or not (the latter action controlled by over 1000 chemicals and neurotransmitters the brain-as-pharmacy produces). That’s it.

While most people rave about the feats this “amazing device” achieves, neuroscientists go beyond that. They want to know how it performs these feats. We do, too, and in our case, how we can use those skills to improve language learning.

As for the how: in neuroscience, the narrative has been changing recently. The story used to be that the brain first gets sensory input, then processes that sensory input to determine a response, and finally commands the body to engage in that response. To do so, the brain has separate cortices—auditory, visual, somatosensory—to process input, and a motor cortex to move muscles. These cortices are made up of smaller regions and areas, each dedicated to specific functions. In other parts of the brain, emotion is managed in the amygdala, especially fear and anger, and thinking is done in the prefrontal cortex. In other words, the brain is a commander sitting in a closed-off control room, making decisions, and issuing orders. The brain and body, as per Descartes, are separate things.

A new story has emerged, however, one that replaces the isolated commander in the control room with cooperative teams, a story that combines body and brain. The name of this story is embodied cognition. Embodied cognition is a little hard to grasp, but it means that cognition is not done separately from the body, in a control room, but rather, done as a brain-body partnership, the body and the world the body lives in are a part of cognition. By body, we don’t really mean the normal tissues of your organs, but rather the parts of the nervous system that monitor and control them, especially the sensory-motor cortices.

So, how does the body participate? We now believe that all mental models, memories, and even language are really just recordings of the neural patterns that fire when we have real world experiences. Neurons that fire together link together and that firing pattern becomes the memory itself. Each time you recall that experience, you are refiring that particular pattern of sensory-motor neurons, creating sensory and motor images, to give the experience meaning. Were I to say “soccer ball,” your brain would process that expression by activating all your experiences with soccer balls: what they look like, how they smell, the feel of the synthetic leather, the leg muscles you use to kick them, the hiss from the time it was punctured, the pure joy you felt when you got that goal in the 7th grade, and so on; little images, sounds, movies, and actions that define what a soccer ball is.

So, memories and meanings are stored as sets of neurons that fire again the same way they did when you first had that experience. Those memories involve both motor and sensory neurons, with memories of actions in particular having a lot of motor neuron firing. For example, when we see others doing things, the same motor neurons representing our doing the action fire too, and by mirroring their neural processes, we find meaning.

Think about this: Your feet tap to the rhythm of a song you like. The explosion in the movie makes you hunker down. The word “rotten” makes you cringe and wrinkle your nose. You feel subvocalizations as you read, or even murmur the words if the text is hard. And you embellish speech with gestures, such as moving your hands inwards when you talk about yourself. Those are all examples of sensory-motor neurons firing behind the curtain, and how the brain uses metaphor to create abstractions.

Cognition uses the body brain. So, take that, Descartes!

Even abstract language is given meaning through neural firings of physical experiences. I’m buried in work (based on the sensation of being weighed down) and the workload keeps going up (based on upwards movement as representing increase), so I’m cooling off (based on the discomfort of being cold) on this tough (hard to chew) job.

Obviously, if language is recorded in memory as neural firing patterns—patterns containing visual, auditory, somatosensory, motor and other elements—the notion of having students learn language by memorizing lists of words does not make much sense. Words are acquired as the body/world, so they should be taught through the body/world. We have long known that multisensory input is effective for language learning but, except for a few outliers like Asher’s Total Physical Response, we rarely use motor input, but maybe we should. We’ll offer suggestions here.

Integrating the brain and body in language teaching is the focus of this Think Tank.

Curtis Kelly (EdD.) was until recently, a professor at Kansai University. He is the founder of the JALT Mind, Brain, and Education SIG, and producer of the MindBrainEd Think Tanks. He has written over 30 books and given over 500 presentations. His life mission is “to relieve the suffering of the classroom.”

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