ED 610 Week Eight (Fall 2020)

Hi Everyone,

For the next two classes I would like to explore embodied cognition. This will move us to the forefront of understanding andragogy. If you recall, I deliberately avoided sections of Knowles’ book that went into detail on specific teaching and learning theories he provided in his book. This is because the theories Knowles presented are based on ‘Enlightenment Reason and the spectator view of knowledge and perception.” The theories were developed, as have most of our educational teaching and learning theories, using ideas of thinking, knowledge, and reason that date back to at least the seventeenth century. However, this way of thinking has been proven to be inadequate in how we describe our embodied ways of being in the world. This is not to say that being familiar with the many teaching and learning theories Knowles presented is not important. Our schooling system is based on, and continues to operate using, these theories. Furthermore, these theories are still being taught. There is value in being able to understand what people are referring to when they talk about these dated theories in schools.

Regardless, for us to stand on the forefront of andragogy, there is more value using theories that are current rather than relying on seventeenth century ideas.

Not only will understanding Embodied Cognition will help us develop the best adult learning environments, but those of you who are making comparisons between pedagogy and andragogy will recognize some very important similarities and differences between the two based on how the brain works. Adults and children have brains that work the same way, and yet there are some important differences in the way we experience the world as we get older. Understanding Embodied Cognition will make some of those similarities and differences evident.


Given the length and importance of this topic, I won’t be providing any additional themes. I do ask that all of you work through today’s lecture as best you can. As you do, consider how the ideas relate to your own project work.


Bodily Considerations in Five Parts

This week I will take an initial swipe at some of the basic ideas that are important in understanding Embodied Cognition. Next week I will take another swipe at the ideas but go into a bit more depth.

It would take much more than two classes to understand Embodied Cognition and how it applies to pedagogy and andragogy, but we will at least leave with enough of an understanding that we can easily pursue the ideas of embodied cognition on our own.

For those of you who have taken my ED 632 class, much of the following will be familiar. The challenge for you will be to tie together what you know about andragogy and the topic at hand.



I should preface this by saying that I use many sweeping generalizations and simplify the ideas so that we are able to develop an understanding of the topic at hand rather than getting bogged down with specifics.


Bodily Consideration Part I

To understand embodied cognition, it helps to get a feel of two different perspectives. One perspective is the spectator perspective, the other is the embodied or lived perspective. Our traditional teaching and learning theories are primarily based on a spectator view. The spectator view (disembodied perspective) has many roots in the work of Enlightenment philosophers.

Let’s go to the race track to begin our understanding of the difference between the spectator view and the embodied view. You will probably also notice that these two perspectives nicely distinguish differences between quantitative and qualitative research.


The spectator view perceives the world from a distance. We view things as if they were objects independent from each other. By standing back and viewing from a distance we can start to compare one object with another. We can measure those objects, and then compare the measurements we make. It is a bit like being at a race and being a spectator. 



Crowd View
RedBud 450 Moto 2: Ken Roczen vs. Trey Canard

If you watch the first minute or so you will get the idea of viewing from a distance.

So as we watch this we can see when Trey Canard has the lead over Ken Roczen. We can see them moving in relation to each other. We can see where they are positioned on the track in relation to the finish line. Both Canard and Roczen are discrete measurable objects–we are spectators.


The embodied perspective is a bit different. We recognize bodily experience.


Have a look at Ryan Villopoto  racing at the Monster Energy Cup in 2012.

Again, a short viewing will give you the idea:



I hope you find these to be clear examples. There are many we could use. Here are two more.


Quantitative — observer/spectator perspective.

Video of the Year: Best Mountain Bike Shot Ever


Qualitative — individual/embodied perspective.


GoPro: Backflip Over 72ft Canyon – Kelly McGarry Red Bull Rampage 2013



In schools we talk as if experiences are somewhat disembodied and that we experience the world from the spectator perspective. We talk of objectified objects that we can manipulate. We even talk about students as being objects that we can manipulate. We call it classroom management–the process of ‘dealing with’ or ‘controlling’ things or people — manipulation.

When we read the theories that we use in schools we find that they are typically based on a spectator view. We talk about doing things to things, we talk about manipulating, recording and measuring, we talk about managing, we talk about passing information, we talk about content as if it is objectified contained units of material.

The mistake in all of this is even the spectator can only bring meaning to what is perceived by re-living bodily experiences. The distant observer of the motocross race can only understand what is being perceived because of bodily experiences leading up to that event.


The history of the spectator view. It is necessary for science. It can be problematic in schooling.

Much of what we believe about teaching, learning and schooling is based on the idea that we can observe reality as if our observations were independent of us, objectifying it in such a way that we can then manipulate it, share it, and make predictions about it. Current brain research doesn’t support this idea.

Where did this spectator idea come from?

Did you ever make a camera obscura as a child?



You make a box with a pinhole in it, and then you can see the reflection of an inverted image of the outside world on a screen that you place on the inside of the box.








Well I think you will find this interesting. Here is John Locke, seventeenth century philosopher.




He spent a lot of time thinking about things. If fact, you can see that he is thinking right there in the picture. He is thinking to himself: “I wonder if I should have had that second bowl of clam chowder?”


In his “Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” John Locke (1836) uses the metaphor of the camera obscura to help explain the idea of understanding. He wrote:

[E]xternal and internal sensations are the only passages, that I can find, of knowledge to the understanding. These alone, as far as I can discover, are the windows by which light is let into this dark room: for, methinks, the understanding is not much unlike a closet wholly shut from light, with only some little opening left, to let in external visible resemblances, or ideas of things without; would the pictures coming into such a dark room but stay there, and lie so orderly as to be found upon occasion, it would very much resemble the understanding of a man, in reference to all objects of sight, and the ideas of them.


Now, camera obscuras were big business, so to speak, back then.



They were used for work and entertainment. But, more interesting than the camera obscura itself is that that the metaphor of the camera obscura framed philosophers’ thinking. The idea of the spectator was enhanced. The idea of ‘images’ in our minds, our mind containing reflections of reality, etc., etc..


Of course Locke was not the only one who was influenced by the spectator view of understanding.


I think Stephen Mulhall gives a great indication of the spectator view in regards to some of the philosophers who have influenced our thinking:

The question of the human relationship with the external world has been central to Western philosophy since Descartes; and the standard answers to it have shared one vital feature. Descartes dramatizes the issue by depicting himself seated before a fire contemplating a ball of wax; when searching for the experiential roots of causation. Hume imagines himself as a spectator of a billiards game; and Kant’s disagreement with Hume’s analysis leads hims to portray himself watching a ship move downriver. In other words, all three explore the nature of human contact with the world from the viewpoint of a detached observer of that world, rather than as an actor within it. Descartes does talk of moving his ball of wax nearer to the fire, but his practical engagement with it goes no further; Hume does not imagine himself playing billiards; and Kant never thinks to occupy the focus of the epistemological tradition away from this conception of the human being as an unmoving point of view upon the world.

So, as we might come to think, our philosophers were spectators in the development of their philosophical understandings. The result? “[T]hat exclusive reliance upon the image of the spectator has seriously distorted philosophers’ characterizations of human existence in the world.” Mulhall continues to point out:

of course, no traditional philosopher would deny that human life is lived within a world of physical objects. If, however, these objects are imagined primarily as objects of vision, then that world is imagined primarily as a spectacle — a series of tableaux or a play staged before us; and the world of a play is one from which its audience is essentially excluded — they may look in on the world of the characters, but they do not participate in or inhabit it. Such a picture has deep attractions. A world that one does not inhabit is a world in which one is not essentially implicated and by which one is not essentially constrained; . . . But there are also drawbacks: for the model also makes it seem that the basic human relation with objects is one of mere spatial contiguity, that persons and objects are juxtaposed with one another.

I am trying to make a couple of points here: one, that we have become accustomed to talking and thinking about the world from a spectator perspective (especially in schools); two, we have broken up the world into small self-contained objects that can then be thought to have effects on one another in very narrow ways (simple cause and effect); and three, we talk as if we can somehow transfer, or input, these representations into our students.


The Spectator Narrative

We do have a narrative here. The narrative says that there is an external reality (external to us) that we all have access to in the same way. Our perception of that reality can be broken up into discrete bits. If you don’t perceive some aspects of that reality, I can communicate it to you so you have it. Then you can communicate back to me showing that you now share that same reality.

The mistake in all of this is the idea that we have access to a disembodied reality. We don’t. Even the spectator of a motocross race can only understand it by firing neurons in the brain that connect to the body.



Language and communication in the Spectator view — the linear communication model

Even language and communication is thought to be the manipulation of discrete bits of information.


From Winograd and Flores and the Correspondence Theory

The rationalistic tradition regards language as a system of symbols that are composed into patterns that stand for things in the world. Sentences can represent the world truly or falsely, coherently or incoherently, but their ultimate grounding is in their correspondence with the states of affairs they represent. This concept of correspondence can be summarized as:

1. Sentences say things about the world, and can be either true of false.

2. What a sentence says about the world is a function of the words it contains and the structures into which these are combined.

3. The content of words of a sentence (such as nouns, verbs, and adjectives) can be taken as denoting (in the world) objects, properties, relationships, or sets of these.


Communication Models

As you listen to the three different models discussed in the following clip, ask yourself what model seems most pronounced in school. Think also of the language supporting each model — for example sender, receiver, transmission, linear, encoded, decoded, communication system, interference, process, sent, received, message, verbal, nonverbal, contain, meaning,


Even though there are many educational theorists and educational philosophers who have espoused the need for constitutive or even transactional models of communication, I think it would be fair to say that the predominate narrative in the public school is the transmission model. You will recognize the narrative–the narrative talks about senders and receivers. Inputs and outputs. Exchange of content. These rely on the idea that worldly aspects can be objectified and manipulated. Passed from one person to another.

When we grow up in the context of the transmission model, adopting the metaphors and ideas that give it meaning, it is difficult to think that communication works in any other way. We live within a language that has us speak and think the ideas of transmission. This transmission model is prevalent in the pedagogical methods we have been considering — less so in the andragogical model.

This correspondence theory along with the transmission model of language has not only influenced how we talk about language, it has also had an influence on how we talk about memory. Or, perhaps, our ideas of memory has influenced the way we talk about communication.

Once again, Winograd and Flores:

The correspondence theory of language is one cornerstone on which other aspects of the rationalistic tradition rest. Rationalistic theories of mind all adopt some form of a ‘representation hypothesis,’ in which it is assumed that thought is the manipulation of representation structures in the mind. Although these representations are not specifically linguistic (that is, not the sentences of an ordinary human language), they are treated as sentences in an ‘internal language,’ whose connection to the world of the thinker follows the principles outlined above. pp. 19-20



We have been influenced by the three box memory model. But even the language depicting this model tends to come out of the rationalistic tradition that Winograd and Flores talked about.


Briefly, the Correspondence Theory

What is the type of thinking that one uses to design a curriculum, lesson plans, assessments, or assign grades? Winograd and Flores (p. 15) depict this sort of thinking like this:

  1. Characterize the situation in terms of identifiable objects with well defined properties.
  2. Find general rules that apply to situations in terms of those objects and properties.
  3. Apply the rules logically to the situation of concern, drawing conclusions about what should be done.

When we read this, the pedagogical model might come to mind. Think of how we teach youngsters. Think of how curriculum is designed. Think of our assessment practices and expectations by administration.

One of the things that might stand out for us is the idea of making representations of experience or reality. We call this the correspondence theory. The belief is that representations of reality can be made and then shared with others. In many cases this has become a natural way of thinking. We think of ‘the world’ in terms of identifiable objects and properties, systems and rules, all that can be represented and shared.

Now think back to your understanding of andragogy. Some of these basic ideas seem to be challenged as some level.



Perhaps you are already getting the sense that there are some andragogical ideas that seem to resonate with the embodied view. A greater emphasis on lived experience, less manipulation, less transmission.


Bodily Consideration Part II

Back in the Day

In the 80s and 90s I was working a lot with music recording.

Not this far back.



About this far back:


Cedar and colorful carpets were the rage — as were 24 track tape recorders and lots of outboard gear.

And then this happened:

For those of you too young to know what this is, it is an Apple II computer. What a beauty. Look at it sitting there, with its big old 5 1/2 in floppy disk drives.

For someone like me, who grew up with typewriters and “Lost in Space” this beauty was a blast into the future.

Lost in Space television show.


Oh yes — the computer. Digital computer-based technology. The promise of the future.


It was an especially exciting time because of the new computer technologies being developed. Editing recordings by splicing analog tape and hiring musicians to record different acoustic instruments was giving way to electronic editing and multi timbral multi track sequencing. Now anyone could have access to the marvelous digital music technology.

Finally I could create music tracks with sampled sounds that replicated brass instruments, string instruments and percussion. More amazingly, from a teacher’s perspective, I could have my students orchestrating songs—as young as elementary—and that’s what I did—I created one of the first music keyboard labs in the Province of Alberta. I received a rather prestigious award for my work. And, I was getting just enough praise from others to cloud my judgment. Feeling confident in what I was having my students do, I published an article in a music journal detailing my (or should I say my students’) accomplishments.

And then it happened—a turning point in my understanding of learning and schooling. You see, upon publication of my article, I got some quick critique from other musicians. “These children should be in band and orchestra, not playing keyboards,” was the typical response.

Here it was, the first challenge I had received to my work. Darn, maybe I wasn’t so smart after all. (I wasn’t)

None of the critiques said exactly what children were missing. Perhaps it wasn’t entirely clear at the time. Perhaps at the time it was more of an intuition. But according to many other musicians, something did seem amiss. At first I tried to convince myself that what I was doing was in the best interest of the students. By looking at the school system’s music goals and standards, my students were achieving more music knowledge faster than other traditionally taught students. I could argue that conceptually my students were learning more. I suppose I could have left it at that.

Now, from our current perspective, it might be immediately obvious to you just how clouded my judgement was. But keep in mind, this was the wave of the future at that time. Things always look a little different when we look back.

It took me a long time to realize that what I was doing to my students was actually a disservice. You see, I didn’t take into account that my students had bodies.

Bodies, you don’t say!

Yes, bodies! I didn’t take into consideration that learning and understanding begins with the body and becomes conceptual later. This seems so obvious now that it almost seems hardly worth mentioning. But when you are living in a language discourse that privileges one form of thinking and action over another, it is easy to overlook what should otherwise be obvious.

How could I have overlooked the obvious? Well you see, I was an experienced musician using computer-based digital technologies to replicate what I had already experienced. Every time we perceive something we are actually re-firing (so to speak) established neuronal cell assemblies (to put it simply).

One more time–that is actually an important statement: Every time we perceive something we are actually re-firing (so to speak) established neuronal cell assemblies.

I already knew how to play percussion instruments, brass instruments and string instruments. I knew what playing these instruments felt like. I had neuronal cell assemblies already established in my brain that re-fired when I heard a particular sound.


When I play a trumpet sound on a keyboard, I feel the experiences that I had experienced at an earlier time—the tightening of the embouchure, the pursing of the lips, the breathing, the other musicians beside me, the down beats represented by the arm movements of the conductor. One keyboard trumpet sound re-fires all these cell assemblies so that my experience is very rich in comparison to a novice (a child) who had not had similar bodily experiences. Conceptually a child can know and play a high G trumpet sound on a keyboard. But as far as bodily understanding, the child’s experience is barren. His/her understanding is stunted. A child, or novice, lacks the corporeal understanding (the re-firing of neurons that make the body feel something that it has experienced before) that gives “life” meaning. The understanding that a child, or novice, might achieve from playing the trumpet on the keyboard is reduced to bodiless information–nothing that could be said to represent a trumpeter’s body.

If you are a trumpet player, you will re-feel what it feels like to play high notes when you hear this. You will feel in your hands what it feels like to hold the trumpet. You will feel the breathing, the way the left hand wraps around the valves and the tips of the right hand press the keys down. You will feel what it feels like because you will re-fire neurons in your brain that you wired together when you initially learned how to play the trumpet. If you don’t play the trumpet, sorry to say, you will not have the same experience–even if you wanted to.

Since you probably listened to this a couple of times let me repeat: If you don’t play the trumpet, sorry to say, you will not have the same experience–even if you wanted to.

This seems so obvious in hind sight. It is not difficult to understand. It astounds me now why, as a professional teacher (as we are deemed to be once we are licensed), I had overlooked something that seems so blatantly obvious. But I suppose, in my defense, I was encouraged to focus on the conceptual, on the abstract, on information and efficiency. Schooling goals, standards, and objectives toward those rather abstract concepts, encourage an obscuration of the body.

Rock Climbing Anyone?

I have never climbed a rock climbing wall. I see lots of people doing it. My children have done it. But not me. So when I see someone climb a rock climbing wall, I can imagine what it ‘might’ feel like. But I do not have neuronal cell assemblies re-firing from my past experience. I don’t have the same ‘grasping neurons’ re-firing when I see someone grasp one of those colorful holders. I try to imagine what it might feel like, but it is only in comparison to other things I have grasped that look similar to that.

If you have ever climbed one of those walls, you will experience this next video differently than I do.

If you have climbed one of these walls you probably had many bodily sensations as you watched this that I didn’t have. As soon as I clicked play on the rock climbing video, I felt myself playing my old DX7 synth, tapping out the chords.

I’ve never bungee jumped either. I can try to imagine what this feels like, but it won’t be the same feeling that those of you who have bungee jumped will feel. I didn’t really feel too much of anything. It looked as though it might be a bit frightening, but I can’t say I really felt it 🙂



Why don’t we all experience watching something the same way?

What we see is not simply a visual image. When we see something, we re-experience touching it, feeling it, holding it, being moved by it.


Let’s use an apple example — I mean a real apple–the fruit.

Consider all the experiences you have had with apples–the contexts in which you have experienced them, felt them, tasted them, the weight, fresh, rotten, color, in store bins, on tress, cut up in your lunch, in salads, etc. In a recent undergraduate class of mine, we brain-stormed different experiences we all had with apples and in four minutes we came up with over 120 completely different experiences with apples. Students came up with ways they understood apples. Every single experience was something we could all relate to. Apple sauce, candy apple, sliced apples in lunch, apples with cheese and on and on and on. Now consider this: what could you learn about and understand about apples if your only access to them were the experiences you could have with the iPad? It is easy to realize the limiting nature of the two-dimensional visual medium. But, and this is interesting, how many of curricular standards could ostensibly be met by interacting with a two dimensional screen? Notice I said ostensibly.


Pedagogy anyone?

How many of curricular standards could ostensibly be met by interacting with a two dimensional screen?


For those of you have have a horse, what would your understanding of horses be if your only contact with horses was limited to an iPad? Or for those of you who swim, or play a sport, or camp, or hike, or love. To what extent could someone, without any previous experience with any of these activities understand the activity the way you do having had experiences with these activities?

And yet people will still argue all the benefits of incorporating iPads or computers into young children’s lives. Just think of all the standards students can meet if only we had them using iPads. Is there a problem with this? As a true novice, what can you re-experience on a two dimensional screen when you lack experience?

Now this is not to say we shouldn’t ever use computer-based technologies. Many of us use sophisticated music software regularly, or graphics software, or architectural software often. But we have already established neuronal cell assemblies so that we re-live a rich past experience when we use the technological artifact. And, as far as my electronic music students — playing a trumpet sound on a keyboard to compose music is great, but only after the student has had bodily (physical) experience with brass instruments.

Let’s use another Apple example — this time I mean the iPad.

Here is a child about to learn about cinnamon buns by entering into this technology-rich environment. Do you hear that many school districts have been very excited about this?

We sometimes hear the phrase “technology rich.” In reality, for novices (notice I say novices here), doesn’t the use of computer-based two dimensional screens lead to “technology barren” experience? Only when one has already had a rich corporeal experience that the technology can re-enliven the richness of experience (in other words, through your experiences you have wired together neurons that then re-fire when you perceive or think about the experience again). I only have to say, think of the last time you have a soft warm cinnamon bun, warm out of the oven, and if you have been lucky enough to have experienced this in the past, the neurons that were wired together when you experienced this in the past are re-firing now. For those of you who have only experienced cinnamon buns by seeing them on a computer screen, I am afraid your experience will be rather barren in comparison. So much for technology-rich.


The Glorious Cinnamon Bun



You probably have some memory of the cinnamon bun. As soon as you read the words “cinnamon bun” your brain is firing neuronal cell assemblies that allow you to not only perceive cinnamon buns, but to also re-experience some of what you know about cinnamon buns. Your brain does that quite naturally. Cinnamon-bun-sight-neurons are wired to cinnamon-bun-taste-neurons are wired to cinnamon-bun-touch-neurons are wired to cinnamon-bun-kitchen-neurons etc. etc.. (These, by the way, are not the scientific terms:) As soon as these neurons are firing you perceiving cinnamon buns and are ready to learn something new as long as we can fire neurons that will connect to your already established cinnamon bun neurons. Consider this:

The first cinnamon bun was created in the 1920’s just after the First World War. Because Sweden was a neutral territory during the war, there were heavy restrictions on the import of goods including sugar, eggs and butter. By the time the 1950’s rolled around, the average Swedish household was pulling in more money, meaning they were able to purchase the pricey ingredients necessary to make a cinnamon bun. It was around this time that the pastry began to really become more popular.

If you happen to be Swedish, or you have been to Sweden and have neuronal cell assemblies already created, or if you have First World War neuronal cell assemblies, or if you have sugar-eggs-butter neuronal cell assemblies already wired, you will quite likely fire these along with the cinnamon bun neurons. And, given adequate time and strength of neuronal firing, your neurons will wire together. It is something that happens quite naturally. Your brain does it without you even having to work at it. But if you have no experiences with sugar, eggs, and butter, you have not had the opportunity to learn about the First World War and have no neuronal cell assemblies developed, and you haven’t even seen a cinnamon bun, you won’t be wiring together any neuronal cell assemblies.Furthermore, it is unlikely you will remember, or have any interest in, the history of the cinnamon bun.

Whenever I see cinnamon buns like this I have neuronal cell assemblies fire that have me re-live my childhood experiences of laying on my back on the floor with my feet pressed up against the window of the oven door while my mom baked cinnamon buns. You see, growing up in Canada, we would play outside in the winter cold until it felt like our feet were frozen. So it was common to warm up standing on heater vents or pressed up against the oven.

The cinnamon bun doesn’t exist as an object. It exists within a social setting, with multiple bodily experiences being reactivated. I learned about cinnamon buns effortlessly, without any testing, without memorizing. My understanding couldn’t have been as rich as it is if I had only experienced cinnamon buns in a technologically-barren environment.

That which you experience is not discrete information that can be acquired by sight alone, or by being told. Even if you learned about cinnamon buns in a classroom using flash cards, you will have that classroom-flashcard-experience wired to your understanding of cinnamon bun and not a real cinnamon bun.

Is it possible that some of our teaching models are wrong? Isn’t part of our teaching narrative suggesting that we can simply tell students something new and they will be able to learn it? Does our teaching narrative suggest that communication is linear –- passing ‘information’ back and forth as if through a pipeline? Do our narratives suggest that children can learn without much interaction with their body?

We get a bit more of that in pedagogical environments — a bit less in andragogical environments.


What if we believed children could learn about cinnamon buns on an iPad? No, we wouldn’t believe that, would we? How could we then wire all those wonderful neurons together that would let them know how cinnamon buns taste, smell, feel? They would have a sort of blindness toward cinnamon buns. No taste, smell, or feel.

Marge: I don’t know why Dana can’t seem to learn about cinnamon buns. He has been doing worksheets all day, and I have tested him four times.

Jack: Perhaps he has cinnamon bun blindness.



Bodily Consideration Part III:

Let’s take a quick look at neurons

What is a neuronal cell assembly? A web of neurons. Neurons form webs as a result of bodily experience. These webs are distributed throughout the brain.



What is learning?



Neurons and Memory Formation




The experiences we have with our bodies helps create our neuronal cell assemblies

I remember being taught how the brain moves the body. Signals move from the brain to move the legs, the hands, the arms, etc. There almost seemed to be an emphasis on the brain controlling the body. Everything started in the brain, and then moved out to the body. It was as if the body was of secondary importance. I don’t remember much emphasis on how the body movements helped establish the wiring in the brain. I don’t remember much discussion as to the importance of how movement of the limbs strengthened the neuronal cell assemblies in the brain so that the brain could then move the body more adeptly. I don’t remember ever being asked to consider how the body’s actions give meaning to what we perceive. It is almost as if the peripheral motor system takes second place to the central nervous system. It is almost as if the assumption is made that we don’t really need the body to weave together the cell assemblies that will, in turn, help us make sense of the world around us.


Bodily Consideration Part IV

A Grasp at Grasping Neurons

If you will, please look at each of the following photographs. Look at each one, individually. After a couple of seconds, move on to the next image.
































You have an understanding of each image. You have a familiarity with each object. But, you don’t simply have a picture of the image in your brain. Your understanding of the object is created in your brain, or woven throughout your brain. In very simple terms, when you look at each object, shape neurons fire in one part of the brain, texture neurons fire in another part of the brain, color neurons fire, texture neurons fire, and (the topic for the beginning part of this lecture) grasping neurons fire. All of these different neuronal cell assemblies fire to allow you to make sense of what you just saw.

Grasping Neurons.

When you looked at each image there were grasping neurons in your brain that fired. As soon as we see the mug we have neurons fire that trigger our previous experiences of grasping mugs of this shape. Our wrist neurons fire to indicate a particular twist of the wrist, our finger neurons fire in such a way as to indicate wrapping around the handle, and our arm neurons fire so that we recognize the weight of the object. All of this, just by looking. It is as if our brain fires the same neurons that previously experienced objects like this.

As soon as we see the tea cup our finger neurons trigger in a very different way from when we look at the mug. Our finger neurons recognize the different grasp. The use of the forefinger and thumb. A slightly different wrist action. We experience the object in a very different way than when we look at the mug.

When we see other objects, our neurons fire as if reaching for a hammer, a tennis ball, or a pencil even though we just look at the object on the screen. To see the object meaningfully, all sorts of different neurons all fire together to bring meaning to the object.


But what about this next object. ( I picked an object that you likely have not experienced before. If you have, your observation will be just as rich as the former images. If you haven’t experienced this next object, your experience will be shallow in comparison).




Without previous experience with this object our experience is shallow. Fewer neuronal cell assemblies are firing than if you had had experience with this object. When you look at this object you don’t feel the rich sensations that you feel with the other objects. Not knowing the size or weight, how do we pick this up? Is it heavy? Our arm muscle neurons don’t fire. We have not established neuronal cell assemblies to give this meaning.

We have neurons that fire that help us understand the shape and possibly the texture. But is it made of plastic, metal, ceramic? Does it feel smooth, rough? Is it flexible, stiff?


We might say, “Objects move us.” In other words, when we see an object, we are moved (even though our bodies don’t actually move) to re-experience the way we are with the objects. Visual objects–that are familiar–move us.


Grasping Neurons


Do you know the story about grasping neurons? This is so interesting.

In 2005 Giacomo Rizzolatti (2006) and some of his graduate students were working in a laboratory in Italy. In their midst was a Macaque monkey, strapped to a chair with fMRI electrodes glued to its head. The researchers were looking for specific neurons that would fire when the monkey performed a specific task. After some time the researchers were able to pinpoint neurons that would fire when the monkey grasped an object. While this was an interesting discovery, a more notable phenomenon occurred when one of the graduate students reached for, and grabbed, an item from a table within the monkey’s sight. The monkey’s grasping neurons fired again even though this time the monkey had not moved. This set off a series of experiments that have suggested that understanding is, in part, related to having action neurons re-fire when witnessing other’s actions. In addition, further research has found that hearing words will trigger the firing of action neurons. If this is the case, we might well be convinced that not only do the sight of objects move us, but words speak us as well.


We learn more about grasping neurons here. You will notice that the talk is about mirror neurons. I should mention that there is dispute whether or not “mirror” neurons exist. “Mirror” may be the wrong term. Perhaps we should stick to thinking about re-firing established neurons that were assembled during past experiences.


NOVA scienceNOW : 1 – Mirror Neurons



Giacomo Rizzolatti on the discovery of canonical motor neurons


Giacomo Rizzolatti – Mirror neurons: from monkey to human



Bodily Consideration Part IV

I share this image with all of my classes when I can. It reminds me that the brain is not simply some organ stuck inside the head. It reminds me that our entire body experiences the world around us.


If only we hadn’t gotten caught up in Descarte’s discourse of the separation of body and brain. We might have a better realization of how our perceptions rely on our bodily experiences.

Let’s cut the head off this neuronal body. Not so easy. Even this cropped image shows the mass of neurons that connect the face to the brain.



Do our adult learning theories have a greater respect for the entire body and bodily actions? Would our ideas of pedagogy be different if we really believed that what students learned was learned by their whole body?

Did you know there were some researchers in Sweden who suggested children were becoming finger blind because of their decreased use of their hands and fingers in exploring the natural world around them. In other words, children were thought to be overly engaged in technology-barren environments (environments that did not sufficiently develop bodily neuronal cell assemblies. Did these researchers recognize the importance of touch in the formation of neuronal cell assemblies? Perhaps.

Has our schooling discourse somehow lost sight of the fact that our bodies and brains are connected? Have we inadvertently obscured the fact that our body is instrumental in the development of our neuronal cell assemblies? Have we lost the realization that learning happens with the body and not just the brain? Have we neglected the fact that the body is covered with neurons (our nervous system) that sends signals to the neurons in our brain? Are these signals not instrumental in the formation of our neuronal cell assemblies?

When we think of the importance of having our bodies experience our surroundings so that our brain can develop neuronal cell assemblies, perhaps a bit more time outdoors is important. It might alleviate some of that “finger blindness.”

Remember this child with the tablet? We have seen this before. But the more we think about our bodies, the less reasonable this seems. Finger blindness doesn’t seem so far out there.

A child developing finger blindness because he is no longer allowed to play outside. The institutional requirement is that all children should be able to connect two shapes. Fortunately (not really) we have the technology to help this child achieve these educational goals.

Here is that same child I showed you a picture of earlier — you know the one using the iPad to learn all about cinnamon buns. Look at the dexterity in those fingers while he connects those dots!


Of course putting a child on an iPad is a good instructional practice if we are trying to see how many dots the child can connect in a certain amount of time.

Teacher: “I am very proud of your child Mrs. Smith. His dot connecting ability increased four fold over the span of two weeks.”
Mrs. Smith: “Well he takes after his father you know.”

Easy to research, easy to count, easy to observe, and easy to relate to district, state, and parents. The narrative calls for such. But isn’t this a big part of the problem? If we are asking questions and developing instruction around things we can quantify, are we actually doing our students a disservice? It is not easy to know exactly what students are learning outdoors. So just eliminate it. In fact, good schools are eliminating recess altogether I have been told.

Adults are less likely to be appeased by activities that do not resonate with the body. Perhaps they simply have the wherewithal to speak up.

(Here is a funny thought. When computers were just making there way into schools I was teaching a computer class to graduate students. Part of the evening class was devoted to using the mouse. One of my students said she was having a lot of difficulty because every time she moved the mouse to the left, the pointer moved to the right and vice versa). Ah, the good old days.

In hindsight technology-rich might not be so technology-rich.

I am focussing a bit on technology here because of the positive press ‘technology’ receives in many school settings.

The technology seems so amazing, doesn’t it. It is the wave of the future, just like the typewriter was. Oh, I should remember that some of you might be too young to really remember the typewriter. I remember it well. I even took a typing class in high school. “Sit up straight. Feet on the floor. Fingers on the home row. F, F, F, O,O,O, X, X, X, fox, fox, fox.” And so the class would go. Mr. Pobada shouting above the clacking of the typewriter keys.

Ever hear about the typewriter study? Did you know that research showed that typewriter-based instruction had various advantages over traditional instructional methods? That’s true. The research said it was true. And yes, I am talking about a typewriter. You know:

That’s me in the back. Wandering around looking at the interesting pictures rather than actually doing any work 🙂

From 1929 to 1931 Wood and Freeman (1932) conducted an extensive investigation on the “educational effects of the use of typewriters in schools.” The main purpose of the investigation, which was funded by four manufacturers of portable typewriters, was to study the nature and extent of the educational influences of the portable typewriter when used as a part of the regular classroom equipment in the kindergarten and elementary school grades. The magnitude of the investigation can be estimated from the fact that during the first year nearly fifteen thousand children and over four hundred teachers were involved in the study. The findings indicated that typewriter-based instruction had various advantages over traditional instructional methods. The conclusion was that the typewriter was a valuable educational tool that could be used effectively in most subjects.

The contemporary reader of this report is likely to be struck by at least two things: first, by the high expectations associated with the use of the portable typewriter in schools in the early thirties, particularly when we consider that fifty-eight years later, the typewriter is used primarily in experimental classrooms in the early grades; and secondly, by the striking similarities between these early expectations and contemporary expectations surrounding the use of computer technology in schools. In fact, the similarities are much stronger than the previous account suggests. In the Wood and Freeman study the reader is shown pictures of children working in small groups on the typewriter, “drawing” pictures with “X”s , and pictures of poems composed by children directly on the typewriter, strikingly similar to what we find today in books on the use of computers in schools. It seems that if we exchange the word “computer” for “typewriter” in this fifty-eight year old study, we would have a credible research study on the “educational effects of the use of microcomputers in schools.”

What does this tell us? Are we to conclude that educators in the early thirties were naïve and even blinded by this new machine and that they uncritically interpreted technical possibilities as educational possibilities? Or are we to conclude that the fate of typewriters in the curriculum reveals how educators have failed to take advantage of the pedagogic potential of the typewriter in areas such as reading, writing, visual arts, social studies, and even mathematics? Or should we perhaps take this story as an illustration of educators’ quests for patent solutions to educational problems. This story should draw our attention to the similarities between the plans of implementing typewriters into the curriculum in the early forties and plans of implementing computers into the curriculum today. In both cases educational theorists respond by applying scientific knowledge and research methods to measure the effectiveness of the new instrument compared to traditional instructional methods.

When we think of embodied cognition, the problem is not that people use typewriters, or iPad, or computers. The problem is the underlying belief, and the associated theories, that we can depend on a disembodied view of the world and that those disembodied aspects are the best and right way to learn and understand.

I guess if you ask the right questions you will get the answers you want — just like the typewriter company.

Beware of the questions that we ask.

The ideas covered today will be foundational ideas for our excursion into embodied cognition next class. While the ideas are not particularly difficult, the challenge is to begin to think about the way we learn differently than we have been taught. That’s difficult.

We know

Motor neurons (efferent neurons): impulse moves from the central nervous system to the rest of the body.

Our sensory neurons (afferent neurons) transmit impulses from the sensory receptors toward the central nervous system.

We can only bring meaning to that which was already experienced by our body.

We can weave bits of previous experience together to make sense of novel ideas.

The early representations theories of knowledge, theories that privilege the idea of visual representations (remember Locke and the camera obscura), obscured the importance of sensory understanding? There is enough evidence now to convince us that we can’t understand something through sight alone.

Andragogy and Pedagogy is deemed to be different. But why? Brains are brains. We all learn through embodied experience. Perhaps it has something to do with metaphors and frames. We will look into those next day.

Next class I will introduce you to George Lakoff. He rocks in the field of embodied cognition.

I hope you enjoyed considering these ideas today.

Until next time 🙂