What is Embodied Cognition? Answer: 4711

15 Aug

If, like me, you’ve been reading a lot in the popular press recently about “embodied cognition” without totally getting what all the excitement is about, you may be left wondering, like me, what you should be doing.

If it’s such a good idea, how do I get it? How do I know if I even want it; and how do I know I haven’t got it already?

To answer these questions, I wrote to a very good friend of mine. She’s a long-standing pen-friend, although we’ve never actually met. In fact, some people have started to claim that my friend is purely fictional. (Oddly, my friend has also begun to suspect that I’m fictional, but that’s another story.)

My German is fairly poor, and so is her Latin, so we tend to communicate in English. I scrawled a brief postcard of a high street lined with vehicles dating from the mid-nineteen-seventies asking, “What’s all this about Embodied Cognition?” She sent back a nice postcard of a rural scene featuring villagers in traditional dress, answering as always with another question: “How much do you want?”

When I want to know something, I want it all, so naturally I replied with a postcard of some well-preserved mediaeval houses on a steep cobbled hill saying, “As much as you’ve got!”

Two weeks later I received a large parcel, addressed to me, which should be reassuring for anyone who reads this and also wishes to use our international postal services. Stamped in bold red letters across the bottom left hand corner, so boldly they had landed slightly askew, were the words “DO NOT OPEN” – in that exact order, luckily, which made it much easier to read.

I sat down and puzzled over this. What good was an answer – so full it was positively voluminous – that remained tantalisingly close but out of view? After a while, I lifted my head and found my eyes were almost level with the top of the parcel. There, on the side, in bold red letters, again somewhat askew on the smooth brown wrapping paper, was just one word: “HERE”.

That made me jump to my feet. From a fresh angle it was obvious: “DO NOT OPEN HERE.”

Taking a firm grasp on the quite weighty package, I manoeuvred my way down the hall and headed out into town.

Where to go, where to go? In moments of extreme stress before, I have woken as if from a strange nightmare to find myself in a second-hand book shop. It was no different this time. My parcel rested on a stack of books, open on top of which was ‘The Innocence of Father Brown’ by G K Chesterton. I turned the pages of the first story, ‘The Blue Cross’, listlessly.

It was about a great detective called Valentin who – like myself, I began to realise – was without a clue.

“In such cases, when he could not follow the train of the reasonable, he coldly and carefully followed the train of the unreasonable. Instead of going to the right places … he systematically went to the wrong places.” I could see a kind of logic in that.

“It was half-way through the morning, and he had not breakfasted.” That was true enough. So I picked up my package, paid for the book, and followed the steps of the great detective to a random café, where, as he did in the story, I ordered a black coffee and a poached egg.

Should I tear open the package now? What did the book say…?

“‘The criminal is the creative artist; the detective only the critic,’ he said with a sour smile, and lifted his coffee cup to his lips.” By this time my own coffee had arrived, so I smiled sourly and did the same. It was smooth and deliciously bitter, unlike Valentin’s: “He had put salt in it.” I wasn’t about to become over-literal; the coffee was fine as it was. Nor could I see that any of the walls had soup splashed across them. In fact, there wasn’t anything odd here at all.

I supposed I was looking for a certain sort of truth, rather than trying to catch a master criminal, so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised not to find entirely the same things. All I could say for sure was that when the detective left his café he was none the wiser, so we still had that in common as I left mine.

I couldn’t find a greengrocer – they’ve almost disappeared from many towns since Chesterton’s day – but it was easy enough to find a small supermarket. At the fruit section, I read the shelf-edge labels eagerly, looking for the same sort of error that had puzzled Valentin, but without anything catching my attention. It was all going wrong. I didn’t particularly fancy cornering one of the staff and announcing, “Pray excuse my apparent irrelevance, my good sir, but I should like to ask you a question in experimental psychology and the association of ideas.” Not that I didn’t have questions I wanted an answer to.

What I wanted above all to know was where to find some “embodied cognition”. What did it look like? Perhaps it would look exactly like the opposite of “disembodied cognition”? I suspect I must have said at least some of those last words out loud because I could feel the other shoppers staring at me. I tucked my parcel under my arm and ran past them.

I ran and I didn’t stop running until the bus closed its doors safely behind me. “It was one of those journeys on which a man perpetually feels that now at last he must have come to the end of the universe, and then finds he has only come to the beginning of Tufnell Park.” What, you haven’t read the story? I thought everybody had. “‘It’ll pay for the window.’ ‘What window?’ … ‘The window I’m going to break.'” You really haven’t? I hope it’s not giving too much away to say that the detective gets his man.

I barely remember what comes next: a restaurant, a sweet shop, a walk on the heath. Before you know it, you’re back where you started. But, somewhere along the way, a part of me had been left behind. It was only when someone told me that I noticed how much lighter the parcel had become.

It was a case of mistaken handwriting: not Embodied Cognition but Eau de Cologne. Even the tiniest puncture can leak significant quantities, given time. Wherever I paused, the scent grew stronger. The faster I moved, the fainter the trail. One cannot neatly separate distance and time. I became disembodied from every place I left behind, but the pungency of the lingering perfume kept betraying the length of my stay. Until finally we deduce that the past continuously evaporates, and it is only by continually following the trail that there is any trail left to follow.

To be somewhere is to be an embodied somebody, for the duration. It is not until you are never anywhere again that you are entirely disembodied. On that day, I was all over the place. I’d left the best part of a gallon of perfume behind me, marking every step of the way.

Cognition makes sense of these traces, not just the overpowering present, but also the strong whiff of the past. We are never so much wholly in one place that we do not still belong a little to other places we have already visited. After a while, our favourite spots reek of our favour.


Without ever seeing the inside of the parcel, I had discovered enough of what was in it to begin to answer my question. So I sat down patiently on a bench and slowly unwrapped it, exposing the essence to the evening air, and waited for a very long time until it had all gone.

3 Responses to “What is Embodied Cognition? Answer: 4711”

  1. pabloredux September 25, 2014 at 10:38 pm #

    I’ve added a link to the Father Brown story.


  1. As You Like It (Or What You Will) | pabloredux - October 9, 2014

    […] are a compound of these essences extracted from your past, recorded in your body and coded into your brain. But our life histories are frustratingly not laid out on shelves for us to pick and choose from: […]

  2. There’s No Such Thing As Artificial Intelligence | pabloredux - January 12, 2015

    […] remember now…. I somehow managed to miss out, from what should have been my definitive picture of embodied cognition (except as usual I got side-tracked), that the embodied school of thought maintains our […]

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