Brainy Trees, Metaphorical Forests: On Neuroscience, Embodiment, and Architecture

Seeing the Building for the Trees was a Sunday Op-Ed in The New York Times on neuroscience and architecture, and promptly provoked an outcry from a neuroscientist. Here is how the opinion piece by Sarah Williams Goldhagen opens:

A REVOLUTION in cognitive neuroscience is changing the kinds of experiments that scientists conduct, the kinds of questions economists ask and, increasingly, the ways that architects, landscape architects and urban designers shape our built environment.

Bradley Voytek did not take kindly to Goldhagen’s claim on neuroscience.

[After that opening] the article then goes on to say that… embodied cognition tells us that our heads are in the clouds, therefore architecture is like trees and that, something… something… Avatar?

Honestly I don’t get the neuroscience connection at all…

This latest Avatar, neuroscience, architecture piece is at least as silly as their “neuroscientists go canoeing” article. Or whatever that one was about.

Maybe they’ve got some pop-neuro quota to fulfill?

I had a more positive reaction to the piece, but largely because I read the essay as drawing inspiration from research on embodied cognition, rather than neuroscience. No need to draw on the neuroscience cloak, embodied cognition is plenty cool enough, particularly the work in cognitive linguistics and perceptual psychology that to my eyes drive the main thrust of the essay.

Many of the associations we make emerge from the fact that we live inside bodies, in a concrete world, and we tend to think in metaphors grounded in that embodiment.

This metaphorical, embodied quality shapes how we relate to abstract concepts, emotions and human activity. Across cultures, “important” is big and “unimportant” is small, just as your caretakers were once much larger than you.

This section brings to mind the work by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, starting with their 1980 book Metaphors We Live By. As the publisher, University of Chicago Press, puts it,

The now-classic Metaphors We Live By changed our understanding of metaphor and its role in language and the mind. Metaphor, the authors explain, is a fundamental mechanism of mind, one that allows us to use what we know about our physical and social experience to provide understanding of countless other subjects. Because such metaphors structure our most basic understandings of our experience, they are “metaphors we live by”—metaphors that can shape our perceptions and actions without our ever noticing them.

George Lakoff has also been quick to claim the neuro-mantle in more recent work, without too much nitty-gritty neuroscience. That claim comes clear in the opening description to his Edge interview on “Philosophy in the Flesh.”

“We are neural beings,” states Berkeley cognitive scientist George Lakoff. “Our brains take their input from the rest of our bodies. What our bodies are like and how they function in the world thus structures the very concepts we can use to think. We cannot think just anything – only what our embodied brains permit.”

His recent book Philosophy In The Flesh, coauthored by Mark Johnson, makes the following points: “The mind is inherently embodied. Thought is mostly unconscious. Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical.”

I view the claim “we are neural beings” as metaphor, something useful to think with, but without too much actual neuroscience. The science is much more in Lakoff and Johnson’s analysis of language, thought, and culture, not in actual neural function. For better or worse, people grasp the concept “we are a neural being” – we are brains, physical things linked to five senses – and can extend that into other domains of knowledge, just like a good metaphor should work.

The problem is that, like a good metaphor, “we are neural beings” comes across as essentialist, as defining who and what we are. We get the metaphorical extensions, that our brains are housed in bodies and learn through interactions and experiences with the world. But the basic concept – a defining statement – acts to hide the real neuroscience. We are neural beings, but if we are going to take that seriously in any sort of real (rather than metaphorical) way, we need to leave the “we are like” simile behind.

As I wrote last year, the brain is essential – but don’t call it essentialist.

Rather than our old essentialist approach to the brain, where it was made into the biological mediator of difference, we have an emerging view that is critical and engaged with people’s lives, while also providing us important new insights into the role of neural function in daily function.

The essentialist view of the brain is rapidly falling by the wayside. It is not just the recognition of neuroplasticity, and how experience and use can shape how the brain fires and wires together. Today, how we think about what parts of the brain do has changed – the essentialist view of innate modules, as well as our projection of human categories onto the brain, has come largely undone in the science.

Placing Sarah Goldhagen’s op-ed in metaphorical context wasn’t the only reason I wrote this post, however. I want to highlight the coolness that is embodied cognition on its own terms.

Then I will come to what I see as really my main point – Goldhagen is engaging in aesthetics and interpretation while drawing inspiration from neuroscience and embodied cognition. In other words, she makes a humanities argument, rather than a science one, where the metaphor – or a world view to live and analyze by – serves an important purpose.

In the comments on Brad Voytek’s piece, Amy highlighted this nice 2010 research on embodiment in Science, Incidental Haptic Sensations Influence Social Judgments and Decisions, which shows the impact of our sense of touch on our thinking.

Touch is both the first sense to develop and a critical means of information acquisition and environmental manipulation. Physical touch experiences may create an ontological scaffold for the development of intrapersonal and interpersonal conceptual and metaphorical knowledge, as well as a springboard for the application of this knowledge. In six experiments, holding heavy or light clipboards, solving rough or smooth puzzles, and touching hard or soft objects nonconsciously influenced impressions and decisions formed about unrelated people and situations. Among other effects, heavy objects made job candidates appear more important, rough objects made social interactions appear more difficult, and hard objects increased rigidity in negotiations. Basic tactile sensations are thus shown to influence higher social cognitive processing in dimension-specific and metaphor-specific ways.

Thus, the experimental research is there for the kinds of things claimed by Goldhagen. If you really want to dig into the combo of research and theory in embodiment and thought, I recommend the psychological research done by Lawrence Barsalou. Barbara King just recommended what looks like a fabulous 2011 collection more on the cultural side, Embodied Interaction: Language and Body in the Material World.

For a more basic overview, I recommend this guest post on Scientific American, A Brief Guide to Embodied Cognition: Why You Are Not Your Brain. Samuel McNerney describes the basics of embodied cognition, touching on major figures and major works.

What exactly does this [work] mean? It means that our cognition isn’t confined to our cortices. That is, our cognition is influenced, perhaps determined by, our experiences in the physical world. This is why we say that something is “over our heads” to express the idea that we do not understand; we are drawing upon the physical inability to not see something over our heads and the mental feeling of uncertainty. Or why we understand warmth with affection; as infants and children the subjective judgment of affection almost always corresponded with the sensation of warmth, thus giving way to metaphors such as “I’m warming up to her.”

I do think embodied cognition is a game changer, and for one basic reason that extends to two fields (hmm, metaphor…). Western philosophy has been dominated by Descartes’ mind/body dichotomy, with universal reason on the one side (I think, therefore I am) and robot bodies on the other. Neuroscience has long hewed to that mechanistic view, augmented by a functionalism provided by different types of rationality – the blind watchmaker, the rigors of selection, the computations of brain circuits. Embodied cognition has challenged many of these epistemological underpinnings, much of the Western mind set. But my bet is that the neuroscience will be still more uncanny, more weird than the rationality, embodied or universal, we still cling to in so many ways.

Hence my more generous take on Seeing the Building for the Trees. The op-ed’s point is not so much about science, but aesthetics; not so much about how we really think, but how we design and appreciate lived spaces.

Embodied architecture is set against modernist architecture, and I happen to prefer the more organic style of today. The rationally designed places of Le Corbusier, or the housing projects designed for a doomed “functionality” across the US – no, give me some of the tree metaphors that Sarah Goldhagen evokes.

Take the visual metaphor of a tree as shelter. Most people live around, use and look at trees. Children climb them. People gather under them. Nearly everyone at some point uses one to escape the sun.

Recently, architects have deployed tree metaphors in many different settings. At the Kanagawa Institute of Technology in Japan, Junya Ishigami created an elegant “forest” out of slender, white-enameled metal saplings that congregate in clusters and open into clearings of vocational work spaces. In Seville, Spain, a German architect, Jürgen Mayer H., gave definition and shade to the city’s Plaza de la Encarnación with his Metropol Parasol, a lilting, waffled construction of laminated timber.

Inspiration and interpretation are inevitable. As metaphor is basic to what we do, so emerging results in neuroscience will be taken well beyond the intentions and even meanings of their authors. Much caution and critique will be needed. Yet at the same time, I want to preserve a space for this other mantle, from science to art and humanism. To creation and design and expression.

A revolution based on neuroscience? No. A recognition of our bodies and experiences and senses? Yes. And thus much closer to metaphors that inspire us every day. Like HOME or WARMTH. And maybe even a tree or two.

Update: My fellow plogger Emily Anthes just highlighted a piece she wrote for Scientific American in 2009, Building around the Mind. Check out her article for more on the research, given how Emily “covers findings on how our bodies and brains are affected by building layout, outdoor views, room color and lots more.”

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7 Responses to Brainy Trees, Metaphorical Forests: On Neuroscience, Embodiment, and Architecture

  1. Words, beautiful words, but sterile words regarding how the human brain is working under physiological and pathological conditions . At last Christmas I have discovered how our brain sensor, i.e. PNEI system and Limbic area, reacts to every, even minimal, insult, aiming to damage or to destroy body health, independent of its origin and nature. In a few words, at Christmas 2011, from womb of Quantum Biophysical Semeiotics (, and has born a new clinical diagnostic method, I have termed Brain Sensor Bedside Evaluation (BSBE), which open a new road in the field of physical Semeiotics: . For further information you may reed, free, the paper, Sergio Stagnaro and Simone Caramel (2012) New ways in physical Diagnostics: Brain Sensor Bedside Evaluation. The Gandolfo’s Sign. January, 2012. Journal of Quantum Biophysical Semeiotics.
    Physycians have to utilise in daily practice the present knowledge on cerebral cortex functions, as it has recently happened, regarding PNEI system and Limbic region, Brain Sensor Bedside, Evaluation;
    Surprisingly, only a few Editors have spread till now the news of an original diagnostic bedside method, which allows physicians to recognize easily and quickly even a “social ” cell, when it is becoming “a-social”, and localise it precisily with a stethoscope.

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