The replication crisis is killing psychologists’ theory of how the body influences the mind

How do the mind and body work together?
How do the mind and body work together?
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We don’t just think with our minds, we think with our bodies, too.

Intuitively, this makes sense: We know we’re hungry, for example, or tired, because of bodily sensations. The mind doesn’t think in a vacuum. This notion is at the heart of a psychological theory called “embodied cognition,” which explores how the body influences thinking. But, in recent years, psychology’s replication crisis, where recreations of major studies failed to produce the same results as the originals, has shown that several crucial findings in the field of embodied cognition fail to hold up. As a result, there are now cynics within psychology who argue the entire field is suspect—as well as die-hard embodied-cognition researchers who insist their theories are sound. The replication crisis has discredited countless individual findings within psychology (and the sciences more broadly) but, in this case, an entire discipline is under attack.

“Embodied cognition” is a fairly loose concept, and has a variety of interpretations. Tony Chemero, professor of philosophy and psychology at the University of Cincinnati, says embodied cognition reflects the idea that you often need to move to process intelligent thought. “Thinking isn’t something that just happens to your brain, it’s an activity you engage in and you have to move to engage with it a lot of the time,” he says. Although some intellectual processes can be done while sitting still, “there are surprisingly many that do require moving around.”

A more extreme view, such as that held by Arthur Glenberg, a cognitive scientist at Arizona State University, claims that all thought is dependent on bodily actions. “[A]ll cognitive processes are based on behavioral and neural systems of action, perception, and emotion,” Glenberg writes in an email. “For example, even when we are doing/thinking about putatively abstract ideas such as physics and mathematics, or using abstract language…at its base, it is action, perception, and emotion.”

While psychologists still disagree over a precise definition, the replication crisis has shown that some of the most famous findings that fall within embodied cognition simply don’t hold up. Studies on the benefit of “power poses,” which claimed that standing with your hands on your hips or sitting with your feet propped up on the desk can increase your confidence, have failed to replicate.  A famous study which showed that people find cartoons funnier when they’re required to smile while watching—which suggest that expressions can generate emotional states rather than simply reflecting them—also cannot be recreated. Similarly, a study claiming that exposure to age-related words made participants walk more slowly, and another famous finding which showed physical cleaning removes feelings of guilt (the so-called “Macbeth effect”), both have failed replication attempts. And, just this month, researchers found they couldn’t recreate a previous finding that holding a warm cup makes creates a sense of interpersonal warmth. These studies cover a wide range of topics, but they all broadly relate to the idea that our bodily actions and sensations influence thought processes that we typically think of as entirely mental.

And they’ve got a lot of attention over the years. “It was kind of a sexy topic,” says Megan Papesh, psychology professor at Louisiana State University. “It was a new way to conceive of what we do in cognitive science… Those studies get a lot of attention because they’re cool and you can summarize them with a great headline.” But now that such attention-grabbing findings are falling apart, the whole theory of embodied cognition seems to be on shaky footing.

Of course, the failed replications don’t prove that the body doesn’t influence cognition at all, and there are still findings within the sphere of embodied cognition that are well-regarded. For example, Chemero points to research on how swaying (which we do, almost imperceptibly, whenever we stand) enables us to see, by helping us make sense of the distances between ourselves and the world around us. Stephen Goldinger, psychology professor at Arizona State University, points out that there is credible research showing that people with a phobia of spiders are quicker at spotting the arachnids. And Glenberg notes that research on the language side of embodied cognition, such as findings that reading action words referring to particular body parts (e.g. “kick”) activate the areas of the brain that overlap with the areas involved in the actual movement, has held up well. These findings might be less sexy than the power pose studies, but they seem to be much better science.

Many of the failed embodied cognition findings relied on “social priming.” That’s the psychological theory that our judgements and interpretations of others are affected by how we’re processing subtle or obvious signals. For example, the study purporting to show that a warm cup makes us feel warmer towards others is both an example of embodied cognition (in that it shows how physical sensation creates emotions) and social priming (as it shows how emotions can be shifted by subtle nudges.)

But social priming itself might not be as strong a concept as some in the field believe. As Andrew Wilson, psychology and cognitive science professor at Leeds Beckett University, notes in an email, “You CAN nudge our behavior around, but these nudges are so small that they vary wildly in how people respond to them.” Wilson believes that social priming is the flawed theory, rather than embodied cognition. But if social priming is this weak, or if psychologists accept they can’t find evidence of it overall, then the field doesn’t have many ways to prove the effects of embodied cognition, either.

It remains to be seen how much of embodied-cognition theory will remain intact following the replication crisis. “The key lessons for [embodied cognition] are the same as the key lessons for ALL other areas of psychology and science in general: keep developing stronger methodological rigor; keep adapting theories in the face of contradictory data,” writes Glenberg. “[T]hat is the way science is supposed to work.”

But certainly, the boldest claim, that all or most of our thought is processed by bodily actions, seems to be falling apart. “The theory doesn’t really make much sense,” says Goldinger. He says it’s especially unlikely that physical states would transform basic cognitive processes. After all, most of us can recognize familiar objects, and engage with the world around us, to a roughly similar degree all the time, regardless of whether our body is hot or cold or exposed to certain words.

There’s an instinctive appeal to the notion that our body shapes all thoughts. We are composed of both body and mind, and of course it’s impossible to separate the two. So far, though, psychologists have struggled to come up with a coherent theory with a compelling collection of evidence that shows how the body shapes mental processes, and as the replication crisis tears down finding after finding, it’s time to revisit the theory behind the evidence. Our thoughts may well be shaped by our bodies, but psychologists still haven’t figured out how.