Embodiment and Embodied Design


Contributor: Mitchell Nathan (University of Wisconsin)

Learning scientists of embodied cognition by and large reject conceptualizations of knowledge as amodal cerebral content and instead seek to model knowing — knowledge as a verb, not a noun — as it manifests dynamically in complex material and intersubjective human practice through the actual experiences of bodily structure and action, sensory processing, and mental simulations of these experiences. Models of embodied cognition offer solutions to the “symbol grounding problem” (Harnad, 1990), an epistemological conundrum of how amodal, arbitrary, and abstract symbols (so-called AAA symbols; Glenberg, Gutierrez et al., 2004) that enable limitless expression and vast computational power in domains such as language and mathematics can also come to have meaning for the people who use them. Researchers of embodiment strive to implicate how humans draw on multiple sensory modalities and coordinated action, as well as metaphors derived from these modalities, to derive and express meaning. An example is observing interlocutors jointly performing depictive gestures to refer to features of mathematical objects they are co-imagining and transforming in service of a proof or engineering project.

These prevalent phenomena of mundane praxis bear direct implications for instructional methodology, such as for teachers supporting students’ conceptual and procedural development. Embodied design (Abrahamson, 2009, 2014, 2015) is a comprehensive pedagogical approach to creating technologically enabled interactive learning environments, where students engage in activity genres that draw on innate or early developed sensorimotor capacities, such as perceptual judgment, movement coordination, and joint action. These activities typically center on prescribed or emergent tasks that bear little to no symbolic content, yet contribute to participants’ intellectual development. Embodied design-based researchers explore interventions aimed at improving education across a wide array of topics and developmental stages, including: early literacy and reading comprehension, mathematical reasoning, scientific inquiry, engineering design, computer programming; as well as emotional intelligence, social skills, and pedagogy.

Research on embodiment and embodied design draws on diverse scholarly sources, including cognitive neuroscience, theories of situated, distributed, and enactive cognition, developmental, cognitive and social psychology, genetic epistemology, phenomenological philosophy, psycho-linguistics, gesture studies, complex dynamical systems theory of motor development and control, ethnomethodological discourse analysis, artificial intelligence, robotics, and contemplative somatic practices.

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Syllabi and Slides

Embodied Cognition syllabus by Mitchell Nathan, University of Wisconsin
Embodiment and Embodied Design slides by Dor Abrahamson

Video Resources

Listen to the Embodiment and Embodied Design webinar


Basic Reading:
  • Abrahamson, D., & Lindgren, R. (in press). Embodiment and embodied design. In R. K. Sawyer (Ed.), The Cambridge handbook of the learning sciences (2nd Edition). Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press. [Access Online]
Additional Reading:
  • Abrahamson, D. (2013). Toward a taxonomy of design genres: fostering mathematical insight via perception-based and action-based experiences. In J. P. Hourcade, E. A. Miller & A. Egeland (Eds.), Proceedings of the 12th Annual Interaction Design and Children Conference (IDC 2013) (Vol. “Full Papers,” pp. 218-227). New York: The New School & Sesame Workshop. [Access Online]
  • Anderson, M. L. (2003). Embodied cognition: a field guide. Artificial intelligence, 149, 91-130.
  • Antle, A. N. (2013). Research opportunities: embodied child–computer interaction. International Journal of Child-Computer Interaction, 1(1), 30-36. [doi: 10.1016/j.ijcci.2012.08.001]
  • Antle, A. N., Corness, G., & Bevans, A. (2013). Balancing justice: exploring embodied metaphor and whole body interaction for an abstract domain. In D. England & N. Bryan-Kinns (Eds.), Whole body interaction [Special issue]. International Journal of Arts and Technology, 6(4), 388- 409. [Access Online]
  • Barsalou, L. W. (2010). Grounded cognition: past, present, and future. Topics in Cognitive Science, 2(4), 716-724.
  • Clark, A. (1999). An embodied cognitive science? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 3(9), 345-351.
  • Jasmin, K., & Casasanto, D. (2012). The QWERTY effect: how typing shapes the meanings of words. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 19(3), 499-504.
  • Kahneman, D. (2003). A perspective on judgement and choice. American Psychologist, 58(9), 697-720.
  • Kirsh, D. (2013). Embodied cognition and the magical future of interaction design. In P. Marshall, A. N. Antle, E. v.d. Hoven & Y. Rogers (Eds.), The theory and practice of embodied interaction in HCI and interaction design [Special issue]. ACM Transactions on Human–Computer Interaction, 20(1), 3:1-30. [doi: 10.1145/2442106.2442109]
  • Núñez, R. E., Edwards, L. D., & Matos, J. F. (1999). Embodied cognition as grounding for situatedness and context in mathematics education. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 39, 45-65.
  • Pouw, T. J. L., van Gog, T., & Paas, F. (2014). An embedded and embodied cognition review of instructional manipulatives. Education Psychological Review, 26(1), pp 51-72.
  • Wilson, A. D., & Golonka, S. (2013). Embodied cognition is not what you think it is. Frontiers in Psychology, 4. [doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00058]
  • Wilson, M. (2002). Six views of embodied cognition. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 9(4), 625-636.

Learning Scientists Who Have Researched This Topic

  • Dor Abrahamson
  • Martha W. Alibali
  • Arthur Bakker
  • Justine Cassell
  • Tamara Clegg
  • Joshua A. Danish
  • David J. DeLiema
  • Laurie D. Edwards
  • Noel Enyedy
  • Jon Froehlich
  • Arthur M. Glenberg
  • Robert L. Goldstone
  • Rogers Hall
  • Mina Johnson-Glenberg
  • Molly L. Kelton
  • David Landy
  • Victor R. Lee
  • Sharona T. Levy
  • Robb Lindgren
  • Oskar Lindwall
  • Jasmine Y. Ma
  • Mitchell J. Nathan
  • Ricardo Nemirovsky
  • Erin Ottmar
  • Julia D. Plummer
  • David H. Uttal
  • Candace Walkington
  • Caro Williams-Pierce