There is growing dissatisfaction with traditional conceptualizations of the mind as simply an emergent property of symbolic computations performed in the brain. This discontent has led to the development of broader, system-wide thinking in which the mind is viewed as embodied.1
Whereas the concept of an embodied mind emphasizes that the body helps to shape the way we think, feel, and behave,2
it is also important to acknowledge that the mind is relational. As one neuroscientist commented,3
“The individual neuron or a single human brain does not exist in nature. Without mutually stimulating interactions, people and neurons wither and die. In neurons this process is called apoptosis; in humans it is called depression, grief and suicide.” In addition, whereas social synapses are as much a part of the mind as neuronal synapses, we will argue that an added dimension to the relational nature of the mind is the way in which the human body is highly integrated with the physical environment. This holistic worldview of humans, one that espouses mutual causation between the brain, body, and environment (social and physical) is consistent with complexity theory which has revolutionized thinking in physics, chemistry, biology, and even organizational psychology.4
Thus, in this paper, we employ a slightly modified version of Siegel’s5
definition of “mind”. He originally defined the mind as an embodied and relational process that regulates energy and information flow. In our modified version, the term relational captures not only energy and information flow that exists between people (the social environment), as suggested by Siegel, but also the interdependence that exists between people and their physical environments.
Although the nature of the mind is an intriguing theoretical issue, is it relevant to applied aging research, clinical practice, and public health? Does it really make a difference in the way that we care for, interact with, and support people as they age? We intend to illustrate that the perspective of an embodied and relational mind is critically important to the design of clinical interventions in aging; that, as people age, they benefit from changing the way in which they relate to and come to think about their own minds. Finally, we will illustrate why an embodied and relational mind reinforces the relevance of social interactions, movement, and mindfulness in health promotion with aging populations.
Evidence for embodiment and the relational nature of mind
In the field of cognitive science, Zalta and colleagues6
have stated that “In general, dominant views in the philosophy of mind and cognitive science have considered the body as peripheral to understanding the nature of mind and cognition. Proponents of embodied cognitive science view this as a serious mistake.” In fact, the emergence of laboratories that study robotics led to the realization that interactions between the human body and the physical environment were central to understanding intelligence; it was not long before modeling in robotics became a distributed process including brain, body, and environment.7
Not all cognition need be embodied or relational as is true with mind-wandering, imagery, and planning. Yet, even these “offline” cognitive activities are enriched by embodiment, since stimuli embedded within past memories trigger multimodal simulations throughout the body and brain and recreate lived experience.8
In fact, bodily states likely become more central to the mind with aging. There are several reasons for this shift. First, with aging comes an increased salience of visceral influences on the brain and behavior. This is due to the increased prevalence of chronic disease in aging and related physical symptoms such as pain and fatigue. In a recent review, Critchley and Harrison9
provide a compelling argument for the way in which both activity in the brain and overt behavior are determined by embodied visceral influences. Second, with aging there is a decline in sensory and motor function that changes the way people relate to the world around them. These impairments are often reflected in limitations with performing normal daily activities. And third, people observe changes in their bodies with aging, consequences that profoundly influence how they think, feel, and behave.
The role of bodily states and evidence for simulations in social cognition and behavior is well documented.10
For example, merely activating elderly stereotypes leads people to slow their gait.11
Not long ago, we conducted a longitudinal study of an aging cohort with knee pain and identified two subgroups at baseline that had impairments in leg strength, yet had either high or low self-efficacy for stair climbing.12
Thirty-months later, deficits in stair climb performance among those with low strength and low self-efficacy was dramatically greater than those with low strength and high self-efficacy. Notwithstanding what is known from Social Cognitive Theory, why do similar functional deficits or body states become coupled with such different perceived limitations? As the concept of an embodied and relational mind suggests, have older adults with high self-efficacy somehow compensated for impaired strength in a way that modifies the multi-sensory representation of their lived experience? Do they engage in activities and relationships that strengthen the embodied and relational nature of their minds?
The notion that the brain, body, and environment are codependent is not new.13
Recent neuroimaging studies show that when participants lay quiet in an fMRI scanner, simply viewing objects that are typically manipulated by the hands activates “grasping circuits”14
and visualization of favorite foods increases connectivity in the sensorimotor networks and cerebellum, regions in the brain known to be active in the pursuit of food.15
Locatelli and colleagues16
found that the manual training of fine motor skills improved performance on semantically related action sentences and brain lesion studies show that categorical knowledge is impaired with damage to modality-specific systems.17
Evidence on emotion and affect further supports the concept of an embodied and relational mind. Research has shown that positive feelings induced with good news are enhanced by an upright or working posture and inhibited by a slumped posture18
and that humor in cartoons can be either facilitated or inhibited through manipulation of facial muscles used in smiling.19
In a recent brain imaging study, participants mimicked angry facial expressions from photographs under two conditions: a Botulinum Toxin (BOTOX) injection to block expressions of anger and one with no injection (control).20
Those receiving BOTOX had less activation in the limbic system of the brain compared to the control group.
The body also appears to be tightly linked to environmental stimuli in the experience of emotion. Harrison and colleagues21
simultaneously studied patterns of peripheral physiology and brain activity during two different forms of disgust: body-boundary-violation (BBV), responses to stimuli such as surgical videos, and core disgust (CD) that occurs when smelling rancid food or observing acts such as vomiting. Participants viewed videos of BBV and CD during which their brains were scanned and peripheral physiological data were recorded from the heart and gut. BBV induced notable shifts in the cardiovascular system, feelings of lightheadedness, and increased activity in the superior parietal region of the brain whereas CD induced feelings of nausea, an increase in dysregulated gastric responses, and greater activity in the ventral insula.
In summary, based on Siegel’s5
definition of the mind, we underscore that the mind is dynamic and reflects reciprocal causation between brain, body, and environment. The terms embodied and relational imply that the brain, physical attributes of the self, and features of our interpersonal relationships and of the environments in which we live, jointly regulate energy and information flow and codetermine how we think, feel, and behave both individually and collectively.