Social cognition is the ability to understand and interact with other agents. A wide variety of cognitive capacities are involved in social cognition, such as attention, memory, affective cognition, and metacognition (Fiske and Taylor 2013).
Traditionally, however, the philosophical discussion of social cognition has narrowly conceived of it in terms of mentalizing (also called theory of mind or mindreading). Mentalizing refers to the attribution of mental states, often restricted to propositional attitudes, and typically for the purpose of explaining and predicting others’ behavior.
Thus, although social cognition is enabled by and involves numerous and diverse cognitive processes, many philosophers have tended to think of it simply as involving the attribution of propositional attitudes in order to predict and explain behavior.
Embodied cognition theorists have rejected this narrow construal of social cognition. Though they do not deny that neurotypical adult humans have the capacity to attribute beliefs and desires and to explain and predict behavior, they argue that this is a specialized and rarely used skill in our ordinary social interactions (Gallagher 2020; Gallagher 2008; Hutto and Ratcliffe 2007). Most social interactions require only basic underlying social cognitive capacities that are known as primary and secondary intersubjectivity (Trevarthen 1979).
Mirror neurons may be an important mechanism of social cognition on this kind of view. Mirror neurons are neurons that activate both endogenously in producing a behavior and exogenously in observing that very same behavior.
For instance, neurons in the premotor cortex and inferior parietal lobule activate when a subject uses, say, a whole-handed grasp to pick up a bottle. These very same neurons selectively activate when a subject observes a target using a whole-handed grasp to pick up an object.
Neuroscientists have discovered similar patterns of activation in neurons in various parts of the brain, leading to the proposal that there are mirror neuron systems for action, fear, anger, pain, disgust, etc. Though the interpretation of these findings is subject to a great deal of controversy (Hickok 2009), many theorists propose that mirror neurons are a basic mechanism of social cognition (Gallese 2009; Goldman 2009; Goldman and de Vignemont 2009; Iacoboni 2009).
The rationale is that mirror neurons explain how a subject understands a target’s mental states without needing complicated, high-level inferences about behavior and mental states. In observation mode, the subject’s brain activates as if the subject is doing, feeling, or experiencing what the target is doing, feeling, or experiencing. Thus, the observation of the target’s behavior is automatically meaningful to the subject. Mirror neurons are a possible mechanism for embodied social cognition. If the findings and interpretations are upheld, they substantiate the claim that we can understand and interact with others without engaging in mentalizing. For a survey of the reasons to be cautious about these interpretations of mirror neurons, see Spaulding (2011; 2013).
embodied cognition is better characterized as a research program to appreciate the body’s significance in cognitive processing and to do so requires a dramatic re-conceptualization of the nature of cognition and how it must be investigated. Different researchers view the body’s significance for cognition as entailing different consequences for the subject matter and practice of cognitive science. Nevertheless, through this very broad diversity of views it is possible to extract three major themes around which discussion of embodied cognition can be organized (see Shapiro 2012; 2019a).
Three Themes of Embodied Cognition
The three themes of embodiment around which most of the following discussion will be organized are as follows.
Conceptualization: The properties of an organism’s body limit or constrain the concepts an organism can acquire. That is, the concepts by which an organism understands its environment depend on the nature of its body in such a way that differently embodied organisms would understand their environments differently.
Replacement: The array of computationally-inspired concepts, including symbol, representation, and inference, on which traditional cognitive science has drawn must be abandoned in favor of others that are better-suited to the investigation of bodily-informed cognitive systems.
Constitution: The body (and, perhaps, parts of the world) does more than merely contribute causally to cognitive processes: it plays a constitutive role in cognition, literally as a part of a cognitive system. Thus, cognitive systems consist in more than just the nervous system and sensory organs.
Sometimes embodied cognition is distinguished from embedded cognition, as well as extended cognition and enactive cognition. However, despite the distinctions between the four “Es”—embodied, embedded, enactive, and extended—it is not uncommon to use the label “embodied” to include any or all of these “Es”. The E-fields share the view, after all, that the brain-centrism of traditional cognitive science, as well as its dependence on the computer for inspiration, stands in the way of a correct understanding of cognition.
Embedded cognition assumes that cognitive tasks—dividing a number into fractions, navigating a large ship, retrieving the correct book from a shelf—require some quantity of cognitive effort. The cognitive “load” that a task requires can be reduced when the agent embeds herself within an appropriately designed physical or social environment.
Close kin to embedded cognition, extended cognition moves from the claim that cognition is embedded to claim additionally that the environmental and social resources that enhance the cognitive capacities of an agent are in fact constituents of a larger cognitive system, rather than merely useful tools for a cognitive system that retains its traditional location wholly within an agent’s nervous system (Clark and Chalmers 1998; Menary 2008).
Enactivism is the view that cognition emerges from or is constituted by sensorimotor activity. Currently, there are three distinct strands of enactivism (Ward, Silverman, and Villalobos 2017).
Autopoietic Enactivism conceives of cognition in terms of the biodynamics of living systems (Varela, Thompson, and Rosch 2017; Di Paolo 2005). Just as a bacterium is created and maintained by processes that span the organism and environment, so too is cognition generated and specified through operation of sensorimotor processes that crisscross the brain, body, and world. On this version of enactivism, there is no bright line between mental processes and non-mental biological processes. The former simply are an enriched version of the latter.
Sensorimotor Enactivism is another strand of enactivism that focuses on explaining the intentionality and phenomenology of perceptual experiences in particular (O’Regan and Noë 2001; Noë 2004). This view holds that perception consists in active exploration of the environment, which establishes patterns of dependence between our movements, sensory states, and the world. Perceivers need not build and manipulate internal models of the external world. Finally,
Radical Enactivism aims to replace all representational explanations of cognition with embodied, interactive explanations (Hutto and Myin 2013; Chemero 2011).
These three strands of enactivism vary in their target explanations and methodology, however they share the commitment to the idea that cognition emerges from sensorimotor activity.