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Trends in Neuroscience and Education 1 (2012) 15–20

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Trends in Neuroscience and Education

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Review article

Embodiment theory and education: The foundations of cognition in

perception and action
Markus Kiefer n, Natalie M. Trumpp
University of Ulm, Department of Psychiatry, Ulm, Germany

a r t i c l e i n f o abstract

Article history: Recent theories propose that cognition is embodied in the sense that it is critically based on
Received 29 June 2012 reinstatements of external (perception) and internal states (proprioception) as well as bodily actions
Accepted 10 July 2012 that produce simulations of previous experiences. The present article provides a comprehensive
overview of the latest research on embodied cognition in the domains of event memory, memory for
Keywords: concrete, abstract and number concepts as well as reading and writing. Psychological and neuroscien-
Embodiment tific research shows that these important cognitive functions are essentially grounded in action and
Grounded cognition perception as a function of experience. Embodied cognition research has important implications for
Memory organization education because it highlights the relevance of appropriate sensory and motor interactions during
learning for the efficient development of human cognition.
& 2012 Elsevier GmbH. All rights reserved.


1. Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15
2. Embodiment of reading and writing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16
3. Embodiment of memory for events . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16
4. Embodiment of conceptual memory for objects. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18
5. Embodiment of conceptual memory for numbers . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 19
6. Conclusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 19
Acknowledgments . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 20
References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 20

1. Introduction bassoon may be differentially efficient in supporting learning. It

would be therefore important to know which method has the
Consider a classroom situation, in which a teacher wants to most beneficial effects and why. Although at a first glance this
introduce an unfamiliar musical instrument, a bassoon, to her or problem appears to touch only practical considerations, its solu-
his students. She or he has several possibilities for teaching the tion deeply concerns fundamental issues about the nature of
relevant information. For instance (i) the teacher can describe the human cognition, which have been the subject of philosophical
shape, the material, the sound, the use, etc. of this musical reflections for more than two thousand years (for an overview,
instrument. (ii) The teacher could show a movie demonstrating see [45]). In the last decades, psychological and neuroscientific
the physical properties, the sound and the use of a bassoon. (iii) research now allows answering many longstanding questions
The teacher could take the students to an orchestra where they objectively by measuring behavioral performance and brain
can observe a musician playing the bassoon, and can touch or play activity during cognitive experiments.
the bassoon themselves. These different methods to teach a At the heart of the past and the current debates is the question
whether or not cognition is essentially grounded in our senses
and in our actions with the environment [30]. Traditionally,
Correspondence to: University of Ulm, Department of Psychiatry, Section for cognition is assumed to involve neuro-cognitive systems that
Cognitive Electrophysiology, Leimgrubenweg 12, 89075 Ulm, Germany.
Tel.: þ49 731 500 61532; fax: þ 49 731 500 61542.
are different from the perceptual or motor brain systems and code
E-mail address: (M. Kiefer). knowledge in an abstract-symbolic format, in which original
URL: (M. Kiefer). modality-specific sensory–motor information is lost [1,42,43,51].

2211-9493/$ - see front matter & 2012 Elsevier GmbH. All rights reserved.
16 M. Kiefer, N.M. Trumpp / Trends in Neuroscience and Education 1 (2012) 15–20

Challenging this classical view, recent theories of embodied 2. Embodiment of reading and writing
cognition, which are also known as ‘‘grounded’’ or ‘‘situated’’
cognition theories (for a differentiation of these terms, see [21]) Writing is a manual sensory–motor skill, which requires the
have emerged in several disciplines of the cognitive sciences acquisition and storage of complex motor programs. For reading, its
[3,14,25,26,31,40,52]. Embodiment theories, which receive grounding in the sensory–motor systems is less obvious, because
increasing empirical support from behavioral and neuroscientific reading is typically considered to be purely perceptual (e.g., [33]).
studies (for an overview, see [21,22]), propose close links between However, the embodiment theory predicts that reading is influenced
the sensory and motor brain systems on the one hand and by writing techniques because the motor programs and sensory
cognition on the other hand. Cognition and thinking is critically experiences during writing (e.g., forming specific letters and words
based on a reinstatement of external (perception) and internal with a pen) are assumed to be implicitly activated during reading. As
states (proprioception, emotion and introspection) as well as a consequence, our habitual writing techniques should affect reading
bodily actions that produce simulations of previous experiences. performance. It is particularly important to consider this possible
These simulations of previous sensory–motor experiences [2] are relation between reading and writing because nowadays digital
often unconscious, but can be measured with behavioral or writing devices associated with the use of computers, mobile phones
neuroscientific experimental techniques (see Box 1). The present or Personal Digital Assistants, PDA, have frequently replaced writing
article provides a comprehensive overview of the latest research by hand (for an overview, see [29]). The sensory–motor experiences
on embodied cognition in several cognitive domains and dis- during handwriting (haptic, motor, visual, etc.) are quite different
cusses important implications for learning and teaching. from those during typewriting or mouse clicking on digital devices. In
particular, handwriting requires carefully reproducing the shape of
each letter, whereas in typewriting no such grapho-motor component
Box 1–Methods for testing embodied cognition theory is present. Given that children in our present days may learn writing
by typing on a computer or mobile phone much before they master
Embodied cognition theory assumes that cognition is essen- handwriting, it is important to know how this dramatic change in
tially carried out in the sensory and motor brain systems.
writing habits in the digital age affects reading performance [29]. In
Neurophysiological recording techniques provide direct evi-
dence for the involvement of modality-specific sensory and line with the embodiment theory, several training studies in pre-
motor systems during cognitive tasks, a critical prediction of school children and adults showed that handwriting training of new
embodied cognition theory. Neuroimaging studies using letters gave rise to a better letter recognition in a subsequent test
positron emission tomography (PET) or functional magnetic than typing training. Furthermore, handwriting improved discrimina-
resonance imaging (fMRI) as well as measurements of tion performance between real letters and their corresponding mirror
electrical brain activity with electroencephalogram (EEG) or images. This demonstrates that handwriting, which links rich
magnetoencephalogram (MEG) are therefore highly valuable sensory–motor representations to perceptual letter shapes, improves
sources of evidence. Neuroimaging techniques such as PET subsequent reading performance compared with typewriting. In line
and fMRI provide precise information where in the brain
with this interpretation, neuroimaging studies showed that visual
cognitive processing takes place with a spatial resolution of a
few millimeters (Fig. 1A). As the physiological signal used in recognition of letters only activated motor regions of the brain when
neuroimaging techniques to detect brain activation is coupled letters were trained by handwriting, but not when they were trained
to relatively slow changes in cerebral blood flow (e.g., level of by typewriting. These effects for handwriting vs. typewriting are very
blood oxygenation), the resolution for determining the time similar to the action effects on training new concepts described
course of brain activity is in the range of several seconds and below. They confirm the assumption that sensory–motor experiences
therefore quite poor. Recordings of electrical brain activity must be meaningfully related to the learning target (here shaping a
from the intact scalp, in contrast, allow tracking the time letter by writing vs. pressing a key associated with a letter) to result
course of brain activity with a high temporal resolution in the in stronger sensory–motor memory traces that facilitate learning.
range of milliseconds and are therefore an ideal tool to
monitor the working brain online (Fig. 1B). However, scalp
recordings of brain activity have a low spatial resolution and
allow to localize brain activity only in the range of about one 3. Embodiment of memory for events
(MEG) or several centimeters (EEG).
Neuroimaging and electrophysiological studies only pro- Past events such as incidences associated with our last birthday
vide correlational information and cannot answer the ques- are stored in episodic memory, the long-term memory system for
tion whether activity in sensory or motor cortex is necessary events [50]. When we recall these events, we reactivate stored
for carrying out a cognitive task. This issue can be addressed sensory–motor experiences collected during the initial learning
by behavioral experiments in healthy participants and brain episode and not only abstract-symbolic verbal knowledge [12]. These
damaged patients. In behavioral experiments using priming reactivations of acquired sensory–motor memory traces are not
or interference paradigms, a previous activation of sensory or
epiphenomenal, but are essential for memory performance. The so-
action-related representations modulates subsequent perfor-
called enactment effect nicely illustrates the importance of rich
mance in cognitive tasks, in particular when the correspond-
ing sensory or motor information is highly relevant to the sensory–motor experiences [10]: Participants remembered a list of
target concept (Fig. 1C). If sensory or motor stimulation action verbs better when they performed the corresponding actions
influences performance, it can be concluded that this given in the learning phase compared with a condition when they simply
cognitive function is causally linked to sensory–motor read the words [11]. Observing others, who performed the action, also
representations. Perhaps the most convincing tests for the improved subsequent memory compared with reading, but was
causal role of modality-specific cortex are neuropsychological inferior to self-performed actions [46]. Hence, the direct sensory–
studies in brain-damaged patients with focal lesions to motor experience during learning has the most beneficial effect on
sensory or motor cortex (Fig. 1D). If brain damage to
subsequent recall. Neurophysiological recordings of brain activity
modality-specific cortex selectively impairs performance in a
during memory recall revealed an activation of motor areas only for
cognitive task, for which a particular sensory or motor
modality should be task-relevant, the causality of this self-performed actions during learning [15,46] suggesting that action
modality-specific cortical area for a particular cognitive representations established during word learning were reactivated
domain is demonstrated. and facilitated memory retrieval. Reactivations of stored experiences
in modality-specific brain areas (i.e. areas specifically engaged in
M. Kiefer, N.M. Trumpp / Trends in Neuroscience and Education 1 (2012) 15–20 17

Fig. 1. Methods for testing embodied cognition theory. (A) Neuroimaging—functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). In a conceptual task, participants were shown
words denoting objects, for which acoustic features are highly relevant (e.g., sound-related concepts such as ‘‘telephone’’) and control words denoting objects with low
relevance of acoustic features among pronounceable, but meaningless pseudowords [23]. Participants had to visually recognize words in a word/pseudoword decision task
(lexical decision). In a perceptual task, participants listened to real object sounds (e.g., the ringing sound of a telephone). Increased activation to words with acoustic
conceptual features (conceptual processing) overlaps with brain activation during listening to real sounds (sound perception) in left posterior superior and middle
temporal gyrus. Modified after Kiefer et al. [23]. Reprinted with permission. (B) Electrophysiology—event related potential (ERP) recordings. As in the fMRI experiment
above, participants were presented with words referring to objects with high relevance of acoustic features and with control words [23]. Left: Event-related scalp
potentials to words with vs. without acoustic features at central electrodes reveal an onset of activity differences at about 150 ms as shown by the arrow. The early onset of
the effect suggests that activity in auditory brain areas indexes rapid access to acoustic conceptual features rather than late imagery. Right: Brain electrical sources of scalp
ERPs. Maps of cortical currents reveal strongest cortical currents (visualized in blue color) in and close to left posterior temporal cortex as in the fMRI experiment.
Modified after Kiefer et al. [23]. Reprinted with permission. (C) Behavioral experiments—priming. Left: Action priming paradigm [16]. A movie showing a hand action (e.g.,
using a staple gun) is followed either by an object affording a similar, congruent action or a dissimilar, incongruent action. Right: Observing congruent action movies
facilitates subsequent recognition of target pictures in a picture–word matching task as shown by the higher recognition accuracy. This demonstrates that action
representations have a functional role in conceptual processing. Modified after [16]. Reprinted with permission. (D) Neuropsychology—effect of brain lesion. Left: Patient
JR with damage to auditory association areas in posterior temporal cortex was tested with regard to his ability to process sound-related concepts [49]. He had to perform
lexical decisions on words with acoustic features as in the fMRI experiment described in (A). Right: Patient JR committed more errors for processing words with acoustic
features than for processing control words suggesting that auditory association cortex has a causal role in representing sound-related concepts. Modified after Trumpp
et al. [49]. Reprinted with permission. (For interpretation of the references to color in this figure legend, the reader is referred to the web version of this article.)
18 M. Kiefer, N.M. Trumpp / Trends in Neuroscience and Education 1 (2012) 15–20

perception or action) during memory retrieval are not only observed whether even concepts, the abstract constituents of thought, are
for self-performed actions, but also for sensory information associated grounded in perception and action. Neuroimaging results (for an
with the learning episode: Retrieving visual information (shape of overview see, [20,22,41]) have provided converging evidence on
objects) activated visual brain areas [44] whereas retrieving acoustic the differential involvement of sensory–motor brain areas in the
information (sound of objects) activated auditory brain areas [54]. processing of words and concepts of different kinds (e.g., vision-
This shows that episodic memory is multimodal in its essence related concepts vs. action-related concepts). They demonstrated
because it is based on a reinstatement of sensory and motor activation in sensory–motor brain areas in a range of conceptual
experiences [12]. Establishing the relevant sensory and motor mem- tasks (e.g., [18,32,47]). In fact, conceptual and perceptual proces-
ory traces during learning therefore improves subsequent memory sing functionally and neuroanatomically overlaps in sensory brain
performance compared with pure verbal learning. regions [23]: Visual recognition of words denoting objects, for
which acoustic features are highly relevant (e.g., sound-related
concepts such as ‘‘telephone’’), ignited cell assemblies in left
4. Embodiment of conceptual memory for objects posterior superior and middle temporal gyri (pSTG/MTG) that were
also activated by sound perception (Fig. 1A,B,D).
Concepts held in semantic long-term memory [50] include the These conceptual memory traces in sensory–motor areas are
sum of our sensory and motor experiences with the environment established through the learning-based formation of cortical cell
in a categorial fashion [22]. For instance, the concept ‘‘bassoon’’ assemblies as a direct consequence of the experience with the
includes the information that a bassoon has a long shape, is made referent. One line of evidence comes from training studies on the
of wood, produces sound, is winded, etc. It is an important question experience-dependent acquisition of concepts for novel objects

Fig. 2. Experience-dependent embodiment of object concepts in the sensory–motor areas. (A) Examples of the novel 3D objects (‘nobjects’), for which conceptual knowledge was
acquired during training, and demonstrations of the different training conditions. Top: Actions associated with the detail feature in the pantomime training group. Bottom: Pictures
highlighting the detail feature to be pointed to in the pointing training group. (B) Minimum norm source estimates obtained from scalp ERPs at test during a categorization task after
training. Shown are difference maps between the pantomime and the pointing condition at 117 ms after picture onset. Activity close to the premotor cortex (yellow circle) was
greater in the pantomime group. (For interpretation of the references to color in this figure legend, the reader is referred to the web version of this article.)
Modified after Kiefer et al. [24]. Reprinted with permission.

Fig. 3. Experience-dependent embodiment of number concepts. Intercultural differences in finger counting habits affect processing of number concepts [9]. Top: German
finger counting system involving unimanual signs for numbers up to five and bimanual signs for numbers larger than five. Bottom: Chinese finger counting system
involving unimanual symbolic signs for numbers up to nine. Finger signs are depicted from the signer’s perspective. For further details see the text.
Modified after Domahs et al. [9]. Reprinted with permission.
M. Kiefer, N.M. Trumpp / Trends in Neuroscience and Education 1 (2012) 15–20 19

[19,24,53]. For instance, human participants learned concepts of fairly abstract number concepts are at least partially rooted in our
novel objects (‘nobjects’) under different training conditions [24]: motor experiences. Hence, number concepts appear to be embodied
Participants either made an action pantomime towards a detailed in both visuo-spatial and action-related representations. Explicitly
feature of the novel object, which signaled a specific object function, training children in finger counting as well as in spatial analogs of
or pointed to it (Fig. 2A). At test, only in the pantomime group, in numerosities accelerates learning numbers and has beneficial effects
which a meaningful action was performed towards the object during on the subsequent mathematical performance even in their later
training, early activation in frontal motor regions and later activation school or professional career (see, [13]).
in occipito-parietal visual-motor regions was found during concep-
tual processing indicating that action representations essentially
constitute the concept (Fig. 2B). In the pointing training group, in 6. Conclusion
which the action during training was not meaningfully related to the
object, this sensory–motor activity was absent suggesting that According to the latest research, cognition is grounded in
concepts were not grounded in action. perception and action in its essence suggesting that even the
The second line of evidence comes from studies investigating most complex thoughts are sense-based and not abstract-
experience-dependent formation of conceptual representations in symbolic (for abstract concepts see Box 2). There are examples
experts with real objects. For instance, only professional musi- from many cognitive domains showing that appropriate sensory–
cians, but not musical laypersons activate auditory association motor experiences are necessary for human cognition to develop
cortex when accessing conceptual knowledge about musical at the highest level. Embodied cognition theory is therefore
instruments [17]. Together with similar expertise studies [5,28], naturally highly relevant for many issues associated with educa-
these findings confirm that the grounding of concepts in the tion [36]: Knowing the fundamental mechanisms underlying
sensory–motor circuits of the brain is experience-dependent and human cognition helps educational practitioners and policy
the result of repeated meaningful interactions with the referent. If makers as well as learners to design learning environments that
this experience is lacking, concepts are less rich and are mainly optimally fit to the functioning of the mind. Embodied cognition
based on verbal associations [48]: When confronted with the theory highlights the relevance of sensory–motor interactions
name ‘‘bassoon’’, for instance, a musical layperson may be able to
retrieve other words typically co-occurring with the word ‘‘bas- Box 2–Are abstract concepts embodied?
soon’’ such as ‘‘musical instrument’’, ‘‘orchestra‘‘ or ‘‘violin’’
without having a clear grasp what a bassoon really is. By definition, abstract concepts do not refer to physical
objects with which one can interact. It is therefore hard to
imagine how abstract concepts, including social terms
5. Embodiment of conceptual memory for numbers (‘‘justice’’, ‘‘freedom’’), scientific expressions (‘‘gravitation’’,
‘‘quantum ergodicity’’) but also inner state terms (‘‘desire’’,
‘‘pity’’), could be grounded in the sensory and motor brain
While the embodiment of object concepts may be intuitive to
systems. Above, it was already described how fairly abstract
some extent, it is less obvious how abstract concepts such as number concepts are embodied in perception and action. In
numbers, which do not have a clear physical referent, are grounded the following, it is shown that embodied theory is also able to
in perception and action. Nevertheless, several lines of evidence account for the representation of other abstract concepts
show that processing number concepts (e.g., knowing that 6 is suggesting that the classically proposed dichotomy between
greater than 4) involves the sensory–motor systems similar to so-called concrete and abstract concepts [37] does not exist:
concrete object concepts. Firstly, accessing number magnitude According to embodied cognition theory, abstract concepts
depends on a mental number line, which resembles visuo-spatial are embedded into concrete situations that express the
representations. At a subjective level, people frequently arrange content of the abstract concept [4,21,22]. These situations,
in turn, can be experienced and ground abstract concepts in
numbers in a spatial layout, for instance, in form of a line with the
perception and action. In addition, abstract concepts such as
lower numbers on the left and the higher numbers on the right [7].
‘‘guilt’’ or ‘‘freedom’’ are typically strongly associated with
Behavioral number comparison experiments (e.g., deciding, which specific emotions and internal states. For instance, the word
digit is larger, 6 or 2) provide objective evidence for the existence of ‘‘guilt’’ may refer to a situation, in which an individual causes
an analog mental number line that has a logarithmic scale similar to an accident, in which a child was seriously injured. Within this
the mental representation of the size or intensity of sensory stimuli context, the concept ‘‘guilt’’ is defined by sensory and action
[34]. Furthermore, neuroimaging studies consistently showed that properties of the accident situation as well as by emotional
the number magnitude is represented in a parietal area (intrapar- states of the accident perpetrator derived from introspection.
ietal sulcus), which is also involved in processing space [34,39]. Like for concrete concepts, embodied cognition theory
Secondly, in addition to visuo-spatial representation, numbers are proposes that exactly this reactivation of sensory, motor
and emotional experiences constitute the meaning of an
grounded in the motor system, particularly in hand actions (see also
abstract concept such as ‘‘guilt’’. If this foundation in
[27]). Most impressively, finger counting systems used in childhood
sensory–motor and emotional experiences is missing, one
to learn numbers still play a role in adults when they process cannot really grasp the meaning of the concept. In line with
numbers: Intercultural studies showed that reaction times in a an embodiment view, there are anecdotic reports that famous
number comparison experiment are strongly influenced by the scientists such as Kekulé, who discovered the ring-shaped
finger counting habits typically used in a given culture [9]. Only in Benzene formula, first had a visual image of a snake that had
German participants with unimanual finger counting habits for seized hold of its own tail in mind before writing down the
numbers up to five and bimanual habits for numbers greater than formula [6]. Furthermore, individuals frequently described
five number comparisons were slower when they involved numbers concrete situations when thinking of the content of abstract
concepts [4]. Recent neuroimaging studies confirmed this
both below and above five, i.e. numbers that require one vs. two
observation and found activation in sensory–motor as well as
hands in the German finger counting system (Fig. 3). In Chinese
in emotional brain regions during the processing of abstract
participants with a unimanual symbolic finger counting system for concepts [38,55]. Despite this supportive evidence, the
these numbers, this effect was absent. In line with developmental grounding of abstract concepts in sensory–motor, emotional
studies demonstrating the importance of finger recognition in and introspective brain circuits has to be further elucidated.
childhood for later arithmetic abilities [35], this study shows that
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