Not just a floating brain: Action and Cognition Lab studies human body’s impact on visual perception

brain-blue-patternsThis is an excellent article – and it really helps explain certain mysteries of post-concussion issues. I’m thinking and writing a fair amount about this, these days, tying in “embodied cognition” with the neurofunctional pieces.

Essentially, embodied cognition approaches our cognition as a result of a combination of influences — from inside and outside the brain. There are a number of different “definitions” and approaches, but the one that makes the most sense to me actually replaces the brain-only / mind-only definition of cognition.

I believe that our brain and biology both affects things, and so does our environment. We’re in constant interaction with the world around us, and that interaction is at the heart of our cognitive process. We’re more than brains floating around inside skulls, making up images and meanings and metaphors about our world and where we fit, then acting accordingly. The world around us, in fact, plays a central role in our cognitive process.

It’s fascinating stuff. Take a look:

Not just a floating brain: Action and Cognition Lab studies human body’s impact on visual perception

FARGO — Humans are not just a pair of eyes and a brain floating around.

The idea that humans are active beings with bodies that interact with the environment is at the core of the study of embodied cognition: what a person sees and perceives in the world around them as influenced by aspects of the body beyond the brain. The parts of the brain a person uses to perceive the world are also the same parts of the brain they use to think.

“We’re acting beings who have these bodies that allow us to do things in our environment,” said Laura Thomas, an assistant professor of psychology at North Dakota State University. “The idea is what I’m ready to do with the environment is going to have this interaction with the information that I’m biased to perceive.”

The NDSU Action and Cognition Lab, headed by Thomas, studies the impacts a person’s physical, social and kinetic interactions with the world have on the way the brain processes information. Studies in the lab have found that factors as minor as how a person holds their hands affects their ability to perceive movement or fine spatial details.

“Just being ready to catch a ball or thread a needle will create this subtle bias in terms of what my brain is going to emphasize when I take in that information,” Thomas said.

The lab’s primary study looks at how a person perceives visual information near their hands based on what they are doing with their hands.

Researchers have subjects put their hands in a “power grasp,” with their fists closed as though they are ready to swing a hammer, and perform a task on a computer display. They then have them do the same task with their hands held in a “precision grasp,” as though they are about to tie their shoes or thread a needle, and compare their performance against the same activity done with their hands in their lap.

“We’ve found that if people are holding their hands up on a computer display (in a power grasp), they’re more sensitive to changes in motion information — information that changes quickly over time,” Thomas said. “That’s the kind of visual information that is most useful to me if I’m doing something like trying to catch a ball or swing a hammer.”

“If your hands are positioned (in a precision grasp), you are more likely to respond to visual information that is related to fine spatial details. Little differences between the positions of dots on the screen are going to be easier for you to notice.”

More studies

The other two areas of study in the lab test how social interactions affect what a person sees and the effect of physical motion on thought processes.

The social interaction study tests how people perceive a person’s face if they compete with them versus if they work together on a team.

“We found that if you’re playing against another person — if you’re competing — you remember that person’s face as being more aggressive looking,” Thomas said. “This idea of facial aggression is measured basically by — if you think about a triangle where you’ve got your eyes and your mouth — a triangle that is more scrunched up is more aggressive.”

The study on the impact of physical motion on thought tasks subjects with solving a difficult spatial reasoning problem. The solution to the problem involves swinging a string like a pendulum. The study has found that if they ask subjects to swing their arms back and forth, without telling them it has anything to do with the problem, they are much more likely to solve the problem.

“Movements of the body can serve as primes or triggers to particular types of thought,” Thomas said.

The lab also provides opportunities for undergraduate students to conduct studies. Junior psychology major Hallie Anderson is about to begin a study on the impact handshakes have on business interactions. They are bringing in a grip testing machine to see whether a firm handshake actually yields superior economic results.

“The popular hypothesis would say that the firmness of the handshake would play a factor into who would receive more money in an economic game,” Anderson said. “But I almost think personality will play a factor as well. We’ll see if the handshake itself is making that difference.”

Author: brokenbrilliant

I am a long-term multiple (mild) Traumatic Brain Injury (mTBI or TBI) survivor who experienced assaults, falls, car accidents, sports-related injuries in the 1960s, '70s, '80s, and '90s. My last mild TBI was in 2004, but it was definitely the worst of the lot. I never received medical treatment for my injuries, some of which were sports injuries (and you have to get back in the game!), but I have been living very successfully with cognitive/behavioral (social, emotional, functional) symptoms and complications since I was a young kid. I’ve done it so well, in fact, that virtually nobody knows that I sustained those injuries… and the folks who do know, haven’t fully realized just how it’s impacted my life. It has impacted my life, however. In serious and debilitating ways. I’m coming out from behind the shields I’ve put up, in hopes of successfully addressing my own (invisible) challenges and helping others to see that sustaining a TBI is not the end of the world, and they can, in fact, live happy, fulfilled, productive lives in spite of it all.

3 thoughts on “Not just a floating brain: Action and Cognition Lab studies human body’s impact on visual perception”

  1. Not related to this post per se – but this sheds some light on why certain terms are used…this is from the US Dept of Veteran Affairs….

    Although the majority of individuals who sustain mTBI recover completely [24], some may develop chronic neuropsychological problems and functional disability and require intervention [8,33]. During intervention for cognitive-communication symptoms, it is important to emphasize expectancy of recovery by providing education regarding positive outcomes in mTBI, highlighting skills and abilities shown by the person with mTBI, and engaging in risk communication whereby the language used in delivering treatment creates the expectation for recovery (e.g., avoiding terms such as brain damage, impairment, and postconcussion syndrome in favor of concussion, difficulties, and PCSs). A meta-analysis of educationally oriented treatments designed to facilitate positive expectation of recovery found this methodology to be effective in reducing the long-term complaints of people with mTBI [34].


  2. Absolutely. A number of studies over the years have indicated that this sort of approach is prophylactic against PCS.

    See: PONSFORD, J., WILLMOTT, C., ROTHWELL, A. et al.: Impact of early intervention on outcome following mild head injury in adults. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, 73: 330–332, 2002.
    MITTENBERG, W. and BURTON, D. B.: A survey of treatments for postconcussional syndrome. Brain Injury, 8: 429–437, 1994.
    ALVES, W., MACCIOCCHI, S. W. and BARTH, J. T.: Postconcussive symptoms after uncomplicated MHI. Journal of Head Trauma Rehabilitation, 8: 48–59, 1993.
    KELLY, R.: The postraumatic syndrome: an iatrogenic disease. Forensic Science, 6: 17–24, 1975.
    MINDERHOUD, J., BOELENS, M. E., HUIZENGA, J. et al.: Treatment of minor head injuries. Clinical Neurology and Neurosurgery, 182: 127–140, 1980.
    GRONWALL, P.: Rehabilitation programs for patients with mild head injury. Components, problems and evaluation. Journal of Head Trauma Rehabilitation, 1: 53–62, 1986.

    Communicating useful information, setting positive expectations, and giving people the tools to understand their issues, actually helps people be less symptomatic over time. I think the effect is two-fold. First, it soothes the initial stress and trepidation, and it gives the individual the ability to conceptualize and constructively handle their recovery. Just knowing what causes the fog and fuzziness after concussion — and knowing that the brain normally restores its metabolic function within a couple of weeks — can make a huge difference. I’m glad to see the VA is getting it and passing along that info.

    Any chance you can shoot me the link for that info?



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