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.”

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Time for something different…

Different worlds in different minds

It’s pretty amazing when I look around me, these days. On one hand, I know people who are intently focused on the terrible things that are happening in the world. On the other hand, I have friends who flatly refuse to engage in any kind of discussion unless it’s positive and uplifting. I know people who are actively protesting against things going on in the world, and I know people who are fighting with all their might to hang onto the way things are and have “always” been.

To look at each of these groups of people, you’d think the world was in a completely different state — that they’re living in a bunch of entirely different and separate planets.

Yet, we’re all here. That’s the one thing they all have in common. Oh, one other thing – they are all pretty much convinced that their way is the ONLY way to look at things.

Personally, I could use a change. These different worlds certainly exist, but they’re not the only worlds that are available to us. And we’re free to shift in and out of our perceptions at will.

We can literally make (and re-make the world in any way we choose).

So, that’s where I’m taking myself today… and tomorrow, too. All this stuff going on at work… what-ever. All the stuff going on in the world… there’s something more to it than meets the eye, and who am I to judge, really. Certainly, I don’t want to stand by while people suffer needlessly, but I also need to be smart about how thin I spread myself, and see where I can make a real difference, and where I’d just be pissing in the wind.

The places where I can make a difference, are in my personal relationships with people, my personal relationships with myself. Doing no intentional harm to others, and being considerate to others, even when they are inconsiderate to me.

Giving people the benefit of the doubt. Approaching people with generosity and compassion, even when they really do seem to be assholes and either not know or give a damn about how they are behaving in the world.

If I stay stuck in my resentments and accusatory nature, if I take up permanent residence surrounded by my criticisms and issues, then whom does that help? My own version of how things are may be very different indeed from the fact of the matter, so it’s best I take my own rantings with a grain of salt. And not get too worked up over them. Tempests in teacups never got anyone anywhere.

Yeah, it’s time for something different. Something better. What can I do today that will get me into a better space and help me live my life, instead of fight it all the way?

Hmmm… let’s see…