Embodied Situated Cognition / The Cognitive Iceberg

My cognitive iceberg diagram schematically represents the complex processes of embodied situated cognition. It is inevitably an oversimplification and presents the local environment and physical body as more separate than enactivism would suggest.

The Cognitive Iceberg

I explain my enactive process model in detail below, but in summary, the whole 'iceberg' triangle represents the physical body, while the area below the wavy line represents the "cognitive unconscious" (Lakoff and Johnson, 1999: 10). The physical body is engaged in a dynamic relationship with the local environment through extended cognition, but as 95 percent of embodied thought occurs below our consciousness (Thrift, 2000: 36), most of this processing never reaches everyday awareness, which is at the iceberg's tip.

At the top of the triangle – the tip of the proverbial iceberg – is everyday conscious awareness, which as we have heard, is a very small percentage of who we are. Consciousness is simply what we are aware of, the minimal aspects of a complex process, but because we identify our 'self' with consciousness we tend to discount the deep body 'self' that actually governs much of our behaviour. This top level of awareness is quite narrowly focused and tends to heighten our impression of a subject/object distinction. The dotted area just below the apex designates 'gut feelings' or felt senses.

Further down the triangle awareness widens out into what I call the deep body, becoming less focused and blurring the distinction between self and other, shown in the graphic by the gaps appearing in the sides of the triangle. A distinct boundary marks off the cognitive unconscious because it's normally inaccessible to intentional influence or conscious awareness. However, this boundary is indistict, because under certain circumstances - in ritual for example (Asad, 1993: 131) - the deep body can access and influence at least some of what lies below the line.

Enactive process model

My enactive process model (illustrated by the cognitive iceberg diagram) is a synthesis of several theoretical approaches. Some theories emphasize how cognition involves the individual body, and focus on stance, movement and gesture (see, inter alia, Bourdieu, Mauss). These approachs typically suggests that cognition relies on cultural and embodied metaphors (Bourdieu, 1984: 172-3; Lakoff and Johnson, 1999). Several theorists conclude that as we are always and already engaged in the world, embodied situated cognition involves the immediate environment. Such cognitive extension may involve people, physical objects, light levels, sounds, the ordering of space, and the other-than-human world as tools to think with (see, inter alia, Abram, Bateson, Gendlin, Ingold, Varela et al.).

Both the gestural/metaphorical and the cognitive extension models emphasize different aspects of the complex processes of embodied situated cognition/knowing and are not mutually exclusive, as complex feedback loops operate between the elements/sub-systems described by each approach. Cognitive science estimates that only 5% of thought is conscious (Lakoff and Johnson, 1999: 13), so most of these processes occur in what Lakoff and Johnson call the "cognitive unconscious" (Lakoff and Johnson, 1999: 9-15).

Although Lakoff and Johnson’s embodied metaphors are rooted within the skin enclosed body (Lakoff and Johnson, 1999), cognitive extension can explain how we use aspects of our environment as scaffolding metaphors. Bourdieu suggests as much in his analysis of the use of practical metaphors in the spatial layout of the Kabyle house (Bourdieu, 1990: 93), while Thrift concluded that practical knowledge "tends to be based upon organic analogy or metaphor[s]" which "are usually based upon proximity" (Thrift, 1996: 102). To illustrate the point, Thrift quotes from Jackson’s ethnography of the Kuranko of Sierra Leone, who "use the word kile (‘path’ or ‘road’) as a metaphor for social relationship" (Jackson, 1982: 16). The metaphor source is the way a local species of grass "bends back one way as you go along a path through it, and then bends back the other way as you return along the path" and the changing direction of the grass has become a metaphor for reciprocity:

Thus, in Kuranko one often explains the reason for giving a gift, especially to an in-law, with the phrase kile ka na faga, ‘so that the path does not die’. However, if relations between affines or neighbours are strained, it is often said that ‘the path is not good between them’ … (Jackson, 1982: 16).

Abram's ethnography provides similar examples (Abram, 1996), while his suggestion that a boulder might lend our "thoughts a certain gravity, and a kind of stony wisdom" (Abram, 2004) neatly illustrates Finch’s conclusion that the organic environment can provide "an external template for internal emotions, a way of recognizing, giving shape to, an inner process". Finch suggests "that the physical natural world might in fact be the source of our emotional, psychological, and even spiritual lives" (Finch, 2004: 44). Examples of this process abound in Eco-Pagan practice, where metaphors are grounded in "the earth and the seasonal cycles of the natural world" (Salomonsen, 2002: 14).

How we understand our world influences our notion of self, and to the extent that we use environmental scaffolding metaphors, they will help to construct our being-in-the-world. Thus, if we predominantly draw on the metaphors of a restricted environment to scaffold our cognition, we may invite an impoverished existence. But our thought is not simply steered by cognitive extension using artifacts or environment: Because complex cognitive processes exist in a reciprocal relationship with simpler sub-systems, what we consciously think impacts on those primary processes (Varela, 1999: 76).