The embodied mind: when biology meets culture and society.

First published October 27, 2015. Palgrave Communications s, DOI: 10.1057/palcomms.2015.15


Ib Bondebjerg

In a recent portrait of and interview with the young, very successful Danish theatre director, Elisa Kragerup, she was asked what triggered her when she decided on which plays to put on stage: ‘Working with theatre is for me a way to engage in what it is to be human. When my passion for something is awoken, it is because I feel it in my body, when it gives me a physical feeling (…). It is a vey physical thing to work with both the higher and the deeper aspects of being human (…)The body is a language, which can be used to tell transformation stories’ (Skotte 2015). It is not often to hear a person working with an art form like the theatre to talk so directly about the body and about emotions when defining creative work. Some theatre or film directors, or some authors might tend to talk about the more rational, abstract and intellectual dimensions of art and creativity. But most creative people know that the body, the emotions, what we feel about something is deeply imbedded in all forms of art and communication. Already the ancient Greek and Roman rhetorical traditions talk about logos, ethos and pathos as part of a successful communication.

Two Cultures revisited

In a way it should not be a controversial thing to point to biology and neurology as a fundamental dimension for research in the humanities and social sciences. It ought to be common sense to connect elements from biology, natural sciences, humanities and social sciences to get a deeper understanding of how our society and culture, our art forms and types of communication are linked to the concept of our embodied mind. However, the split and controversy, already pointed out by C.P. Snow in his original lecture and the book that followed, The Two Cultures (1956/59, republished 2012), between natural sciences and the humanities and social sciences still exist. In the humanities and social sciences there is a strong trend towards contructivist views, and biology and neurology often signal a kind of determinism to people from these fields of research. But it should not come as a surprise to researchers in the humanities and social sciences, that the human mind and body is a result of a very long and slow evolutionary history. After all Darwin was not born yesterday, and Darwinism is a firmly established paradigm for the understanding of how humans develop and the interaction between our biology and the natural and social context work. It is not a deterministic theory, but a theory that teach us to look carefully into both the very fundamental dimensions of how our body and mind functions, and the social, historical and cultural context we live in.

Already C. P. Snow was wondering why it was expected that people in the natural sciences should know the fundamentals of culture and society to be considered educated citizens, whereas humanities and social science people considered some of the most basic aspects of natural science irrelevant. What we see today in the new interdisciplinary embodied mind paradigm, is often that across the split, Snow pointed out, humanities, social sciences and natural sciences collaborate and enter each other’s territory. Researchers with a natural science background, like for instance the Danish neurologist and Oxford professor Morten Kringelbach or the American neurologist Antonio Damasio, enter art studies and philosophy in books like Mind Space. The Emotional Brain (Kringelbach, in Danish 2004) and Self Comes to Mind. Constructing the Conscious Brain (Damasio 2010). From the other side linguistics like American George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson start developing an embodied theory of language and meaning in Metaphors We Life By (1980). Also in film and media studies, literary studies and studies of creativity the embodied mind paradigm is strong, for instance in Mark Turners The Literary Mind (1996), Ed Tan’s Emotion and the Structure of Narrative Film (1996) or the more popular book by Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal. How Stories Make us Human (2012), which combines psychology, sociology, aesthetics and neurology.

Descartes error: the neurological turn

From 1994-1997 I was a member of European Science Foundations Standing Committee for The Humanities. ESF-Humanities has always been very dedicated to the development of interdisciplinary research, not just with the social sciences, but also the various branches of natural sciences. ESF was located in Strasbourg, and in 1995 a strike made the trip back to Copenhagen very long. But I had brought with me Antonio Damasio’s book Descartes’ Error. Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain (1994), simply because I found the title so intriguing, and I had plenty of time to read what for me became a bit of a revelation and led to my own personal neurological turn. What the book does is to use very strong neurological research to raise and give answers to questions that have profound importance for the understanding of humans, culture and society. The fascinating thing about the book is that Damasio can move between biology, neurology, philosophy and psychology. His introduction is also a personal story of things that changed Damasio’s own understanding of things and the fundamentals in the way we generally look upon and evaluate for instance the relation between rationality and emotions:

I had grown up accustomed to thinking that the mechanisms of reason existed in a separate province of the mind, where emotion should not be allowed to intrude, and when I thought of the brain behind that mind, I envisioned separate neural systems for reason and emotion. This was the widely held view of the relation between reason and emotion, in mental and neural terms (Damasio 1994: xii).

What the book argues for, through different case studies of persons with specific forms of brain damage and more general neurological arguments, is that this widely held concept is completely wrong. Feelings, memory and perceptual images play an important role for our reasoning, and because the body and the mind are so connected, feelings and reasoning interact, and feelings play an important role for our minds and for our ability to act in society. As Damasio points out, feelings and emotions are not a luxury, they are in fact as ‘cognitive as other percepts’ (p. xv), and they guide our decision making and reasoning in important ways. So Descartes’ error was that his sentence ‘Cogito ergo sum/I think therefore I am’ created an ‘abyssal separation of body and mind (…) the separation of the most refined operations of the mind from the structure and operation of a biological organism’ (Damasio 1994: 249-250).

This general argument for an embodied mind, for the biological basis of both reason and emotion has been taken further and discussed in many books both with a philosophical agenda and with a more creative and communicative agenda. In one of his later books, Self Comes to Mind. Construction the Conscious Brain (2012), Damasio himself develops a theory of the self based on the embodied mind framework. The self, who we are and what we feel and think as a me, is – according to Damasio (Damasio 2012: 22-23)  – a very complicated process where the self is constituted by three different kinds of self: the ‘protoself’ with the primordial feelings, mainly in the cerebral cortex and brain stem, the ‘core self ‘ or what he calls a ‘material me’ where interactions between the organism and objects take place, and ‘the autobiographical self’ which is our aggregated knowledge and memory of both the past and projections of the future. Finally we have what Damasio calls ‘a knower’, where the core and autobiographical self give our minds a ‘subjectivity’.

Damasio is not a philosopher, but his theories and biological empirical evidence has been taken up and critically discussed by some of our most interesting new philosophers, for instance in Dan Zahavi’s new book Self and Other (2014). Zahavi’s book represents an important interdisciplinary attempt to connect classical phenomenology and philosophy with the new trends in the philosophy of the mind. Such and attempt to expand the embodied mind theory into philosophy and challenge the whole Western tradition for understanding rational and cognitive processes is also strongly represented in George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh. The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought (1999). What the book says is basically: the mind is inherently embodied, thought is mostly unconscious and abstract concepts are largely metaphorical. What the book also argues for, based on cognitive science, is that commonalities and universality, when we talk of human societies and culture, is much more dominant and important than differences. This again doesn’t mean that culture and society are not important, it just means that the social and cultural diversity, or the historical and national differences, we can observe, are built onto our embodied minds, which ensure a strong commonality beneath our variations.

The social mind: new cognitive sociology

Generally speaking the new embodied mind paradigm is not an erosion of the things humanities and social sciences have been researching for years: how cultures communicate and interact, how the creative and artistic dimension of our life, how societies and politics are formed etc. Rather this new cognitive-emotional theory offers a new foundation of cultural and social studies of societies and historical development. Damasio – who is in fact very conscious about the kind of controversy his theory and biological framework can create outside natural sciences – has said this very explicitly:

Naturalizing the conscious mind and planting it firmly in the brain does not diminish the role of culture in the construction of human beings, does not reduce human dignity, and does not mark the end of mystery and puzzlement. Cultures arise and evolve from collective efforts of human brains over many generations, and some cultures even die in the process. They require brains that have already been shaped by prior cultural effects. The significance of cultures to the making of the modern human mind is not in question. Nor is the dignity of that human mind diminished by connecting it to the astonishing complexity and beauty to be found inside living cells and tissues (Damasio 2012: 27).


This strong statement from Damasio is reflected in different forms of cognitive sociology, an already firmly established sub-discipline for instance represented in a text-book like for instance Fiske & Taylor’s Social Cognition (1991 and many later editions). Here social cognitive processes are described through for instance schema theory, the social categories we use in social interaction, in connection with self-understanding and memory, attribution theory, and affects and cognition and their role in the building of attitudes for instance. Although social cognition like this is not directly linked to the new dimensions of the embodied mind framework, and the link to biology and neurology is thinner, there is definitely a shared common ground that can be developed further. This is also the case with other approaches to cognitive sociology, for instance Eviatar Zerubavel’s Social Mindscapes. An Invitation to Cognitive Sociology (1999).

Zerubavel’s book offers what he calls a general outline of a ‘sociology of the mind’, and in the opening chapter he argues that the need for a cognitive sociology really stems from a still very dominant trend in cognitive science to study individual brains and forms of cognition, ‘cognitive individualism’ (Zerubavel 1990: 2). Like Damasio (but without direct reference) he sees the rise of modern cognitive science as coinciding with the decline of the ‘Romantic vision of the individual thinker’ (ibid). In a model of dimensions cognitive sociology (Zerubavel 1999: 20), Zerubavel talks about three fundamental dimensions of cognitive sociology: cognitive individualism, cognitive sociology and cognitive universalism. These dimensions in the one end point to very subjective, personal dimensions of our social cognition and at the other end universal cognitive commonalities that are related to the deep biological dimensions of social cognition, we share as human being, despite our differences. At the centre we then find the more collective, historical, subcultural dimensions of social cognitions, the things that are formed by our being members of ‘thought communities’.

So despite his attack on the romantic notion of the individual and his strong argument for cognitive theories that play down our cognitive individualism and differences and support the cognitive universalism or our cognitive commonality as human beings, Zerubavel focus on the interplay between cognitive universalism and a cognitive sociology focusing on cognitive diversity and differences (Zerubavel 1999: 10-11). So in an almost paradoxical way Zerubavel actually argues that being aware of what is universal and common for all human beings makes it much clearer how we can approach collective processes of cognitive socialization and formation of social though communities, sub-cultures and structures of collective memory or shared cultural experiences. The universality of our embodied mind and foundation for our experiences is not in opposition to the analysis of the cognitive diversity and pluralism we find in modern cultures.

When cognitive sociology and linquistics is used in actual research of contemporary matters, such as it is the case with George Lakoff’s The Political Mind (2008), the reaction can however be quite strong. In his review in New York Times, William Saletan (2008) simply called the book ‘Neuro-Liberalism’, and what happens in this review is basically that Saletan reacts against the biological dimensions as if they from a deterministic framework for Lakoff’s comparative analysis of Republican and Democrat political discourses:

In place of neoliberalism, he offers neuroliberalism. Since voters’ opinions are neither logical nor self-made, they should be altered, not obeyed. Politicians should “not follow polls but use them to see how they can change public opinion to their moral worldview.” And since persuasion is mechanical, progressives should rely less on facts and more on images and drama, “casting progressives as heroes, and by implication, conservatives as villains.” The key is to “say things not once, but over and over. Brains change when ideas are repeatedly activated (Saletan, NYT, 2008)

But what Lakoff is trying to analyse are different political discourses and how they relate to the way our brain basically works through links between emotion and reason, through metaphor, narrative and dramatic oppositions. He is in a way just continuing the work done by rhetorical research for centuries on which speeches have had an impact and which not, and why that is. Abstract facts and arguments are not enough in themselves, something that is not deterministic, but based on solid neurological research, and which is not in opposition to demands for truth, facts and reason.

Moving Images, Culture and the Mind

The study of moving images, of film, television and recently also internet and social media have gone through some of the same theoretical main trends as other areas of humanities and social sciences: strong aesthetic, cultural paradigms have existed alongside more sociological approaches. But around 1985 cognitive theory developed rapidly in film and media studies. David Bordwell’s book Narration in the Fiction Film (1985) became an influential starting point for theories of genres and narrative structures in film and other media that combined both formalist, structural analysis and cognitive and psychological ways of describing film comprehension. By defining and describing very fundamental and universal forms of film narration (for instance classical narration and art cinema narration) he went against a tendency to see genres primarily as historically and culturally constructed. The viewer here emerged not primarily as a socially and culturally constructed viewer, but as a viewer constituted by the fundamental dimensions of cognitive and emotional involvement in film and narrative structures.

This attempt to establish very fundamental, universal genres and modes of reception in film is  further developed in Torben Kragh Grodal’s two books Moving Pictures. A new Theory of Film, Genres, Feelings and Cognition (1997) and Embodied Visions. Evolution. Emotion, Culture and Film (2009). Grodal defines a new typology of basic genres based on the viewer’s active–passive relation with the film, the kind of distanciation or identification involved, and the typical moods and emotional responses activated during viewing: associative lyricism, canonical narratives of action, obsessional paratelic fictions, melodramas, horror, schizoid fictions, comedy, and metafiction. Behind these basic forms we then find a number of more concrete, historical subgenres. The basic assumption of the book is that genres of visual fiction are mental structures that to a large degree are modeled on the basis of a simulated reality of actions and emotions to which we react with much the same experiences and capacities as in real-life experiences. The book thus argues that many of the fundamental structures of film experience are based on embodied emotional and cognitive patterns that interact with the concrete social and historical context of audiences.

In his first book, Grodal describes both the typical embodied flow, during the experience of visual fiction with reference to cognitive-emotional psychology, and the reason for the strength and popularity of the prototypical genres of visual fiction and their relation to different mental and emotional activities and experiences. Grodal’s book is not strongly oriented toward the cultural and historical aspects of moving images. However there is no essential opposition between a cultural, historical, and stylistic approach to visual fictions and Grodal’s position, as long as one realises that certain aspects of the experience and processing of moving images cannot be described as culturally constructed in any short-term sense. In the introduction to his second book Grodal makes the same statements about why the embodied mind theory represents a major shift in humanities and social sciences as those researchers already cited. He refers to Damasio’s statement that film is actually a good illustration of how consciousness functions, because the filmic experience in many ways simulate the real world experience, and because the film experience illustrate that levels of a bodily and biopsychological nature far below language and consciousness are activated (Grodal 2009: 13).

So when traditional film scholars – or language and literature scholars – only see a culturally and historically constructed language, they miss the dialectic between mind, body and society. Both social theory and constructivism tend to see the mind as a blank slate from birth on which culture and society makes their imprints (see Barkow et. al. 1992). But as the embodied mind theory has shown through both experimental, clinical research and empirical sociological research this is out of touch with the fundamental dynamic between biology, sociology and culture. Humans come with a very strong biological framework that is universal by nature and interacts with society and culture in much more complex ways. In film research this problem has been studied theoretically and experimentally by Ed Tan in Emotion and the Structure of Narrative Film (1996) – the subtitle ‘Film as an Emotion Machine,’ indicates what it is about. He is not trying to deal with all aspects of film experience and cultural and social aspects of cinema, he is trying to focus on how viewers emotionally involve with classical narrative films and how those emotions are created between screen and viewers both bodily and mentally.

This is also very much the agenda for Carl Plantigas’s Moving Viewers. American Film and the Spectator’s Experience (2009). He criticises the main trend in cultural studies and aesthetic theories of cinema and media and the way in which they primarily look for hidden meanings and tend to look for abstract propositions, messages and themes. He furthermore criticise the dominant forms of empirical audience research for not dealing with emotions. He sees the cultural studies paradigm as a result deep down of the same dichotomy between biology and culture, between reason and emotion that for decades have haunted Western thought and lead to a misunderstanding of emotions as counterproductive for logical and critical thought (Plantinga 2009: 4).

Towards a new inter-displinary agenda: biology, culture and society

We are biological creatures just as much as we are cultural and social creatures. We are born with a brain and a body before we are even defined as individuals and citizens in a specific society, we are universal in the making, before we get a specific language and are formed by the circumstances and times we live in. Modern theory of cognition and emotion point to the fact that we have much the same emotions although different societies and social circumstances can teach us how to control or show them. We have always from the dawn of man developed language, told stories, drawn pictures in ways that have strong universal elements, but also show abilities to great diversity and historical variation. But there seems to be strong universal patterns beneath the way these creative and communicative formats are developed.

Unlike what traditional cultural studies and sociology tend to infer, biology and evolution show that we are not born like a blank slate, and constructed from scratch as cultural and social beings. Our body, biology, brain and neural system play a very crucial role for how we are formed, and although there is not ultimate determination in biology, culture and society certainly interacts in very specific ways. We are not just individuals created by our own history and development, we are not just social and group determined individuals, we are in fact also individuals with a strong evolutionary ballast of biological nature and with universal dimensions. Emotions are not just a by-product of evolution, only there to be controlled or suppressed, fiction and narratives are not just entertainment to be avoided by rational thought, they are actually very basic and universal structures through which we understand and make sense of the world. Reason, logic, facts etc. are just as necessary, but they exist as part of the same biological make up of all human beings, and they are historically just as important for our cultural and social life.

Interdisciplinary collaboration and dialogues across disciplines are more than ever important for the understanding of humans in culture and society, and biology is an integrated dimension in that understanding. Biology and neurology have made major advances in knowledge of the human body and brain over the last five decades. Technologies to study the living brain are beginning to appear, and this development makes it possible in the future to study art and communication from new angles with the emotional and thinking parts of our experience in focus. Research in film and media studies, but also in social media and networking, in game studies, memory studies and in the creative arts have strong potentials in such and interdisciplinary project.


Barkow, Jerome et. al. (1992). The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

Bondebjerg, Ib (2000). Moving Images, Culture and the Mind. University of Luton Press.

Bordwell, David (1985). Narration in the Fiction Film. Mdison-Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Damasio, Antonio (1994). Descartes’ Error. Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain. New York: Avon Books.

Damasio, Antonio (2012). Self Comes to Mind. Construction the Conscious Brain. New York: Vintage Books

Fiske, S. T & Taylor. S.E. (1991). Social Cognition.New York: McGraw Hill

Grodal, T. K. (1997). Moving Pictures. A new Theory of Film, Genres, Feelings and Cognition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Grodal, T. K. (2009). Embodied Visions. Evolution. Emotion, Culture and Film. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gottschall, J (2012). The Storytelling Animal. How Stories Make us Human. New York: Mariner Books Kringelbach, M. (2004). Hjernerum. Den følelsesfiulde hjerne/Mind Space. The Emotional Brain. Copenhagen: People’s Press.

Lakoff, George & Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Life By (1980). Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the Flesh. The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books.

Plantiga, Carl (2009). Moving Viewers. American Film and the Spectator’s Experience.

Saletan (2008). ‘Neuro-Liberalism’. In New York Times, June 22.

Skotte, Kim (2015). ‘Vi lyver for at få sandheden frem. Interview med Elisa Kragerup/We lie to reach the truth. Interview with Elisa Kragerup. Politiken, March 9, 2015.

Snow, C.P (1956/59, 2012). The Two Cultures.  Cambridge-New York: Cambridge University Press.

Tan, E. (2011). Emotion and the Structure of Narrative film

Turner, M. (1996). The Literary Mind.The Origins of Thought and Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Zahavi, Dan (2014). Self and Other. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Zerubavel, Eviatar (1999). Social Mindscapes. An Invitation to Cognitive Sociology. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press.

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