Human Nature & Embodied Cognition:

Perspectives from Science & the World’s Religions

ISSR has undertaken a research project on ‘Human Nature and Embodied Cognition: Perspectives from Science and the World’s Religions’, with a grant from the John Templeton Foundation which is gratefully acknowledged. The project began on 1st April 2011, with Dr Fraser Watts as PI, and Dr Léon Turner as Senior Research Associate, employed through a sub-grant to the University of Cambridge. Dr Daniel Weiss of the Divinity Faculty in Cambridge, and Prof Mark Williams of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre have made major contributions to the project. We are also grateful for help and collaboration from James W Jones and John Teske.

The embodied, embedded context of cognition has been an exciting scientific and philosophical growth area. This project has probed its implications for religious life and thought. A central focus has been the implications for theology of the human person, where there is a fruitful synergy between scientific work on embodied cognition and religious thought. Because work on embodied cognition emphasises that cognition is dependent on physical and social context, it challenges the greedy reductionism that has been one of the strongest challenges to religious values.

We have taken a multi-faith approach, noting that Buddhism was the first faith tradition to be brought into dialogue with embodied cognition. Other traditions like Judaism and Christianity can learn from that, and Buddhist work on embodied cognition can in turn benefit from work with other faiths. Judaism had previously had no explicit dialogue with embodied cognition but, as we expected, the implicit assumptions of Judaism were found to accord well with current work on embodied cognition, and we have got the dialogue between Judaism and embodied cognition started, led by an able and respected young scholar in Jewish Studies who would not have done this work if he had not been drawn into it by the project.

It is with Christian thought that we have made our main research contribution. Christianity has seen a wide range of approaches to the human person and, in recent centuries, has been more influenced by philosophical dualism than any other tradition. We have been able to argue that embodied cognition provides a path between the dualism that has often been a feature of Christian thought and the physicalist reductionism that has often been a feature of the sciences. However, we have been able to go beyond that and argue that embodied cognition provides a remedy for the abstract individualism that tends to see people as isolated atoms in society, and that we should rather see them as embedded in social relations. Christian thinkers have often claimed that persons are constituted by their social relations, and embodied cognition provides a powerful way of arguing that case.

Though our primary focus has been on religious thought, we have also undertaken work on religious practices from an embodied cognition perspective, taking a multi-faith approach, arguing that religious practices provide a rich context in which to study embodied cognition on action.

Our main outputs are an ISSR conference on embodied cognition in Loccum September 2012, and a set of journal articles arising from that, published in Zygon in September 2013. We have also submitted for publication a book on embodied cognition and the human person, I Am Who I Am, and a journal article on embodied cognition and religious practices. A full list of abstracts from the conference, and publications arising from the project is appended.


Enquiries related to the project can be sent to Dr Fraser Watts:

Publications from the Project

Journal Articles Arising from the 2012 Conference

Brown, Warren. S. & Reimer, Kevin S. “Embodied cognition, character formation, and virtue”, Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, vol. 48, no. 3 (September), 832-845.

Gosling, D. A. (2013) “Embodiment and rebirth in the Buddhist and Hindu traditions.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, vol. 48, no. 4, (December), 908-915.

Teske, John A. (2013) “From embodied to extended cognition”, Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, vol. 48, no. 3 (September), 759-787.

Turner, Léon (2013) “Individuality in theological anthropology and theories of embodied cognition”, vol. 48, no. 3 (September). 808-831.

Watts, Fraser (2013) “Embodied cognition and religion”, vol. 48, no. 3 (September), 745-758.

Weiss, Daniel H. (2013) “Embodied cognition in classical Rabbinic literature.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, vol. 48, no. 3 (September), 788-807.

Review Article Arising from the Project

Williams, J. Mark G., Gjelsvik, Bergljot, & Lovric, Darko (in press) “Embodied cognition and emotional disorders.”. Psychopathology Review.

Journalistic Pieces

Vernon, Mark (2012) “Goethe and the search for the spirit of science.” Guardian. 28th April 2012.

Vernon, Mark (2013) “Thinking requires body as well as brain.” Church Times. 1st February 2013.

Vernon, Mark (2013) The heart has its reasons – and its emotions too.” Church Times. 8th March 2013.

Monographs Under Review

Turner, Léon (2016) I Am Who I Am.

Watts, Fraser (2016) Embodied Spirituality: Psychology, Religion and the Body.

Article Under Review

Watts, Fraser “Religious practices: An embodied cognition perspective.”

Abstracts from the Conference

Fraser Watts

Embodiment and Cognition: An Introduction

Most faith traditions make assumptions about the relationship between mind and body. The current ISSR research project on embodied cognition has studied three: (b) Judaism which, as many have commented, seems to assume a psychosomatic unity, though it is not very explicit about it, (b) Christianity, which has taken a variety of positions though, in the twentieth century, tried to extricate itself from a close identification with dualism, (c) Buddhism, which has probably always assumed that mind operates in the context of embodiment, and has recently been increasingly explicit in those assumptions. The research project looks to recent philosophical and scientific work on embodied cognition as a useful resource for the faith traditions, one on which Buddhism has already been drawing. It is a resource that supplements helpful work that has already been done on non-reductive physicalism and emergentism, and emphasizes the extent to which all human thinking is shaped by the humans being embodied.

John A. Teske

Neuroscientific Background to Embodied Cognition

Embodied cognition holds that cognitive processes are deeply and inescapably rooted in our bodily interactions with the world. Our finite, contingent, and mortal embodiment may be not only supportive, but in some cases even constitutive of emotions, thoughts, and experiences. Our discussion here will work outward from the neuroanatomy and neurophysiology of the brain to a nervous system which extends to the boundaries of the body. It will extend to non-neural aspects of embodiment and even beyond the boundaries of the body to prosthetics of various kinds, including symbioses with a broad array of cultural artifacts, our symbolic niche and our relationships with other embodied human beings. The body plays a central role in shaping the mind even as it requires the latter’s control systems to move and act in a real world. “Thought is action in rehearsal.” While cognition may not always be situated, its origins are embedded in temporally and spatially limited activities. Cognitive work may then be off-loaded both to the body and to the environment in service of action, tool use, group cognition, and social coordination. This may blur the boundaries between brain areas, brain and body, and body and environment. Cognition is assembled from neural, bodily and environmental components, including our social relationships. Cognitive dynamics are dominated by interaction. In exploring these extensions we will sample empirical research on mimicry and the programming of action, the cognitive role of gesture and movement, the development of affect and emotion and their bodily constituents, the role of somatic marking in experience and evaluation, the affective roots of cognition. The levels of complexity range from neural to social dynamics, from moments to life-spans, from motion to morality, and from action to narrative.

Léon Turner

Embodied Cognition and the Concept of Personhood in Theology and Science

In this paper, I will explore some of the implications of theories of embodied cognition for the conceptualisation of individual personhood at the interface between science and Christian theological anthropology. Addressing a perennial theme of the dialogue between science and religion, theorists of all kinds have sought to set the contemporary natural and social sciences in conversation with various theological portraits of the person. Although there is broad consensus about the importance of certain questions, these dialogues have generated a number of different, frequently problematic, and sometimes overtly contradictory accounts of the individual person. Given the diversity and occasionally contradictory nature of the contributing disciplines themselves, this is unsurprising. Recently, however, theories of embodied cognition have encouraged new holistic and dynamic concepts of the mind, which offer new promise for interdisciplinary dialogue about what individual persons are and how they come to experience themselves as singular, continuous embodied beings. Although many aspects of these theories remain controversial, the notion that cognitive processes are embodied, embedded, enacted and extended resonates with several key principles of much contemporary Christian theological anthropology. Of particular importance, I suggest, is the way these theories place questions about the historical development of particular individuals in particular environments at the heart of our understanding of what persons are. The resulting concept of personhood, I will argue, is more inclusive than that presented by either cognitivism or constructionism, and, since it holds various crucial dimensions of human being in tension, should strongly appeal to those Christian theological anthropologies that emphasise the constitutive nature of relations between individual persons, God and the rest of creation.

Warren S. Brown

Embodied Cognition, Character Formation, and Virtue

The theory of embodied cognition asserts that all mental life is rooted in memories of action-relevant (sensorimotor) experiences. The implication of this theory is that human character and virtue are the residuals of prior sensorimotor experiences present to the person in the form of predominant action tendencies (something like habits). In a similar vein, views of the development of human capacities garnered from the theory of complex dynamical systems suggests that most of the important higher-level cognitive and social properties of persons (such as virtue and character) result from processes of self-organization (and reorganization) with respect to ongoing interactions with the physical and social environment. Again, virtue and character would be the outgrowth of an interactional social history and manifest in habitual interaction (behavioral) tendencies. This paper explores the embodied neurocognitive nature of some important psychological and social processes in human formation. While these processes operate in all human social life, and most particularly in child development, they would lead, in the best cases, to character that might be described as virtuous. The particular formative influences that will be explored are imitation, language, narrative, empathy, and attachment. The role of these processes in religious formation will also be discussed.

John Pickering

Embodied Cognition and Buddhism

The move to embodiment in cognitive science reflects a shift towards process metaphysics where quality and and relation are taken as primordial aspects of the cosmos. While abstraction and reduction are both accepted as productive epistemological gambits and as effective means towards instrumental ends, they are not mistaken for ways to disclose natural kinds. Process metaphysics is fundamentally organic and harks back to presocratics like Heraclitus and more recent philosophers like Whitehead, Bergson and Peirce.

A spiritual worldview plays many roles in the human condition. It can provide a cosmogeny, a way of coping with existential angst, a guide to making ethical and moral choices and a soteriological and eschatological framework around human life. The cultural dynamics of modernism have meant that many of these roles have been thrust upon science. As a result science has perforce come to be treated as if it is a religion. But this is not a role it can perform, at least, not by virtue of either its methods or its discoveries. Now however, the radical pluralism and critical hermeneutics of postmodernity promote a productive alliance between science and Eastern spiritual traditions. The sucess of this alliance requires that science’s limitations are properly understood, and Eastern traditions are not distorted.

With Buddhism, distortion is easier to avoid, since the tradition itself is intrinsically fallibilist and has from its inception been under continual development. It is no surprise to find that it has played a significant role in the emergence of embodied cognition.

This paper will sketch the history of the move to embodiment and will reflect on possible developments. It will broadening the discussion to touch on contemporary geopolitics where overconsumption by the the rich is stealing resources from the poor and the unborn.

Daniel Weiss

Embodied Cognition in Judaism

Recent research in cognitive science has given rise to the increased prominence of theories of embodied cognition, which argue that the human mind and its functions should be understood as intimately bound up with the human body and its physiological dimensions. Such theories challenge earlier cognitivist approaches, which tended to approach questions of mind and body within a more dualistic framework. Notably, scholars have maintained that new theories of embodied cognition, while departing from some core assumptions in the Western philosophical tradition, have significant similarities to certain non-Western traditions of thought, such as Buddhism (see, e.g. Varela, Thomson, and Rosch, The Embodied Mind, 1991). Such research sets the stage for exploring the possibility of parallels to embodied cognition in other religious traditions as well. In this paper, I examine the Jewish tradition and argue that, in particular, classical rabbinic thought presents a profoundly nondualistic conception of the body-soul relation. This conception permeates its accounts of the relation between thought and action, of the role of will in shaping the individual’s encounter with reality, of the relation between death and embodiment, and of the significance of learning and habituation in relation to judgment and cognition. As such, the texts of classical rabbinic Judaism can provide important resources for contemporary research as an example of a tradition that engages with ‘Western’ conceptions such as God, the soul, and revelation, yet does so in a manner that resonates strongly with many aspects of contemporary scientific research into mind, habituation and embodiment. As such, beyond their value as historical documents, insight into the texts and concepts of classical rabbinic Judaism can contribute to the further development of new theories of intellect and cognition.

Ann Milliken Pederson

A Christian Theology of Embodiment and the Imago Dei: Techno-sapiens in Techno-nature

It is no surprise to Christians that the center of the Incarnation is the person of Jesus Christ. But it might be a stretch for some Christians to imagine that the promise that God has become flesh is not only in a person, but also in a place—in the creation. For Christian theology, the imago dei is the doctrine that explains the relationship of humans to God and this doctrine has been used almost exclusively to reveal that humans alone are created in the image of God. What we are learning from the sciences about what it means to be human and from contemporary biblical and theological work challenges this narrow reading of the imago dei. Christians need to expand what it means to be created in the image of God to include not only human bodyselves, but also to include the entire created order. I will utilize the work of theologians Philip Hefner, Joseph Sittler, Anna Case Winters, and Gregory Peterson to help support this expanded notion of imago dei.
If we look into this image of God that includes not only humans, but also begins with and is grounded in nature, then we must ask ourselves, what are the images of nature in which we see God’s reflection and our reflection? Technology needs to be brought into the picture. We need to discard the static picture of nature which tends to separate humans from technology, nature from humans, and instead look at the image of who we are as techno-sapiens within techno-nature. This requires a more dynamic picture of the imago dei. This does not mean that we are less or more human, but that our human being and becoming is intertwined with and inseparable from the technologies we use.

Noreen Herzfeld

Embodied vs. Outsourced Memory and Conversatio Morum

Recent studies in neuroscience show that, contrary to popular opinion, memories are not static records—snapshots of the past filed away in the brain—but webs of neural activity that change over time (Schacter). We reconstruct a narrative of the past from both stored information and present experience; similarly, our experience of the present is deeply influenced by implicit memories of the past. This feedback loop of past and present allows our memories, both on an individual and a social level, to evolve over time, to be converted in ways that aid our mental stability and happiness (Westbury and Dennet).

Today, however, we outsource more and more aspects of memory to computers. Rather than memorize facts we google them. Facebook and Twitter are on-line repositories of thoughts and experiences. Search engines and advertisers collect our every click. We rely on our technology to remember for us. However, outsourced memory differs from embodied memory—it rests on a Cartesian philosophical foundation that presumes the formation of the self through memories that are static, eternal, and separable from an embodied context.

In conversatio morum, one of three vows taken by candidates to the Benedictine order, St. Benedict provides a critique of these assumptions. Conversatio morum, literally translated “conversion of life,” obligates the monk to continual change and continual forgiveness as part of communal living. Conversatio emphasizes first and foremost the performative nature of the self. The vow is to a way of life, not a belief system. One does not memorize a creed, one lives a life, allowing the accrual of habit to form the self. This dynamic of constant change makes room for forgetting and forgiveness in a way outsourced memory cannot. It also provides an antidote to the narcissism implicit in the objectification of the self inherent in outsourced memories.

Nancey Murphy

Embodied Cognition and Religious Experience

Augustine describes in his Confessions how in pursuit of God he first moves inward to his soul. He ascends to “the fields and vast palaces of memory,” and from this location is able to look up to encounter God. This metaphorical complex of entering into one’s soul to find God has influenced the whole of Western spirituality. Through Descartes the peculiar notion that I, the true self, am somehow inside my own mind or soul came to dominate philosophical concerns, throughout the modern era, about knowledge of reality. With Friedrich Schleiermacher we have a continuation of an inward spirituality but now complicated by Cartesian and Kantian epistemology. In my lecture I shall spell out this history in more detail, and then focus on the negative consequences for theology, for apologetics, and church life. I end with a sketch of the many values of an embodied conception of religious experience.

J. Wentzel van Huyssteen

The Evolution of Religion: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Emergence of the Embodied Self

In this paper I will argue that in the search for the nature of the human self, or what it means to be a person, theology and various sciences may find a surprising overlapping, shared research trajectory. I will argue in this paper that it is precisely in this kind of interdisciplinary forum that we may find excitinganswers to questions like ‘what makes us persons?’, and ‘what defines the human self?’, answers that might ultimately also guide us through the complexity of the current discussion on the evolution of religion and religious behavior.Against this background my thesis will be that the question of the evolution of religion and religious behaviour can never be disentangled from the evolution of the embodied human person. This will enable us to evaluate contemporary proposals for aspects of human personhood that were all of great importance to Darwin: the evolution of empathy and attachment, the evolution of morality, and the evolution of the religious disposition, to name just a few. Finally, I will argue that each of these deeply human traits have consistently played a defining role in the evolution of human communication and human interpersonal attachment, and along with the evolution of complex symbolic behavior, combine to give us important insights into the evolution of religion and embodied religious behaviour.

Fraser Watts

Embodiment and two-systems cognitive theory

All cognition is embodied, but the claim of this short paper is that some cognition is more embodied than others. Cognitive psychology has increasingly been making a distinction between two cognitive systems, one fast and automatic, the other slow and reflective. It is suggested here that the first system is more radical contextual than than the second, and more influenced by both socio-cultural context and embodiment. McGilchrist’s recent work on brain lateralization leads to the same conclusion, and is supported by neuro-anatomical connections. It will be suggested that the fast/automatuc/contextualized/embodied system has closer links with affect, and is especially important in religion, offering a perspective on, for example, the evolution of religion and religious practices. It is recognized that the difference in embodiment is only relative, not an absolute difference, and that even reflective cognition is shaped by embodiment to some degree.

David L. Gosling

Embodiment and Rebirth in the Buddhist and Hindu Traditions

The belief that humans are more than their bodies is to a large extent represented in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions by the notion of rebirth, the main difference being that the former envisages a more corporeal continuing entity than the latter. The author has studied the manner in which exposure to science at a post-graduate level impinges on belief in rebirth at universities and institutes in India and Thailand. Many Hindu scientists tend to believe less in a reincarnating entity because of their scientific work on the grounds that, for example, ‘genetics determines what sort of children you have and not God’, though some believe more in the Hindu religion because of exposure to science. Buddhist scientists at seven universities in Thailand were asked about their expectation of being reborn after death. Whereas 95 per cent at the main Buddhist university in Bangkok (all monks) believed, only 14 per cent at the main medical university did so. However in some cases those who did not believe that they would be reborn after death nonetheless were able to affirm rebirth as a moment-to-moment process of moving away from self-centredness towards nibbāna during this life. Such a view and the more traditional ones are compatible with the Buddhist empty self model, which has important similarities with models of an extended self. Both reject the notion of a core self and replace it with a system of interdependent parts (e.g. paṭicca samuppāda – which governs previous and future lives). The Hindu tradition is much more varied and complex, though its flexibility encourages similar comparisons to be attempted (e.g. with Shankara’s advaita Vedānta).

Mark Vernon

Body Talk: Embodiment In Popular Media and Discourse

Mark Vernon, a journalist who also writes at book-length often on issues in philosophy and religion, will explore how themes associated with embodied cognition and spirituality/religion play out in popular discourse and the media. Positively, the body is a common subject in the press, suggesting that many are disillusioned with mind/body splits, are gripped by the latest science of the body, and are alert to the power of place. Negatively, there is also the culture of the idealised body to be aware of, and the medicalised body with its associated fix-it mentality, as well as links between the interest in ‘my body’ and individualism. He will also present a case study of an article for the Guardian newspaper he wrote deploying themes in embodied cognition in response to the critique of religion by an atheist writer.