Chapter 5 • Embodied Thinking

Embodied Thinking involves two skills which generally feed into each other - Kinesthetic Thinking and Empathizing. Kinesthetic thinking means thinking with the body, including the sensations of muscle, skin and sinew; and the feelings in the body of movement, balance, and tensions. For example, in his thought experiments, Einstein imagined himself as a photon, and described not only what he saw, but what he
felt in his body (Root-Bernstein, 2003). Besides this trait of bodily thinking, an important element of embodied thinking is empathizing, or
imagining oneself in another’s position, walking in their shoes, or feeling what they might feel. Actors, poets, and novelists, for example frequently empathize with other people, animals, and characters in order to portray them in interesting ways. Individuals in the sciences must also sometimes apply empathetic thinking to understand other organisms, even non-living things and processes.

Kinesthetic Thinking

This general sense…called proprioception, is fundamental to our experience of the body. As we walk or run or jump we are constantly aware of how our body feels; and we know where we are in space. Most of the time we have this awareness without feeling it. [161]
  • So what is proprioception?

  1. Sensory modality that provides information about the internal body
  2. Identify if the body is moving with effort or not

    • This includes both conscious and unconscious proprioception
    • With the acquisition of any new skill, the body becomes familiar with the proprioceptive tasks involved in that skill
    • Proprioceptive awareness is necessary for the following:

      • Example 1: To paint without watching the individual movements your hand makes
      • Example 2: To walk without watching where your feet go
      • Example 3: To drive without watching your feet hit the pedals & your hands steer the wheel

  3. Sense of position and orientation of where body parts are in relation to each other

    • Proprioception is tied to one's sense of balance, know as equilibrium

      • Watch the video below to gain a better understanding of how equilibrium relates to proprioception
      • An Example of Application: Walking in the dark
        • Proprioception is what enables someone to walk in the dark without falling down
        • An impaired proprioceptive state would prevent you from being able to know where you are in space
      • Another Example of Application: Ear infection
        • Your sense of balance would also be compromised if you have an inner ear infection
        • In fact, when you have an inner ear infection, you continue to have a sense of balance because of the role your sight plays in your proprioceptive state
        • Therefore, if you eliminate this variable, and you attempt to walk with your eyes closed when you have an ear infection, you would fall down

      • Another Example of Application: The Field Sobriety Test utilized by police officers
      • This video displays the drivers lack of proprioceptive understanding of their body in space due to their alcohol intake

      • Another Example of Application: Many children with Autism have proprioceptive dysfunction. This may be displayed by any of the following:
        • Difficulty with pressure when writing
        • Using too much force during activities
          • Example 1: Petting animals too hard
          • Example 2: Not knowing when to stop roughhousing
        • Bumping into or pushing others
        • Leaning on others

“Merce jumped in the air in first position while Helen’s hands stayed on his body…Her hands rose and fell as Merce did…’How like thought. How like the mind it is.’” With these words Keller movingly validated what Graham and many dancers had long known, that jumping is a kind of thinking. [163]

  • How is jumping a kind of thinking?

  1. Examination of this inquiry begins with the understanding that the body plays an important role in cognition; this is known as "embodied cognition"

    • Embodied cognition explains how the brain and the body are interconnected
    • This connection is supported by the following:

      • When processing information, individual perception and action responses are used to shape the interpretation of that information
      • As a result, the interpretation of information will change based on personal experiences

      • An Example of Application:
        • If two people heard the same word "apple," they may both visualize different stimuli. For instance, one may think of and visualize a red apple, one may think of a green apple, one may think of the Apple computer empire, or one may think of Gwyneth Paltrow's daughter, Apple.

          red_apple_as.jpg green_apple_as.jpg dell_apple_as.jpg gwyneth_and_apple_as.jpg

          The stimuli "apple" may elicit any of the four responses above due to one's individual perception and action responses to that stimuli

        • Try it out:
          • Get a friend and pick a word or sentence
          • Then each of you draw a representation of how your visualize that word or sentence
          • Compare how your visualizations differ based on your experiences and knowledge

Our posture and movements reflect our moods, and our moods are related, in turn, to how we feel in what Cannon called our “internal milieu,” our gut and mind. People can “think” in nonmuscular physical sensations, too. [165] With this in mind, Cannon was the first to propose the idea of fight-or-flight. By looking at the picture below, can you tell by the man's position and posture whether he's prepared to fight or runaway?


Body thinking in all its manifestations is often a fundamental part of creative expressions we don’t normally associate with movement or touch or inner tensions. [165-166]

Root-Bernstein identified Jackson Pollock as an example of an artist who used his body to create art. He then literally danced around the canvas, flight paint as he went. Each canvas is, therefore, a record of his movements, an action painting. [166]


Take a few moments to look at the Pollock video below left. Notice his body movements. What emotion or mood can you perceive from each of his strokes? When he's "dancing" around the canvas, how do his movements reveal his mood? Below right is another example of the type of body thinking and movements of Pollock.

Aside from the world of painting, sculpture also requires a considerable amount of devotion towards body thinking. Not just in the creation, but also when viewing and experiencing a work of art. Many sculptors and artists are troubled by the fact that museums often prevent spectators from touching the sculptures. Because sculpture is a wholly physical expression of a physical experience, viewing it without proprioceptive interaction is like watching an orchestra play silent music. [167] On the other hand, there is a museum in St. Louis that allows children and adults alike complete access to all of the works of art in the museum. Visitors can climb on, crawl through, and run up many of the different attractions. Have a look at the museum's website here and look at two examples below.



An awareness of one's body is key to thinking with it. Auguste Rodin's The Thinker is a clear example of his understanding of the process of proprioception.
external image Auguste_Rodin_-_Grubleren_2005-02.jpg

"What makes my Thinker think is that he thinks not only with his brain, with his knitted brow, his distended nostrils, and compressed lips, but with every muscle of his arms, back, and legs, with his clenched fist and gripping toes [Quoted in Root-Bernstein 169]."

Rodin's Thinker is not alone in using his entire body in the thinking process. Scientists and musicians, have also discussed the power of proprioceptive thinking. Musicians such as pianist Ruth Laredo describe the playing music as "a total physical involvement, it involves your entire body...and you have to use your body in a special way for each different type of music played [170]". Take a moment to watch the difference in movement in a classical piece played by Ruth Laredo and a rock-n-roll piece by Jerry Lee Lewis.

"Surprisingly, muscular feeling, physical sensations, manipulative skill, and their mental imaging play an important role in scientific thinking, too, which may be related to the fact that many eminent scientists are also excellent artists or musicians." [171] One of many musician-scientists is Dr. Diane Nalini de Kerckhove. She is an associate professor of physics at the University of Guelph in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. She uses her music and her science in combination-->analogyshe draws.

Norbet Wiener found it difficult to discern between a physical illness that he was suffering from and the anxiety and mathemical tension he felt as a result of working on a very difficult mathematical problem. Click the video below to learn more about Norbert Weiner.

How, after all, do we know when something represents a problem for us? We become physically uncomfortable. And when we have resolved the problem, we fell physical well-being – not just a sense of elation, but a literal spring in our step, a smile on our face, a laugh in our voice. [174]

When we feel good or bad, happy or sad, our minds really do communicate with our gut, and our gut with our minds and muscles. Mind and body are one, and we must learn how to facilitate and make use of the interconnections. [174]

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of proprioceptive thinking is that it is not limited to what we feel in our own bodies, but extends to our experience of other people and even of other things. [174]As an example of how proprioceptive thinking is not limited to our own feelings, the book make reference to Charlie Chaplin's The Little Tramp. In this footage, Charlie was able to tell comedic stories without sound, because the viewer is able to interpret his body language and facial expressions, extract the humor from the scene.

Our prioprioceptive sense can extend to missing body parts and to inanimate objects as well. Neurologist have long known that amputees and people who lose their sight or hearing experience what are called phantom limbs or phantom senses. - 176

Limb or Body Phantom
Body phantom is the ability to use instruments or tools as a means to enlarge one's scope or operation.
Debra McCall provides a unique perspective of dancer Amanda von Kreibig in Oskar Schlemmer’s Pole Dance of 1927, “As the dancer began rehearsals with the twelve white poles attached to his limbs and torso he had difficulty breathing and fought the confinement. Gradually he came to feel less encumbered by imagining the poles as naturally exaggerating his movement. Next he sensed his body interacting with and defining the surrounding space" [177-178].

What are some examples of phantom work:
1. A violinist with a bow
2. Surgeon with a scalple
3. Construction worker communing with a jackhammer

This youtube clip of martial arts guru Bruce Lee, epitomizes how body phantom functions. In this clip Bruce Lee's nunchuckas are indeed, prostheses. There is a physical bonding between the tool and artist.

In this clip, acclaimed John Hopkins neurosurgeon, Dr. Ben Carson illustrates how a surgeon becomes one with his/her surgical instruments (please forward video and play from 1:47 to 2:22).

The aforementioned clips, serve as examples of what the author meant when stating, “Only when the thing we manipulate is no longer “other” but an extension of “I” does it obey our will and desires [179].”

Body thinking expands beyond the movement of one’s body to even explicit parts of disciplinary and transdisciplinary studies.
Two forms of disciplinary and transdisciplinary body thinking are:

Creative Movement is the discovery of academic themes. At a preschool science fair creative movement was used to assist the students with determining which objects would sink or float. The preschoolers where placed in front of tub of water and given a plastic golf putt, golf ball, magnet, and a rubber duck. Prior to placing each object in the water, the students would have to state if the object would sink or float. The students would quickly learn heavier objects sunk while the lighter objects floated.

Reenactment is an unique form of instruction because it reinforces academic lessons through theatrics. Through reenactment, students have an opportunity to become one with the lesson; specifically, one with the feelings of the character. In addition, this form of body thinking can heighten the students' understanding and strengthen their ability to retain and recall information.

A 10th grade reenactment of Romeo and Juliet is a perfect illustration of reenactment.


"...actors and, by extension, also other performers play-act and empathize...'A musician cannot move others unless he too is moved. He must feel all the emotions that he hopes to arouse in his audience'...[182]"

According to Webster's Dictionary, empathy is defined as: "sympathetic understanding of another person." It is in direct association with sympathy which also involves the sharing of another person's feelings. The difference between the two terms is, rather than just being sympathetic of a person's position/plight in life, displaying empathy means imagining what it would be like to be that person.

As children, we have all acted like our "heroes." Whether it be a famous sport star, a musician, or even our parents, we have all imitated somebody we look up to. Some people get real good at imitating famous people, then they, themselves, become semi-famous. The Frank Caliendo and Mini Kiss are two examples.

In an advanced world, we no longer have to "imagine" what it is like to "be somebody else;" we have simulators. We train our military personnel with the EST 2000, a weapons simulator -

We train our pilots with flight simulators -

We even have simulators for police (driving and firing), fire fighters (driving apparatus) and Emergency Medical Technicians. If there is a way for us to better train those that need to stay on top of their profession. This is an electronic form of empathy.

"'Physicians don't need any more facts, and the time they can spend on human problems, their own and others', is very limited. The theater can move into that gap.' New York's Mount Sinai Hospital has taken this approach a step further. Actors assume the roles of patients with various ailments such as terminal cancer or AIDS. Medical students then review the medical charts, make diagnoses, and communicate the prognoses to the patients." [185]

Part of what makes a talented actor stand out from others is the degree to which he or she can empathize with the character's role being portrayed. Those roles can be about both fictional or real life characters. "It is this aspect of “becoming other,” of play-acting, that distinguishes empathizing so clearly from imaging or proprioceptive thinking. The key to empathizing is learning to perceive the world through someone else’s mind and body." [186] Two vivid examples of such masterful emphasizing can seen in the movies The Dark Knight and Frida, in which Heath Ledger takes on the dark role of a mass-murdering, psychopathic comic villain and Salma Hayek portrays the life and trials of the surrealist painter Frida Kahlo. Below each picture is a link

Heath Ledger as Joker
Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo

Empathizing is not limited to only actors and physicians as discussed above. As Root-Bernstein note, "The entire philosophy of Zen Buddhism is inextricably bound up with the idea that a person must become one with the objects of meditation, to lost his or her sense of self in order to comprehend the otherness of things as if they were not other." [186] Stemming from this philosophy of becoming one with an object, Root-Bernstein draw attention to the work and talent education methods of Shinichi Suzuki, whose goal it was to train whole people using music as the medium. His objective was to teach children how to learn by becoming one with a musical instrument rather than teaching them how to play one.

"Indeed, we have found that practitioners of every art, science, and humanistic profession use empathy as a primary tool, for it permits a kind of understanding that is not attainable by any other means." [187]
Who else uses empathy in their field?
1. Historians - to gain deeper understanding for the actions and decisions of those living in the past
2. Biographers - to "get into the minds of their subjects" and gain a sense of perspective [188]
3. Hunters - to develop an awareness of how prey may behave or reacts

The caption below is a sketch of the Paleolithic cave painting entitled Sorcerer. As Root-Bernstein find "...both Zen and Western philosophers have suggested, one can acquire “personal knowledge” of anything from animals and trees to inanimate objects." [188] While interpretations for the meaning behind this cave art vary, Root-Bernstein maintain that it depicts someone illustrating how to emphasize or "blend in" with their target. [189]


Empathy is a strength for hunting cultures. Aboriginial children learn to think like birds through play-acting [189], people of the Six Nation Iroquois Confederacy has "an intense identification with animals, which was absolutely essential to successful hunting and survival, fostered a great respect for [animals]" [189]. We can even see this empathizing, or thinking like animals, on television shows such as River Monsters on Animal Planet in which Jeremy Wade hunts down dangerous fish from rivers around the world. In the following video, Wade explains how he finds fish in cloudy river water.

Empathy is also used in the world of ethology--the study of animal behavior. Researchers such as Jane Goodall , Shirley Strum and Iain Douglas-Hamilton used empathy to better understand their subjects and, in fact, found that empathy aided in identifying the more subtle forms of communication [193]. In response to whether empathy lead to anthromorphizing, Desmond Morris argued that "truly empathizing with animals does not lead to anthropomorhizing at all but represents a method for freeing oneself of human preconceptions" [194]. In addition to those known for the academic study of animals, Temple Grandin actively uses empathy to help the cattle industry develop more humane and efficient methods of penning and transporting animals to slaughter. The following video features Grandin speaking to Canadian industry workers about needed improvements.

Shirley G. Strum, veterinarian, proposed empathy provided her an advantage in her study. “It was a strange little scenario. Not only was I surrounded by animals, but I changed into one myself…with each animal I studied I became that animal. I tried to think like it, to feel like it. Instead of viewing the animal from a human standpoint – and making serious anthropomorphic errors in the process – I attempted, as a research ethologist, to put myself in the animal’s place, so that its problems became my problem [194].

Veterinarian Dian Fossey’s picture of her acting as a gorilla is an illustration of empathy in motion.


Entomologist Thomas Eisner recorded that he used play-acting in his study of insects; he actually dreamed about his subjects. Thomas said he dreamed that he spoke to insects in Spanish and explained to the insects that he was human. It was Eisner’s belief that play-acting provided a peculiar insight for his research.

The following picture is an illustration of play-acting, a cosmologist riding a star through space.


Biologist Joshua Lederbug also used play-acting as a means to gain better understanding inside a biological situation. “I literally had to be able to think, for example, “What would it be like if I were one of the chemical pieces in a bacterial chromosome?’ and try to understand what my environment was, try to know where I was, try to know when I was supposed to function in a certain way, and so forth [196].”
Artist Virginia Woolf contributed play-acting to her success as an artist. Unlike a number of artists who begin their work with a vision prior to creating their work on canvas, Virginia relies on her art to create the vision. “A painting is not a part of me. Because when I do paint, I am not aware of myself. As I said before, I am ‘no hands’; the painting is telling me what to do [197].”

The picture below is a demonstration of Woolf’s use of play-acting.

external image stock-photo-painter-studying-her-work-31594951.jpg

But, how can we learn to empathize? The answer is simple enough: just remember Shakespeare’s famous line. “The play’s the thing.” Many creative individuals argue that theatrical experience encourages and promotes the empathetic imagination. [198]

  • How does theatrical experience encourage empathetic imagination?

  1. Method Acting is the process by which actors take on the traits of the character that they are embodying in order to create a more realistic performance
      • This type of acting includes tapping into the thoughts, emotions, facial expressions, and gestures of the character that they are portraying
      • The actor examines the character's psychological motives when attempting to portray them on the stage
      • There are two key components of method acting
        1. Affective memory or emotional memory - requires actors to tap into their personal memories when depicting their character on stage
        2. Emotional recall - refers to the physical response that the actors have in response to emotional events that their characters undergo on stage

  2. Lee Strasberg is typically associated with Method Acting as he encouraged actors to tap into their own emotions and experiences in order to empathize with the character that they are portraying

        • Watch the video below in order to learn more about Lee Strasberg's stance on acting

        • An Example of Application: The video below displays how to engage in method acting

Another Example of Application: Take a look at the video below that depicts dialogue between David Beckham and Al Pacino on method acting. This entertaining video is playful while highlighting the basic principles of method acting.

Emulation is always a useful way to empathize. [200]
  • How is emulation a useful way to empathize?

  1. Emulation is defined as an effort to meet, surpass, or compete with another person and/or their success
      • This is often done through the following:
        • Observation of the other person
        • Imitation of the other person

        • An Example of Application: Watch this video about the role of imitation in emulation

        • An Example of Application: Initially emulation was used to refer to ape social learning.
        • The picture displays how the ape imitates the childs actions on the other side of a glass wall

        • Another Example of Application: Listen to this song by Travie McCoy displaying emulation in his hit song Billionaire.

        • Another Example of Application: Take a look at this video of children emulating famous actors and singers in their play with barbie dolls. The sad realism of this video clip is alarming.

Skill bill...

How can we improve our body knowledge and our ability to empathize?

Learn Something New

Learning something new can help us tune into our muscles, breathing, and how they work. Below are several activities that can help you connect to your body's thinking--kinesthetic or emapthizing.

Activity Number One
Use the following video to try and make a Good Luck knot. “Knots,” he [Jansons] writes, “are examples of things that are extremely hard to describe an remember in words, and people who attempt to do so usually forget them very quickly and are poor at spotting similarities between complicated knots.” Knowing hands, however, can help. [172]

Activity Number Two

Not feeling knots? Here's a link that will allow you to create a personal Pollock painting. Consider your own thoughts and mood when you create your masterpiece. (Note: you can change the color of your paint brush by clicking on your mouse.) Or do as the author of this YouTube video and do it with paint!

Create Your Own Pollock

Activity Number Three

Take your digital cameras out in to the general public and take some pictures that tell a story. Can you sit on a bench at the mall and “make up” a conversation between two people as they walk past, performing hand gestures? How about taking pictures of the next traffic jam you have to sit in? Do the gestures and facial distortions of the other drivers tell a story? Think about what it takes to stand at a grocery store cashier’s stand for an eight-hour shift. They have to perform their job, smiling and being cordial, despite their personal demeanor that day. Could you do it? What is the story behind that employee? Do any of their “body thinking” movements give off secrets from home?

Now, go out there and snap away; tell a story without saying a word.

And in conclusion, may I say....

*Using one’s body and empathizing are distinct and valuable ways of thinking.

*Paying careful attention to the way one moves can give insight into solutions for problems.
*Listening to one’s “interior milieu” can be an effective system for identifying discord in situations as well as identifying harmony when an acceptable solution has been reached.*Actively empathizing with others (including inanimate objects) opens up multiple perspectives when working to find solutions to problems. "Unless you do your best, the day will come when, tired and hungry, you will halt just short of the goal you were ordered to reach, and by halting you will make useless the efforts and deaths of thousands." - Gen. George S. Patton (

More Conversation from Sparks of Genius...Perhaps the most surprising aspect of proprioceptive thinking is that it is not limited to what we feel in our own bodies, but extends to our experience of other people and even of other things. [174]

“Kinesthesia is a rudimentary response in most people, and there is a great need for a fuller consciousness of this special sense, for it to be ordered and made comprehensive.” All people need explicit practice in moving their kinesthetic and proprioceptive responses. [179]

When children play out a choreography of movements representing fundamental elements of the narrative, they remember it better. Additionally, students can be encouraged to pay attention to their bodily feelings when a class problem doesn’t make sense and use this discomfort as the basis for asking questions. [180]

Cather points out that actors and, by extension, also other performers play-act and empathize. [182]

Dancers, too, may seek to understand movements in terms of a character or even a body different from their own. [183]

…many physicians also use empathy to understand and treat their patients…Indeed many medical educators assert that the ability to become, transiently, one’s patient is a skill that differentiates the best clinicians from the rest. [184]

“…Literature, we have repeatedly found, provides a rich resource for freeing a student’s imagination, a necessary accomplishment if the skill of empathy is to be mastered.” [185]

Many sophisticated thinkers of the modern technological age have consciously appropriated the play-acting and empathetic techniques of the hunter in their question for new facts, ideas, and theories in the sciences. [192]

If a scientist can empathize with an insect, why not with a plant, a cell, or a chromosome?...[195]