Representing… Ashleigh Watson

Welcome to ‘Representing…’ in which a philosopher from a traditionally underrepresented group explains her research for a non-expert audience. In this edition Ashleigh Watson explores the relationship between the body and the mind from the point of view of cognitive science.


Ashleigh Watson is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. Her supervisors are Dave Ward and Suilin Lavelle, and her interests are mainly in embodied cognition and developmental cognitive science.

How does the body shape the mind?

When I reach my hand over to pick up my coffee cup I may be aware that my arm is extending out towards the cup because I can see and feel my arm reaching outwards. While this is going on my body may make more subtle movements and adjustments to assist this reaching movement that I may not necessarily be aware of, such as the fact that my toes are digging into the floor for better grip (to steady my balance as I reach over) and that my fingers are curling round to form a grasp so that my hand can grip on to the mug.

The point of this example is to show that as we carry out everyday activities we are only aware of an incomplete snapshot of the entire range of movements that our body is actually making. What’s more is that I didn’t need to consciously think about how to grasp my hand, nor did I have to be aware that my hand was forming into a grasp for this to happen – I just did it. The same applies to most of our routine activities, for instance in most normal circumstances we don’t need to think about how to move one foot in front of the other to be able to walk – we just do it. That’s not to say that there are no exceptions, young infants who are learning to walk for the first time pay close attention to how they put one foot in front of the other. The same applies when we are walking in hazardous conditions that require us to proceed with caution, for instance when we are walking along a high ledge or across an icy pathway. However, this doesn’t undermine the fact that, in principle, some movements are planned and performed below the threshold of conscious awareness and attention.

My research interests emerge out of recent philosophical work in relation to a particular pair of concepts that have traditionally been deployed by cognitive scientists to offer separate analyses of the distinct, but interrelated, processes that underlie the conscious perception and non-conscious movement of the body. This is the so-called body image and body schema distinction. In short the body image refers to the processes that underlie how we perceive and think about our body, whereas the body schema refers to the processes that underpin its movement.

Most of you will at one point have come across the idea of the ‘body image’ as it frequently appears in popular newspaper articles about how our environment, particularly our social surroundings, shape the evaluative judgements and beliefs that we have about our physical appearance, for example the belief that one’s body is too short or too tall. Just consider the impact that the current climate in certain sections of the media has in shaping societal attitudes about ideal body type, particularly by perpetuating unrealistic standards and expectations about what the ideal physique should look like. The popular use of this term suggests that the body image involves how an individual ‘sees’ themselves in terms of their physical attributes and shortcomings. As it is used in cognitive science the ‘body image’ refers to not only the perception of body that is shaped by beliefs but also to the conscious perception of the body that’s structured by sensory information (such as the visual information that gives rise to my visual awareness of the movement of my arm in the example above) and the processes that allow us to identify the body parts and recognise those body parts as belonging to our own body, for example that it is my hand that is reaching for the coffee cup and not yours.

In contrast, the ‘body schema’ is not as well-known despite its central use across the cognitive sciences for over a century and is notoriously difficult to pin down as little to no consensus can be found about how this concept should be defined. For instance, Merlau-Ponty describes it as an awareness of the peripheral structure of the body in which case it isn’t clear how this interpretation of the body schema differs from the body image. More recently, there are disagreements about whether the body schema should be used to identify the processes that make up the body schema, or whether it should refer to a set of, as yet unanswered, questions that relate to both the perception and movement of the body. These long-standing inconsistencies over how we should use this concept have stood in the way of productive interdisciplinary research because without a clear definition of what the body schema is it is harder to make a principled distinction between the body schema and the body image and to figure out what a proper research program into the nature of the body schema should aim for.

Against this backdrop, I am working towards a clear and workable definition of the body schema. In order to do this a story needs to be told about how movement can be regulated without the need for planning and intervention at the level of conscious awareness. To approach this issue I draw upon an emerging theory of mind called the predictive coding hypothesis. In the case of non-conscious bodily movement this theory suggests that the brain instructs the body to move by predicting the consequences of its movement. To give a (very) rough idea of the thought in mind let’s go back to the example of grasping the hand. According to this hypothesis, if I want to pick up my coffee mug, my brain will predict the feedback that it should receive when my hand successfully grips on to the mug in the way that’s required for picking it up. In other words my brain predicts the sensory information that it should receive when my fingers have tightly gripped around the surface of the mug. It then issues motor commands that enable the movements that are most likely to generate that feedback. In this case it instructs my hand to form into a grasp.

The story goes that as long as the actual sensory information matches the predicted feedback (i.e., that the fingers do grip tightly around the mug) then the planning and performance of the grasp can work independently of conscious awareness. If, however, the hand fails to grip the mug successfully then visual awareness may come into play. For instance, if my hand clashes against the mug because my fingers haven’t opened up wide enough I may quickly glance or turn my head to look at what is going on and then readjust my hand by opening my fingers up until they grip on to the mug. In turn, the prediction(s) that elicited the initial grasping movement may be updated so that the same mistake isn’t made next time round.

The point of all of this is that it may go some way towards explaining the processes that underlie sub-conscious bodily movement and in doing so provide an account of some the processes that make up the body schema. Furthermore, it may also help explain when and why conscious awareness may play a more prominent role in the guidance of movement when we are learning to walk and when we have to manoeuvre our body in risky conditions. In both cases, the risk of the brain making an error in its predictions is higher for its predictive capacities are under-developed in the first case and it is not always easy to anticipate the consequences of action when we find ourselves in potentially hazardous conditions.

Would you like to be featured on ‘Representing…’ ?If you are a student or faculty member from Edinburgh and consider yourself to be a member of an underrepresented group then please get in touch!


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