28 March 2009

Embodied Cognition and Leadership

For once, we weren't meeting for a meal. Bernard wanted to walk on this gorgeous day and I was more than game. It was chamber of commerce weather and we were walking amidst the crowds at Balboa Park, engaged in a form of peri-philosophy (Bernard's word for walking around discussing ideas) as old as speech, I imagine.

"The latest ideas from cognitive science are subversive," Bernard said.

"Which ideas," I inquired.

"Embodied cognition," he said. "The idea that cognition is inseparable from the body or even the environment. It's a rejection of the claim that the mind sits separate from the body."

"How is this so subversive?"

"Well, it suggests that the mind is emergent from the body, not separate, and this undermines all kinds of authority."

"What?" Leave it to Bernard to leap from cognitive science to social power. "How did you make this leap?"

"Well, think about it. In the model of mind as separate from body, body is obviously subject to mind - or should be in the person with any will power at all. Mind is more pure than body and mind directs body; telling it where to go and what to do. The mind tells the hand to pick up a glass, or the foot to step towards the counter. This is the old model."

"Yeah. How does that contradict what you said before?"

"Well, if the dichotomy of mind and body is false, then it is not true that the mind directs the foot as if it is sending an order from central command to remote troops. It could easily be that the desire to move comes from the foot - as an extremity it might be the first to notice a need for water, say - and the knowledge about HOW to move is embodied in the foot - at least in part - and not just the brain. It's not true that the brain is the authority and the foot is the, er, willing foot soldier."

"Oh." I walked a few steps absorbing this. "That is different. So you are saying that even the notion that the impulses and choices and signals that we normally associate with the mind and think of as residing in the brain are, in fact, distributed more broadly through the body? Even in places like the foot?"

"Yep." Bernard loved it when I eventually understood. "At least that's what I got."

"Okay." I'm slow but persistent. "So, this is subversive how?"

"Well, the traditional model of leadership of organizations is all based on the notion of mind body divide. We call the leader 'the head' of the organization in reference to this. The authority comes from some outside inspiration or revelation that is not embodied in the organization but comes into it through the head, the leader."

"So if the mind is embodied then perhaps leadership is too? Leadership is actually distributed more broadly than we thought?"

Bernard had a little grin. "Yep."

I laughed. "So, you think that you can trigger social change by sharing the lesson of embodied cognition, a relatively obscure branch of cognitive science, itself a fairly obscure area of study?"

He looked hurt and shook his head. "Now why did you have to say that?"

I had no answer to his question. "You know, Bernard, a shift like that has more potential than most notions."

"It does, doesn't it," he grinned again, his new idea still safe. And I knew he was right, really. As our models of the world gradually change, so does our world. By adapting to the reality we perceive, we create it. And besides, I liked this idea: embodied leadership.

1 comment:

Big Al said...

And will Bernard be there to back me up when I'm in front of a Judge pleading, "HONEST your Honor, I had NO INTENTION to kick that guy in the ass. It's all my foot's fault. It has a mind of its own, you know. Just ask Bernard here. Bernard? BERNARD??!!"