Intelligence in the flesh

To mark his new book on the topic, Professor Guy Claxton takes us towards an embodied psychology.

11 November 2015

"When we look meticulously, with fresh eyes, at the working worlds of the glassblower, the mechanic or even the humble restaurant server, we can often observe exquisite combinations of physical, emotional, social and intellectual acumen, orchestrated in real time and often under considerable pressure."

Mind/body dualism is bad for you. Really. A study by researchers at the University of Cologne has people read a short text that made the case for dualism, encouraging them to see their minds and bodies as two quite distinct entities (Forstmann et al., 2012). A control group were primed with ‘physicalism’: arguments for seeing mind and body as two inseparable sides of the same coin. Not only did the dualists report less engagement and interest in healthy behaviours and attitudes than the physicalists, they were actually more likely to choose the chips than the salad when they went off for lunch.

I know of no research that shows that intellectuals and academics are more likely to be intuitive dualists than are chefs and athletes, though Sir Ken Robinson, in his hit TED talk ‘Do schools kill creativity?’, does suggest that there is a tendency for professors to look on their bodies merely as a way of getting their minds to a meeting. Nor do I know whether this tendency is dependent on one’s discipline. Are philosophers more likely than engineers to go for the chips? And where do psychologists stand on the issue of embodiment? Further research is clearly needed…

But what we do now know is that, whether we implicitly believe it or not, body and mind are indeed tied inextricably together. Cognitive neuroscience is founded on the belief that the physical brain has a particularly intimate relationship with consciousness and cogitation. When people began, in the 19th century, to be dissatisfied with the complete separation between mind-stuff and body-stuff, and to look for a natural home for the mind, they understandably went first for the brain. And for a long time, this permitted the separation between intelligence and meniality to persist unquestioned. Matter was allowed to be smart – but only in human beings, and only from the neck up. This annexation of intelligence by the head, and the consequent deprecation of the rest of the body, has continued until very recently.

It is now being seriously challenged from a number of directions. Systemic physiology is showing that intelligence involves the entire body. Work on embodied cognition has shown that memory, language comprehension, problem-solving and decision-making all depend on the quality of the relationship that mind and body have. (The philosophical chestnut about imagining a person as a ‘brain in a vat’, shorn of guts and muscles and connected only to eyes and finger-tips, simply doesn’t hold water.) And renewed interest in the real, intricate, creative intelligence of musicians, athletes and artisans has blown a hole in the idea that ‘true intelligence’ is to be found only in the conscious, rational world of the intellect.

Systemic physiology

When I was student, we were still being taught that the human being comprised a number of different systems that could be understood separately – the cardiovascular system, the digestive system, the somatosensory system, the immune system, the endocrine system, the nervous system, and so on. Only the so-called central nervous system was of interest in discussions of cognition. Now we know better. Each of these ‘systems’, as well as carrying out specific functions, is an information exchange, constantly talking to, and being informed and modified by, all of the others. Because the whole person has to act as one unit, each of these is a sub-system, operating within and responsive to the wider context of the whole. Chilean immunologist Francisco Varela, one of the giants of embodiment, used to refer to the immune system, for example, as ‘bits of brain floating round the body’ (see Varela et al., 1991).

These systems talk directly to each other – but they also need, if they are to share their agendas and thrash out their priorities, to have a moot where they can work out an integrated response to the perennial question: ‘What’s the best thing to do next?’ And that is why they all send constant electrochemical memos and petitions to the chat-room in the head. The brain seems not to be the Chief Executive of the person, demanding reports and issuing edicts, so much as its Common Room. Complex portfolios of needs, capabilities and sensed opportunities, constantly updated, are reconciled, sequenced and prioritised not by a ghost in the machine but by subtle, embodied rules of engagement. Where we used to say ‘The body has a brain’ it now seems more accurate to say simply ‘The body is a brain’.

Embodied cognition

Except under such odd conditions as being a ‘subject’ in a psychology experiment – thinking for money or a course credit – cognition is the servant of concern. We think when we think that doing so will help us do something that matters. Our everyday memory traces are logged not just in terms of what happened, but what benefit or cost accrued. And these tags, as Antonio Damasio (e.g. 2010) has shown, are very often bodily: muscular, visceral and somatic. As we are learning from experience how to navigate between options that turn out to be beneficial, and those that are revealed as hazardous or costly, our skin, gut and heart are as involved as our minds. Chess may not involve as much physical strength and stamina as rugby, but it is a physical game nonetheless: ask any grandmaster.

How swiftly and accurately these emotive signals guide our decisions and actions depends on how sensitive we are to them. Interoceptive awareness turns out to be an essential ingredient of real-life intelligence. When that awareness is dulled, as for example in depression, decision-making becomes harder. And activities and exercises that develop that awareness, such as mindfulness meditation, tai chi and yoga, have been shown to have cognitive benefits as well as physical ones.

At a behavioural level, many empirical studies over the last 20 years attest to this entwining of cognition with perception, action and motivation. The idea that human intelligence can be modelled as a linear string of processes that begins with Sensation and Perception at one end, and proceeds via Memory, Thinking and Decision-making to Action at the other end, is badly flawed. What we want, what we feel and what we are capable of doing can all get dissolved in perception. Hills actually look steeper to tired people. From Von Uexküll’s umwelt to Gibson’s affordances, many psychologists have pointed out the pre-conscious intermingling of sensed opportunities with current concerns and estimated capabilities.

Language muddles up the sensorimotor and the intellectual too. Though some of the relevant studies have proven hard to replicate, the sheer volume of them make this conclusion hard to resist. More abstract or metaphorical usages derive from, and seem to remain grounded in, embodied experiences of sensation, action and emotion. Disgust and disapproval seem to prime each other. When in the vicinity of a bad smell, people tend to make harsher judgements about social issues. (Perhaps because the issues ‘smell fishy’ or are in ‘bad taste’.) Holding a warm cup of coffee, they judge a stranger’s personality as ‘warmer’ than if they were holding an iced drink. People who feel ‘burdened’ by a ‘heavy’ secret are less likely to offer to carry your bulging shopping bags upstairs. When asked to judge the grammar of a sentence like ‘John grasped the argument’, the brain quite involuntarily fires up the part of the motor system that clenches the fist. Lakoff and Nunes (2000) have even argued that mathematics (up to quite a high level) retains an important foundation in a concrete sensorimotor world. Many of our most erudite and lotus-flower-like concepts seem to retain deep roots in the somatic mud of the body.

As the body and the mind come together, rational, analytical thinking is being repositioned not as the absolute epitome of intelligence but as one (albeit very useful) tool in the box. Work on the cognitive unconscious (Kihlstrom, 1987) or the adaptive unconscious (Wilson, 2002) has enabled us to see that there are ‘many ways of knowing’ which include intuitions, physical feelings and sensations, emotions and images, as well as conscious knowledge and reason, and each has both its place and its fallibilities. In creative thinking especially, the intelligent mind needs to be able to ‘play with a full deck’, and not be hamstrung by a conditioned disdain for anything that is not immediately clear and propositional. Genuinely creative reorganisations of understanding often take time to emerge and do so via essential stages of unclear intuition (see Gavin, 1992, on William James’ plea for the ‘reinstatement of the vague’). I argue in Claxton (2015) that these less clear-cut forms of cognition can be seen as gradual unfurlings of understanding that have their origins in the body. When the body-mind is properly understood, perhaps we will be able to do without those proliferating versions of ‘the unconscious’.

Practical intelligence

The goal of real-world intelligence is to coordinate actions that are effective and appropriate to both the concerns and the opportunities of the moment. Getting things done that matter: that’s what matters. From an embodied and an evolutionary perspective, knowing, understanding and thinking are means to that end, not ends in themselves. The pervasive western dualism that separates a rational and abstract mind from a fallible body, and bestows the honorific ‘intelligent’ only on the former, seems, from the embodied perspective, to put the cart (or possibly Descartes) before the horse. The body has functional primacy, even in the most intellectual of contexts.

One of the effects of ‘Descartes’ error’, as Damasio calls it, is to render us blind to – and therefore disdainful of – forms of intelligence that have a largely embodied component. Looked at through this intellectualised lens, work that is done with the hands and the body is bound to appear less intelligent than work that involves the manipulation of symbols and clever, disembedded argumentation. Thus the traditional school curriculum, for example, relies on an antiquated hierarchy of esteem that honours mathematics and grammar as King and Queen of the Castle, and works its way down a ladder of increasing embodiment until we find Design Technology, Dance and Physical Education at the bottom. They have less status, receive less time, and young people who are good at them are unjustly judged as less intelligent than those who can solve equations on paper but couldn’t build a straight wall to save their lives. Recent work by Mike Rose (The Mind at Work, 2004), Richard Sennett (The Craftsman, 2008), and Matthew Crawford (The Case for Working with Your Hands, 2009) has convincingly shown that when we look meticulously, with fresh eyes, at the working worlds of the glassblower, the mechanic or even the humble restaurant server, we can often observe exquisite combinations of physical, emotional, social and intellectual acumen, orchestrated in real time and often under considerable pressure. Crawford contrasts this with the journeyman mediocrity of much of what passes for scholarship and laments the ‘peculiar sort of idealism that insistently steers young people toward the most ghostly kinds of work’ (p.3).

Implications of embodiment

As I said at the beginning, the way we conceive of the relationship between mind and body, and how we assign intelligence to either or both, is not just an academic matter. There are numerous possible consequences, both psychological and cultural, of taking a more integrated view, many of which are waiting to be explored. Some, as we saw, concern physical health, and the automatic increase in care and concern for the body which the integrated view promotes. Some of the consequences are cognitive. If mens sana in corpore sano now has neuroscientific backing, then practices that promote psychosomatic awareness and integration – such as mindfulness mediation or yoga – could move from the alternative fringe to a more mainstream place in our culture (as they have done in many others throughout history). Schools, colleges and universities could take a more active interest in promoting interoceptive awareness as one vital element of the educated body-mind. And without that lop-sided view of intelligence weighting the scales of esteem, vocational education might finally regain the respect it deserves.

- Guy Claxton is Visiting Professor of Education at King’s College London Department of Education. His new book Intelligence in the Flesh: Why Your Mind Needs Your Body Much More Than It Thinks is published by Yale University Press. 


Claxton, G.L. (2015). Intelligence in the Flesh: Why Your Mind Needs Your Body Much More Than It Thinks. Yale University Press: London and New Haven CT.

Crawford, M.B. (2009). The Case for Working with Your Hands. Penguin: London.

Damasio, A. (2010). Self Comes to Mind. Heinemann: London.

Forstmann, M., Burgmer, P. & Mussweiler, T. (2012). “The mind is willing, but the flesh is weak”: the effects of mind-body dualism on health behaviour. Psychological Science, 23(10), 1239-45.

Gavin, W.J. (1992). William James and the Reinstatement of the Vague. Temple University Press: Philadelphia PA.

Kihlstrom, J.F. (1987). The cognitive unconscious. Science, 237(4821), 1445052.

Lakoff, G. & Nunes, R. (2000). Where Mathematics Comes From. Basic Books: New York.

Rose, M. (2004). The Mind at Work. Penguin: London.

Sennett, R. (2008). The Craftsman. Allen Lane: London.

Varela, F., Thompson, E. & Rosch, E. (1991). The Embodied Mind, MIT Press: Cambridge MA.

Wilson, T.D. (2002). Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious. Belknap Press: Cambridge MA.