Learning is not just for the mind. It is very much a thing for the body as well.
EMBODIED COGNITION AND MIRROR NEURONS
It is a well-known fact that using multiple senses can improve learning. Associating a word or a name with a certain smell or image will bring the concept back to mind more easily.
The proprioceptive sense
But did you know that we besides the well-known five senses (smell, sight, hearing, touch and taste) also have a sense that keeps track of where our different body parts are located in three-dimensional space, in relation to each other and in relation to the surroundings? It is called the proprioceptive sense. At the ligaments, sensory bodies are located that report their coordinates to the brain. That is what enables you to make your thumbs meet (or not…) with your eyes closed.
As all senses, the proprioceptive sense can be trained to become more finetuned. That a potter can feel how thick the wall is on a vase she is working on just by holding her fingers on each side of the wall is not magic, it is a well-trained perception.
Dancers make use of this sense. You use it when walking in a dark room and blind people often have a highly developed sense of where their body is located in space.
Another fact that has revolutionized our way of understanding ourselves is the discovery of mirror neurons. We now know that even abstract concepts are linked to bodily movements and can be activated by simulating or enacting the same movement.
In this article, we shall see how these findings can be useful for anyone who wants to optimize their learning strategies. But first, we shall learn in some more depth about embodiment, embodied cognition and mirror neurons.
Watching or imagining a bodily action take place activates partly the same neurons in your brain as if you had performed the action with your own body. Thanks to the mirror neurons we are allowed to experience bodily movements that we merely perceive as if we were performing the movements ourselves.
Ever since researchers accidentally discovered how the brain of a macaque looking at one of the scientists who were reaching for a banana activated neurons for hand movements even though the macaque was immobile, research on human mirror neurons has been intense and debated. In cognitive embodiment theory, mirror neurons have been linked to the higher functions of man, such as empathy, the ability for language and awareness of other minds (theory of mind), and researchers have worked to show how motor activity underlies these functions.
According to cognitive embodiment theories, action and simulation of action share the same brain substrate. That is, when we simulate an action (witness it, read about it, remember it, fantasize about it), the brain partially re-activates the same areas that were activated in the original action along with the associated thoughts and feelings. It is also believed that abstract concepts emerge from our bodily experiences and constitute embodied abstraction. Therefore, we can understand and remember abstract concepts both through our own experiences and through simulation.
Mirror neurons wash away guilt (!)
As an example, we can take the cluster of abstract concepts encompassing forgiveness, guilt and purity. Here we can see relatively unproblematically what concrete experiences the abstract concepts are based on, namely the experience of becoming physically unclean and then cleaning the body from the impurity. Both the everyday act of being cleansed of dirt and the more abstract concept of being purified, forgiven or ritually cleansed of one’s guilt are embodied in concrete acts and rituals such as washing, rinsing off, erasing, baptizing, undergoing ritual baths or immersing oneself in the river Ganges.
A scientific study has shown how the physical act of washing one’s hands reduces the feeling of guilt more than watching a video of someone else washing their hands, which in turn reduces the feeling of guilt more than watching a video of someone who types on a keyboard. Washing one’s own hands is a bottom-up process, where sensory and motor experiences activate the abstract notions of purity and forgiveness. Seeing someone else wash their hands, on the other hand, is a top-down process where the brain through its mirror neurons simulates comparable sensory and motor experiences. In both cases, the feelings of guilt are reduced, but in the latter case, as the brain relives or simulates the experience of washing the hands, only some of the neurons activated in the original experience are reactivated, so the effect is lower. The study is just one of many that show that you can actually reduce your feelings of guilt by washing your hands.
The purpose of bringing up this study here is to illustrate and support the theory on how abstract concepts can be linked to embodiment and thus provide the theoretical basis for recommending incorporating bodily practices in your learning skill toolbox.
Talking about rituals may bring religion to mind, but rituals are everywhere. You probably have a morning ritual that perhaps includes taking a shower and having a cup of coffee, or if you have children, they have a bedtime ritual that you need to follow strictly for them to feel safe and fall asleep easily.
What is a ritual?
Rituals, that is actions happening in the same order, occurring with the same intervals and having the same purpose and meaning, make us feel secure and comfortable. Everyday rituals often allow us to save mental energy by doing things routinely without having to think about what to do next. I don’t have to spend time and energy in the evening to make up my mind whether I should brush my teeth before going to bed or not; I just do it.
However, rituals can also be very focused and anything but a routine thing. If your morning ritual includes a time for meditation you have a ritual that makes you concentrate and focus your mind rather than letting it wander aimlessly. A mindful ritual can serve as a means to preparing your mind for a study period, a meeting, a creative writing session, or whatever you want to do next, by getting your mind in the right mode for the activity in question. A brain in a diffused mode would be the best for creative inventive activities, a brain in a focused mode would be the best for a study session.
Creating your own rituals
If you wish to create a ritual for a certain purpose, say for initiating a study session, the more vivid and embodied you can make the ritual, the better. If you then make it a habit of performing the ritual every time you are about to start a learning session, this will prime your brain and tell it that a learning session is coming up. You will then be able to embark on your session with a more focused and receptive mind than if you had rushed into it with no preliminaries.
When I wrote my thesis — a lonely work which I mostly had to carry out in my bedroom — I had a very simple ritual to get me started every day. Each morning after having switched on my computer I played one online card game. No more and no less. Then I would open my dissertation file and start working on it. As rituals are sort of addictive, the desire to complete another game made me want to turn on my computer. With the computer already up and running and me sitting in front of it, the step to begin the day’s real work on my dissertation had been reduced to a manageable size. I am certain that had I not had that morning ritual, the step would many days have seemed more like a giant leap to me and procrastination would have been all too easy.
My dissertation ritual did its job and I am grateful for that. But today, when I am older and hopefully slightly wiser, I have higher standards for my rituals.
A well-designed ritual
Firstly, I want the ritual to be valuable in itself, not only lure me into something of value. The intrinsic value of a ritual may be that it is beneficial to your physical health, that it contributes to your mental or psychological well-being, that it enhances the quality of your relations, that it furthers your spiritual path or that it benefits the wider community or the entire world.
Secondly, I want the ritual to be optimally effective, not just enough to do the trick. For a ritual to be optimally effective it should draw on as many senses as possible and involve a multitude of bodily motions. The more embodied the ritual is, the more neural pathways it will activate and thus the easier it will be to associate it with other things, and the more tailored it can be made to your needs.
Taken all together, a well-designed ritual is one that
- has a low entry threshold and is easy to perform even if you are tired or not in the mood,
- has an addictive aspect in that it gives you satisfaction,
- is recognizable and repeatable,
- has intrinsic value, and
- involves several senses and the whole body in motion.
Such a ritual will provide the safe anchor you need to get going when you otherwise might have tended to tarry and procrastinate. Once in place, a well-designed ritual can additionally function as the foundation on which to stack other good habits.
What kinds of rituals involve the whole body in motion?
Practices such as yoga, dance, the Japanese tea ritual and many religious rituals (kneeling, prostrating, lifting hands) are prototypical. Elements from practices such as these are valuable components when designing your own rituals.
For more than a year I benefitted greatly from this morning ritual: First thing out of bed, I danced with free movements to the music “What a wonderful world” to stretch and awaken my body and get my mind in a positive and relaxed state. I then did my yin-yoga program and continued with a sitting meditation starting with a body scan and followed by focusing on my breathing. Finally, I put on the kettle and brew a cup of tea and curled up crosslegged in my favourite easy chair with my diary to plan the day, decide on my focus and write down any reflections.
To dance means involving the whole of the body in coordinated synchronized movements, either spontaneous or choreographed, to the rhythm and tunes of music or plain rhythm, for instance from drums.
If one widens the concept of dance, as the philosopher and dancer Kimerer L. LaMothe suggests, one could argue that dance, that is, our physical being in motion, is the source and goal of human life, culture, religion and philosophical thinking. According to LaMothe, dance can be any movement or activity that meets the following criteria: 1) it contributes to our bodily ego, 2) it shifts our sensory experiences, and 3) it is performed with conscious attention to what we with our movements create and become. “What I am calling ‘dance’ happens when we consciously engage our sensory awareness as a guide to participating in the rhythm of bodily becoming.” [LaMothe 2015] She argues that matter, evolution, and knowledge are essentially movement.
If correct, this makes dance a potential goldmine for dedicated super learners in search of resources.
Dancing has been a basic expression in humankind for as long as we have been human. Many anthropologists even assume that religion and culture once originated through dance. Dancing together bonded the small group of hunters and gatherers, embodied the group’s values and life context, provided group security and identity, and provided the opportunity to express questions and feelings of existential nature, feelings of wonder and fear of the greatness of nature, the mystery of life, birth, etcetera. One could say that the existential questions of life and curiosity itself were originally danced long before they were formulated in language. The dance later evolved into other types of rituals and cultural expressions that codify the group’s values and belief systems.
Since dances embody their surrounding culture one can gain a cultural and linguistic understanding that is in no other way available by dancing traditional dances.
Building on sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s thoughts on ‘habitus’, anthropologist Ted Polhemus argues that dance constitutes a crystallization of the more general bodily culture in which the dance occurs. The dance thus functions as a reinforcement and mediation of an underlying cultural identity. Through dance, the dancer gains entry and insight into a culture that is foreign to him or her in a more profound and bodily way than just by reading about the culture. This is because the dance expresses the cultural habitus that usually remains unformulated and therefore not always is to be found in textbooks.
Learning a new language involves learning to think in new ways, using perhaps unusual categories, as languages reflect the conceptual structures important in the cultures they belong to. Language embodies the habitus of culture in much the same way as dances do. So by dancing the dances of a culture one may also become a better language learner by grasping those subconscious subtle nuances that are so difficult to get at.
One might argue that dance functions in a similar way as a religious ritual. The dance as a ritual conveys, reinforces and expresses meaning and culture through bodily movements and patterns of movement, both in the individual dancer and in the dancing group as a whole. Above all, this applies to such meaning and culture that cannot (or at least not easily) be conveyed through words and thoughts, but which are nevertheless essential for religious identity and understanding.
How come bodily movements performed in rituals, which may or may not be danced, are so fundamental in conveying meaning? Dance is the form of ritual that engages most of the body and the whole body is used for movement. Vision, hearing, feeling and the proprioceptive senses are all active. The dance also often requires a focused consciousness. Since dance is often a collective affair, the social body is also activated in that each individual dancer must relate to the bodies of others and to the spatial space.
Religious dance can take many expressions. Temple dancers in India dance sacred rituals, highly stylized dances that embody Hindu sacred texts. The dancing Sufic dervishes in Islam swirl hour after hour in a dance which in itself is considered a prayer and contact with God. In the Church of Sweden, dance masses are celebrated, where the entire congregation participates in ring dances that embody the various parts of the mass. North American Native American shamans dance into another world. In Africa, myths and prayers are danced in countless local religions. Judaism has been dancing ever since Miriam led the Israelite women in dance after the Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea.
HOW DOES DANCING APPLY TO LEARNING?
If you study, you might want to consider learning a specific dance or dancing to a specific tune of music each time you begin to study a certain subject and end the study period with dancing the same piece. This will associate the subject area you are studying with the dance in question and provide an anchor to what you have learnt.
In the dance before the study session, you should focus on dancing your aims, questions, your desires and your frustration, that is, your feelings, emotions and urges that drives you to study. Get it all out in the open so that when you sit down to study, your body is relaxed and your emotions have been released.
In the dance after the study session, you should try to embody the gist of what you have learnt/studied. If you do free spontaneous dancing, use the full potential of your body to mimic key concepts and visual markers that have stood out for you during your reading. Make the post-study-dance into a recall- and revise session in itself. If you use the Pomodoro method, a dance is a perfect activity for the long break that you get after a few Pomodoros.
Then, when you switch to another study subject, you also switch dance and/or music. Try to pick something that resonates with what you are studying in its energy, emotional load and pace.
An additional benefit from using dance to enhance your learning is that in this way you get some well-needed exercise amidst all sitting down.
USING DANCE FOR REVISION AND SPACED REPETITION
Let the different dances /music tunes you have associated with the various study subject/themes unfold and while you let your body loose in the dance you let your mind loose too and go over your material (as you have memorized it, in a mind-map, by visual markers, etc). The connections already made will be strengthened and the neural pathways are reinforced for each time that you dance.
Maybe you will notice that when you forget something and have to pause in your mind to find the correct term or explanation or gloss, you have a tendency to freeze your body and stop dancing as well. This is how closely connected your body is to your thinking activities. Try instead to carry on dancing and let the answer come to you in the movement. If the answer still does not come, then go back and review when your next study session begins, and bring it into the dance.
I remember when I wrote a paper back att graduate school. It was about the ancient history of Israel, and each time I sat down to my typewriter to write up the summaries of the literature I was covering, I put on a tape with Chinese flute music. The music started slow and then went faster and faster. I would end up typing away at a frenetic speed and when the music came to an end I was panting and only then would I realize that I had increased my typing speed along with the music.
Even to this day, I cannot hear this kind of Chinese music without feeling myself transported back thousands of years to the sandy origins of the Israelites in the Middle East.
 Hanyi Xu, Laurent Bègue och Brad J. Bushman, ”Washing the guilt away: effects of personal versus vicarious cleansing on guilty feelings and prosocial ibehavior” In Frontiers in Human Neuroscience – Embodiment and the Human MNS, doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2015.00500, (March 2016) s. 87-91
 The idea of habitus is that there are meaningful practices / patterns of action / patterns of movement / ways of interpreting the perceptions shared by members of the same group / culture and which members adopt without really being aware of it. See Pierre Bordieu, Distinction. A social critique of the judgment of taste, (London: Routledge, 1984) (original 1979).
 Ted Polhemus, “Dance, gender and culture ”, in Routledge Dance Studies Reader, ed. Alexandra Carter, (New York: Routledge, 1998) pp. 171-189.