Michael Mannino on Embodied Cognition Theory and How Moving Shapes the Mind

Michael Mannino is a neuroscientist, philosopher and athlete. He earned a Master’s degree in philosophy from California State University, Los Angeles and a Bachelor of Science degree in astrophysics from Florida Institute of Technology. Michael is currently a Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience at the Center for Complex Systems and Brain Sciences at Florida Atlantic University. He performs research in computational cognitive neuroscience with a focus on complex information flow in large-scale brain networks. Michael is also an adjunct professor teaching philosophy, critical thinking, psychology and comparative religion at Miami Dade College in Miami, Florida. In this interview, we discuss his various athletic and intellectual pursuits and his thoughts on embodied cognition theory and the way physical movement shapes the mind.

Michael Mannino, a neuroscientist and philosopher of embodied cognition theory
Michael Mannino

Greg: You have a Master’s degree in philosophy, you’re working on a Ph.D. in neuroscience, and you’re also an athlete. What prompted your transition from philosophy to neuroscience? What is your athletic background?

Michael: I have always been a scientist (undergrad degree in astrophysics) and philosopher of science. My primary focus has always been the mind and consciousness. So, being inspired by people like Paul and Patricia Churchland, who said, “philosophy must go into the brain,” I decided to become a neuroscientist, though my study of the brain began long before that.

I have always been into fitness and exercise. In fact, I am forty now, but when I was in college I lifted weights with my best friends. At around age twenty-two, I decided to become a personal trainer. I became certified by the American Council on Exercise, though that did not last long. My brother was also an amateur bodybuilder and got me into lifting weights as well! Somewhere around twenty-five, after moving to California, I became interested in yoga, and even took a class which counted for a credit towards my Master’s in philosophy! While there, I also practiced capoeira for some time and enjoyed working out at an old muscle beach in Santa Monica, though it was not then what it is today.

Skipping ahead to around six years ago, I learned more about exercise physiology, the importance of mobility and flexibility, and I then became very interested in street workouts and calisthenics and made the near-total transition from weights to bodyweight movements. This took off into buying a set of gymnastics rings. Now, for the past two to three years, I have jumped on board the “movement in movement” and find myself trying to practice many different types of movement patterns and fitness regimens, including martial arts, breakdancing, gymnastics, animal flow, juggling, table tennis, tennis, plyometrics, running, bo staff training, capoeira and calisthenics.

Greg: In your TEDx Talk “The Moving Mind,” you describe embodied mind or embodied cognition theory. I’ve posted a video of that talk below, but could you give a quick definition of that theory?

Michael: Embodied cognition theory refers to several views which have in common the principle that having a body that moves is essential for and shapes the mind and cognitive processes like attention, language use, perception, emotion, memory, etc.

Greg: It sounds like a circular relationship with the mind and body. The mind directs the body’s movement, this movement shapes the mind, which then imagines and directs more complex movements. It’s a constant process of physical learning that combines movement and intellect. Is that accurate?

Michael: Not quite. I am just using embodied cognition theory as a theoretical framework to account for other things. I wouldn’t say the mind directs the movement of the body (this sounds dualistic, which I am not, nor is embodied cognition theory). For me, the mind is a dynamic structure arising from the body’s actions in its environment. It is the coupling between the body’s movements and its surroundings. But I do think movement shapes the mind and cognition; it constructs the mind, meaning more specifically, that sensorimotor capacities of the body affect all aspects of cognition.

Greg: Does embodied cognition theory account for mental imagery? For example, studies have shown that imagining specific movements can increase strength or reduce muscle atrophy, even without physical movement. And research has shown that visual imagery complements physical practice toward improving a physical skill.

Michael: Yes, there are several studies on this! I think only embodied cognition theory accounts for this evidence perfectly, in fact, this is direct evidence for the theory!

Greg: You also touch on materialism in that talk. What is materialism and how does it relate to embodied cognition theory?

Michael: In my view, materialism is the scientific fact that even though the mind and human beings consist of nothing but particles and their motions (explained by physics), it is not the case that human behavior and the mind can be only explained with reference to physics of particles. This is reductionism, and reductionism will not suffice to explain the brain and its functions.

Greg: So is embodied cognition theory a subset of materialism? Or can someone be an adherent of embodied cognition and then choose whether or not to explain that theory through materialism?

Michael: Yes, I suppose so, depending on how one defines materialism. For me, yes. I am what’s been called an emergent physicalist/materialist. That is, there is nothing more to the human mind than physical stuff, which is explained by physics. Mental states are physical states. But I think that mental states are emergent properties of a self-organizing system that is tightly coupled with its environment, i.e. other physical stuff. Mental states are really relational states. And, if consciousness requires embodiment, well then, we cannot exist without bodies and movement. Or at least, we have evolved that way… embodied cognition theory is not dualistic.

Greg: In your talk, you mention a mathematical model that explains movement, even complex movement like ballet dancing. Could one use this model to create movement in an artificial system?

Michael: If I understand the question as you mean it, yes. In fact, researchers have done this (with other models) in embodied robotics, etc., as well as virtual systems.

Greg: How good are those robots at mimicking complex human movements like dancing?

Michael: Not good, yet! Complex human movement is extremely high dimensional, with many many degrees of freedom. We do not yet have a system which can make those computations that fast. In fact, just getting and analyzing the data from that ballet dancer in my talk took very high-level analytical techniques called principal component analysis to reduce the number of dimensions to get a handle on what is really going on.

Greg: We know movement and exercise are great for the brain. And as you point out, there are several studies that show certain types of exercise have specific brain benefits. Are we nearing the point where we can prescribe a specific type of exercise for a certain brain goal?

Michael: In general, the brain and body are a complex adaptive system, so it may never be that specific. Having said that, yes, it may be the case that if we know much much more about what patterns of movement do for specific networks of the brain, or even for specific neurophysiological events in the brain. The tai chi example in my talk is a good example of this, i.e., get good at tai chi, and this may help with interoception of pain.

“The brain loves to learn, that is what it exists to do.”

Greg: What are you currently researching?

Michael: I do computational modeling of brain networks—that is, I research how large-scale brain networks produce cognition, by investigating how information flows through different nodes (brain areas) in those networks, otherwise known as brain connectivity. In addition, my research draws on work from Walter Freeman (my advisor’s advisor), who researched how the brain is a dynamical system that perceives the world and is embodied (it moves around in an external world), and that this is a requirement for brains to create consciousness and meaning.

Greg: What do your workouts look like? Do you program them yourself? If so, do you program with an eye on a specific brain benefit, body benefit, or both?

Michael: I do a mixture of all the things I mentioned previously, but with some specific goals in mind, in those various disciplines. For example, I now am training for several goals, among them are the one-arm handstand, the planche, the fifty-inch vertical box jump, the sub-six-minute mile, some basic tricking, the windmill in breakdancing, full split, juggling four balls, and advanced mobility movements. I do program all my workouts myself to attain these goals. In general, I am not training for any specific brain improvement, just general body awareness and strength.

One specific thing I always have in mind though is to constantly learn new movements (even if I do not fully accomplish them). In general, the brain loves to learn, that is what it exists to do (for survival)—neurogenesis, neuroplasticity, staving off mental disease, and improving all aspects of cognition/intelligence, etc. So within my limits, age, etc., I am always looking out for new things to do (literally). For example, I am eager now to start practicing hackysack! “Jack of all trades, master of none” may have its downfalls, but it’s good for the brain!

Follow Michael Mannino on Instagram to see his wide variety of movement practices. For more questions on embodied cognition theory, his research or his approach to fitness, email him at mannino49[at]hotmail[dot]com.