In western cultures the separation of the head and body is very explicit. Only since recently researchers have focused on the connection between this distinction in human existence. They developed a new concept: embodied cognition. Embodied cognition is about the way the body can be used as a metaphor. This means that abstract ideas are rooted in physical experience. By learning more about the body and its possibilities, the body-mind bridge can become stronger and more open to new insights and (unusual) connections. In this way conceptual spaces are in some way connected with physical spaces, which means that people can experiment on two different ‘levels.’ In this essay I will argue that the connection of these two spaces (‘inner’ and ‘outer’) can enhance creative thinking. The BA Industrial Design at the Technical University in Eindhoven will be my focus because it uses classes in movement analysis, called MOVE, to teach students about kinaesthetic awareness. Eindhoven is sometimes referred to as one of the world’s biggest “brain-ports”, but the University is now also experimenting with what I would call “body-ports”. My main question concerning this topic is: “How can “MOVE” help BA Industrial Design students activate and enlarge their creative thinking?”
MOVE’s complexity and importance
To be creative one has to be prepared to be wrong. Frankly, “we’re running education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make, and the result is that we are running people out of their creative capacities. They have become frightened of being wrong” (Ken Robinson says school kills creativity). In a way, MOVE tries to take this fear away. This is because, as a matter of fact, body’s can’t technically ‘be wrong.’ When students first participate in this class, they may feel uncomfortable following the loose instructions because they’re not sure about whether they’re doing it ‘right.’ This shows the complexity of the way embodiment tries to achieve creative thinking, as students are quite unfamiliar with this kind of education and have to re-invent their capacity of loose-thinking.
I think it is important to look at the way universities can enhance or even improve student’s ability of creative thinking, as they do need this capacity in the after-university life. Average BA degrees usually don’t prepare for that. This is because, as Ken Robinson argues, ‘our education system is predicted on the idea of academic ability. This came into being to meet the needs of industrialism. In the [educational system’s] hierarchy the most useful subjects for work are at the top, and the consequence of this is that many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not, because the thing they were good at at school (painting, dancing, making music) wasn’t valued, or was actually stigmatized.’ He argues that “creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.” We cannot afford to go on without integrating methods to enhance student’s creativity in education. Robinson explains: “In the next thirty years, according to UNESCO, more people worldwide will be graduating through education since the beginning of history. (…) Suddenly, degrees aren’t worth anything. When I was a student, if you had a degree, you had a job. (…) But now kids with degrees are often heading home to carry on playing video games, because you need an MA where the previous job required a BA, and now you need a PhD for the other. It’s a process of academic inflation.” So how do we sharpen BA courses concerning personal development in creativity? For this, Robinson says, we have to ‘see our creative capacities for the richness they are, and our task is to educate the whole being.’ (Ken Robinson says school kills creativity).
What is embodied cognition and kinaesthetic awareness?
We first need to know the difference between an embodied and non-embodied approach. Fred Adams explains: “On a non-embodied approach, the sensory system informs the cognitive system and the motor system does the cognitive system’s bidding. There are causal relations between the systems but the sensory and motor systems are not constitutive of cognition. For embodied views, the relation to the sensory-motor system to cognition is constitutive, not just causal” (619). So, ‘the view that cognition is embodied comes to the view that cognition takes place, not only in a central system, but in the perceptual and motor systems as well’ (619). It says that the brain is not the only source responsible for the way we behaviour. This radically changes the job description of the brain; “instead of having to represent knowledge about the world and using that knowledge to simply output commands, the brain is now part of a broader system that critically involves perception and action as well” (Thompson n.p.).
Secondly, we need to know what kinaesthetic awareness is about. For this, I will use what Borghi and Cimatti name the ‘sense of the body.’ They describe this as “(…) the very basic feeling that I am the body that does and is in control of what this same body is actually doing and perceiving. The “sense of the body” is not a cognitive state, nor an explicit thought: it is the very simple fact that I do not have a body, but that this body is the body that I am” (767). The ‘sense of the body’ is thus about bodily-awareness and its capacities such as movement and interaction. Philosopher Meleau-Ponty argues that bodily self-consciousness is about ‘the body as a general medium for having a world.’ “Sometimes it is restricted to the actions necessary for the conservation of life, and accordingly it posits around us a biological world; at other times, elaborating upon these primary actions and moving from their literal to a figurative meaning, it manifests through them a core of new significance: this is true of motor habits such as dancing” (Borghi and Cimatti 768). I will now further explain why kinaesthetic awareness is important for students to fully profit for MOVE’s intentions.
What does MOVE try to accomplish?
Roos van Berkel argues that kinaesthetic learning is about ‘thinking with the body.’ She is a professor in movement analysis at the Hogeschool van de Kunsten in Amsterdam, and the lecturer of MOVE in Eindhoven. She says that ‘the body can be positively used as a tool through which information can be passed to the brain. Deploying the body more consciously and more actively can help use the body as an instrument for thinking processes. Sensory experiences are very important and can gain more information and knowledge about the possibilities of movement in the world outside of the body’ (Personal communication, 20-11-2012). She considers kinaesthetic learning to be a way of learning that concerns several more traditional learning methods such as visual or audio learning. The weakness these learning methods face is that they merely focus on one sense. Like Borghi and Cimatti, van Berkel calls for the importance of ‘coherence’ of body ownership. For achieving this, agency is responsible: “Sensory mechanisms generate a sense of body ownership based on fragmented local representation of individual body parts, but action provides a coherence of bodily self. It seems that the unity of bodily self-consciousness comes from action, and not from sensation” (Borghi and Cimatti 768). MOVE teaches theoretical aspects of movement analysis through the use of the body. In this way the brain has to learn to ‘associate with the (different parts of the) body’. This is useful in the BA Industrial Design because Design is always about ‘designing products for the people around you, for functioning in a society. The world and the people in it are never still but in constant movement. Design is about interaction, it is about the dynamics between designer and product, and product and user. It is important that the design is open to dynamics and variability. In this way users are encouraged to creatively look at or use the design. ‘When students look at the world as they look at the changeability of their own bodies, they will learn new ways in which creative design can be achieved’ (Roos van Berkel, personal communication, 20-11-2012).
This corresponds with the notion that the Industrial Design department concentrates ‘on the design of intelligent systems, products and related services.’ “Being intelligent means that the adaptive behaviour is behaviour is based on the situation, context of use and users’ needs and desires.” Good design is then all about “a new type of innovation that can transform the lives of people, the way we act in the world and the way we experience the world, and consequently transform our society. (…) Design is pre-eminently the profession that can deal with the complexity of (…) new innovative systems for social transformation” (Hummels en Vinke 9). Designers should, by fully understanding the relationship between technology and society, in a way challenge users to think differently. In this way a two-way process of creativity is called for.
The body as a metaphor for conceptual space
The MOVE workshop departs from four categories. The first one is SPACE which is about formation and the kinesphere. The moving body is considered from a spatial perspective by considering how you form your body in relation to the surrounding space. The second part is called BODY and focuses on the materiality of the body, specifically focussed on movement initiations and pathways. This aspect links the initiation or starting-point, for instance the head, hips, or hands, to certain directions, which can then form a pathway or trace form. The pathway is thus the result of the different directions made from inner and/or outer impulses to move. Thirdly, SHAPE is about Shape Flow, Shaping and Directional Shape. Shape Flow concerns intuition and inner impulses towards movement. Shaping is about the external factors and concerns interaction with the physical space around the body or with other people. It is about the shape that is created in the dialogue between the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ impulses of the body. Directional Shape is the most goal-oriented form of SHAPE, not necessarily concerned with how form within and with the body comes to exist, but more engaged with direct spatial relationships in more pragmatic and linear ways. At last MOVE is also about EFFORT, which concerns the quality of movements. This isn’t so much about what movements are made (kinesphere) but about how these are made (dynamosphere). EFFORT is then also divided into four sub-categories: Weight, Space, Time and Flow. Each Effort factor and combinations thereof tease out different movement experiences, for the moving body as well as the observer. For instance, Weight can be divided into Strong versus Light or impactful versus delicate, or space into Direct versus Indirect.
Slepian and Ambady state that “cognitive content can be metaphorically embodied in sensorimotor systems – showing that the body provides a scaffold for abstract concepts.” They explain: “For example, the abstract concept of importance might be understood via the metaphor “weighty,” which references the concrete situation of holding something heavy. Indeed, participants who held a heavy, relative to a light, clipboard judged a variety of issues and items as having greater importance” (625). Also Lakoff and Johnson found that metaphors are pervasive in everyday life. Not just in language, but also in thought and action. They argue that “our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature” (3). They say that “[t]he essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another” (5). Orientational metaphors have to do with spatial orientation and “arise from the fact that we have bodies of the sort we have and that they function as they do in our physical environment. Orientational metaphors give a concept a spatial orientation; for example, happy is up. (…) Such metaphorical orientations are not arbitrary. They have a basis in our physical and cultural experience” (Lakoff and Johnson 14).
To explain MOVE’s metaphorical use of the body I first need to mention the notion of a conceptual space. “The dimensions of a conceptual space are the organizing principles that unify and give structure to a given domain of thinking. In other words, it is the generative system that underlies that domain and defines a certain range of possibilities (…). The limits, contours, pathways, and structure of a conceptual space can be mapped by mental representation of it. Such mental maps can be used (not necessarily consciously) to explore – and to change – the spaces concerned” (Boden 79). We can imagine that we understand this concept by comparing them to physical spaces with different sizes, contours, pathways, structures etc. With physical spaces I refer to external and internal space. Characteristics like structure then aren’t abstract anymore, but merely physical. “In actuality we feel that no metaphor [like conceptual spaces] can ever be comprehended or even adequately represented independently of its experiential basis” (Lakoff and Johnson 19). MOVE tries students to be aware of this notion. When they are, they will (unconsciously) create more fluent relations and associations between findings in and/or between physical spaces towards conceptual spaces. This is important because “[t]heories of creativity describe creative thinking and intelligence as fluid, likening thought to the movement of fluids: moving flexibly and smoothly in any direction with fluency or ease. Such language reflects a metaphor for thinking about creative thought” (Slepian and Ambady 625). It is an effective way of thinking as there is no or very little need for the use of words. Of course language always plays a role in thinking, and later in making them concrete, but the contact between experience and cognition is much more direct. This method is not only helpful for gaining personal knowledge, but can also help to explain findings to other people. John Bohannon claims that “if you’re trying to give someone the deep picture of a complex idea (…), the fewer words you use, the better. In fact, the ideal would be to use no words at all.” So ‘why should we not use dance to explain all of our complex problems?’ (John Bohannon: Dance vs. powerpoint, a modest proposal).
On the one hand, MOVE enhances creative thinking in the designing process because it teaches students in a practical way to be aware of the fact that ideas or conceptual spaces have roots in physical and experientialgrounds. They will then be able to look at the world as they look at the changeability of their own bodies. This is important because good design is all about dealing with the complexity of a changing society and coming up with new innovative systems for anticipating on or even transforming them. On the other hand, MOVE links the brainstorming process to physical fluency which allows young designers to be more fluent in making associations, which can then call for creative production. This relies upon the claims about embodied cognition. Eventually, Industrial Designers can use these ideas to design intelligent systems that challenge users to think differently, so a two-way process of creative input and output can be achieved.
Adams, Fred. “Embodied Cognition.” Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 9.4 (2010): 619-628.
Boden, Margaret A. “What Is Creativity?” Dimensions of Creativity. 1. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994. 75-117.
Borghi, Anna M., and Felice Cimatti. “Embodied Cognition and Beyond: Acting and Sensing the Body.” SciVerse ScienceDirect Journals Neuropsychologia 48.3 (2010): 763-773.
Hummels, Caroline, en Diana Vinke. “Focus: Intelligent Systems for Social/Societal Transformation.” Eindhoven Designs 2 (2009): 9-10.
“John Bohannon: Dance vs. Powerpoint, a modest proposal.” TED. November 2011/November 2011. December 4th 2012. <http://www.ted.com/talks/john_bohannon_dance_vs_powerpoint_a_modest_proposal.html>.
“Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity.” TED. February 2006/June 2006. Oktober 15th 2012. <http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html>.
Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. “Orientational Metaphors.” Metaphors We Live By. 1. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980. 14-22.
Slepian, Michael L., And Nalini Ambady. “Fluid Movement and Creativity.” Journal of Experimental Psychology 141.1 (2012): 625-629.
Thompson, Jeff. “Embodied Cognition: What It Is & Why It’s Important.” Psychology Today. Thompson, Jeff. 2012. Sussex Publishers. December 11th, 2012. <http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/beyond-words/201202/embodied-cognition-what-it-is-why-its-important>.
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