Part III : Is design a corporal act

In the last post, we viewed the act of design as a cerebral act. We also touched the role of intelligence, particularly spatial intelligence in design problem solving. We tried to explore the role the gestures and body movements play in design problem solving. Developing this idea further, we cited several facets of spatial intelligence from the protocols of the experiments. However, visibly rigorous gestures and body movements suggested that one must also go beyond spatial intelligence to explain designer’s actions. Let us reword the earlier questions,

Why did the designer move hands in the air to mimic the shape he was creating? Why did the architects and designers physically move through the mental spaces that they created in their mind’s eye?

Are there more effective explanations to gestures and body movements in the previously reported designer actions?

Part III searches for alternative theoretical framework that directly confronts the issue. It treats design as a corporal act that supports and sometimes dominates the cerebral act, i.e. the body and its movements take part in understanding, reasoning, judgment and in conceptualizing of idea in problem solving. It is called as embodied cognition, a framework that I realized design community will more easily identify with. This theory draws from many fields like sports and music, to present more convincing answers to why designers used gestures and body movements.

Both the theories show advantages of getting the body involved while thinking, particularly when innovations are spatial in nature. Let us take this perspective to argue our case. Keeping embodied cognition framework as a backdrop the post will move on to explain some of the design(erly) behaviour in the experiments reported in earlier posts.

Design as an embodied cognitive act

The discussion in this post extensively relies on the new framework proposed by embodied cognition. To understand the nuances of this framework, it is best to contrast it with its predecessor, the classical information processing model. With a short introduction to the relevant features of the classical model, we can return to embodied cognition.

Classical information processing model

In our last post, we treated designing as a cerebral act. This is consistent with the classical model, which focuses entirely on cerebral processing. Designer is viewed as an information processor, who manipulates symbols during problem solving. The model suggests that all cognitive processing is (or is best) done by neural processes inside the brain. The influences of computer model are visible in its focus on working memory load, long-term memory, information storage and finally the resultant action produced.

In the classical model, the external representations (like sketches or diagrammes) are seen as help to offload information. External representation has a limited passive role of acting as a vehicle or a transmission media that carries information for processing.1  It is assumed that the cognitive system passively receives information from the external representations.

On the other hand, embodied cognition takes an opposite view. So, after a brief introduction to the theoretical framework on which these new concepts are based, we will explore if it offers better insights into the observed design(erly) behavior in our experimental data.2

Understanding embodied cognition

Embodied cognition theory considers that the cognitive processes are distributed across internal and external representations. Interactions with external representations (like pictures and sketches) are the central process driving meaning and understanding.3 (Note 3) Embodied cognition concepts propose that many features of cognition are shaped by the characteristics and aspects of the physical body and these influences have significant causal role in cognitive processes beyond the brain. Embodiment assumes that what happens in the mind is depending on properties of the body, such as kinesthetics.

It is also argued that that the brain and the cognitive processes are developed for action, particularly motor action. So, the body and the motor systems are closely involved in most cognitive operations. It also recognizes that the cognitive processing is distributed across internal and external representations.3 (Note 3)

In this framework, the local environment is seen as an actual extension of the body’s cognitive process that is explored through active perceptual and motor actions. Ideal way to understand the concept is to imagine that if we had different physical attributes and capabilities, we would have understood and responded to the world differently. There is a conceptual shift from the classical model in suggesting that cognitive process also encode sensory-motor aspects during interaction. As we will see later in this post, both are key to understanding the role of gestures and body movements of the designers. Even behavior is seen as a result of embodied cognitive responses. Examples will help to understand the ideas and concepts.

Human response to musical renderings is an excellent example. In this approach, spontaneous bodily movement (moving hands, head and torso) contributes to musical meaning formation. Indeed most listeners do respond to music with body movements. On the other hand, in disembodied approach (i.e. cerebral) the focus is on perception and analysis of musical structure.

Take another example. In spatial task like rotating of object in space, most individuals use visual processes by imagining rotational movements in the mind’s eye. However, some complement this by using hand /palm gestures to mimic the movement of shape in space.  They favour motor processes to perform the same tasks, often with higher overall performance. It points to the influences of the motor system on high-level reasoning and cognition.

A more convincing example is the use of mental abacus by experts. Some expert abacus users rely heavily on visuo-motor operations by implementing the same sensory motor actions internally in their mind. Others use the same action covertly leading to gestures as if they were using a physical abacus. In mentally playing an imagined musical instrument, similar covert physical actions are sometimes visible. These examples from divergent areas convincingly explain the concepts of embodied cognition and active bodily involvement.

Embodied creation

Creative endeavors in arts recognize the role of bodily involvement and responses. The embodied cognitive responses have important role to play in creations. For example, production of live music integrates the corporal and the cerebral act. Most singers and musician spontaneously produce gestures and body movements when they sing or play a musical instrument.4 (Note 4) It is difficult (if not impossible) to see production of music as a disembodied act.

The spontaneous partnership of body in learning as well as creations is not unusual.5 (note 5) We also extensively use spontaneous gestures when talking on telephone, knowing fully well that the person on the other side is not able to see them.

How does embodied cognition explain design(erly) behavior? How do we then explain the use of sketching? And benefit of gestures and body movements accompanying mental imagery? All these are in someway used to represent the objects and spaces in our experiments. We will deal with these issues later in this post. Based on this exposure to embodied cognition framework, let us revisit the  discussion on the results of these series of experiments.

Corporal acts and creations

Like embodied music creations, the tasks of shaping and locating elements in space are embodied design actions. Such events are referred as embodied imagination and are derived from the idea of embodied cognition. They are based on the premise that the actions of the body can (and do) participate in the development of thought and ideas. Embodied design explorations rely on be gestures or movements of the body and visualization in the mind’s eye.

Embodied imagination explains how, in blindfolded conditions, SP generated and manipulated the objects in condition 1, and architects conceived spaces around them in condition 3 (mentioned in the preceding post). Designer’s moves and reflections in these experiments show embodied imagination in action. These are ideal examples of embodied spatial creations.

Gestures and movements as corporal acts

Watch SP’s hands during creation of the casserole shape in condition 1. They move to create, refine and perfect the shape of the object. Several processes seem to be at work here.

First, SP’s gestures seem to complement the visual system deployed in the development of his visualization i.e. the visual system acting on the internal mind’s eye display. He could then creatively react to the display. Second, the fact that SP developed the virtual shape in front of him at a fixed distance shows that his body played a role in locating and scaling the virtual shape in front of him.

Second, the embodied creation demands being there, virtually or physically, to create objects and building ‘things’ and locate decision with respect to the body. Though SP’s visualization was virtual, the protocols and the design decisions seem to suggest that the designer was present physically in these visualizations. SP was sitting on a chair and. sculpted the object in his visualization as a tabletop creation in ‘front of him’ and scaled it using ‘his hand movements’. The actions were within a spatial range that ‘his grasp’ permitted. See video 1 below.


Video 1: Everything that SP created was small enough to be within is grasp, so he could shape it with hand gestures

In the next series of experiments (condition 3), the architects were let into a large hall and blindfolded. The responses were dramatically different. Corporal involvement became more intense. Architects chose to physically move in the hall and imagined as if they were on a ‘real’ site and the environment. Their physical movements as well as navigation (embodied cognition) seem to have contributed not only to their understanding of the spaces but also to creatively altering of the spatial arrangements. Architects immersed themselves in the space they created and almost ‘walked and lived’ in the visualized enclosures. (See video 2) In virtually constructing the built spaces, they appear to have relied on the visual as well as movement memory!

Video 2: The architects were so immersed that appears as if they ‘walked and lived’ in the spaces that they created.

Third, in describing design actions, they referred to design, as well as site features with respect to their bodies. So it is not surprising that the transcripts are full of references like ‘in the front, on my left/right, behind me’ and so on. (See transcripts in figure 2) It is impossible to make sense of the spaces that the architect’s created without accounting for the their body, its location and orientation.6

Video 3: In the immersive steps, the architects were able to tell where they were when asked.

Figure 1

Figure 2: Terms like my left, right, in front, occur extensively in the transcripts.

Is design a cerebral act or a corporal act?

There is much that we could learn from both the standpoints. As a designer, I feel that the act of design switches between the cerebral and corporal along the different stages in the design process. Early analytical studies are cerebral and when the action moves towards synthesis, the designer seems to frequently switch between the two. Frankly, it is best left to the cognitive scientist to solve the puzzle.

Summing up

Preceding post (Part II: Reflecting on gestures as design behavior) treated design as a cerebral act and focused on spatial intelligence and its role in design problem solving. This post viewed designing as a cerebral act and looked at it through the classical information-processing model. It tried to explain designer’s gestures and body movements as a cerebral act.

The current post pursues the same questions that we started with. ‘Why did the designer move hands in the air to mimic the shape he was creating? How could the architects and designers physically move through the mental spaces that they created in their mind’s eye?’ This post explores new theory that offers a better explanation to designer’s actions.

The theory that is relied on is embodied cognition and in many ways it takes an opposite standpoint. It claims that what happens in the mind is dependent on properties of the body. The local environment is seen as an extension of body and its cognitive processing.

The theory also proposes that the brain and cognitive processes are developed for motor actions and they extract information through active perceptual and motor actions. The physical actions like gestures are seen as complimenting the visual processes. Through several convincing examples, it shows how the body actually participates in thinking as well as development of ideas. This post, (as well as the subsequent posts) focus on this connection between cognitive processing and motor actions.

Representations, both Internal (mind’s eye) and external (sketching), play key role in this theory. The interaction with representations is considered central to deriving meaning and understanding. The current post views design behavior as a result of embodied cognitive actions. The post also touches the extension of this idea to embodied imagination and creations as a corporal act. It suggests that such corporal acts observed in the experimental tasks may have influenced thinking and dictated design decisions.

Preview of the next post

The next post will focus on the reasons for accuracy of designer’s interaction. It will address the question,

How could designers corporally interact with a virtual, physically non-existent object that they created in their mind’s eye? And that too, with surprising accuracy?

The answers will be somewhat speculative. It is possible that the effect of mimicking the physical characteristics of the shapes and the spaces had something to do with accuracy with which they interacted with the objects and built spaces during the creation as well as the recall in final description. What ensured the vigorous and accurate interactions with physically non-existent objects?

We will deal with these important questions in the next post. It will also argue that the choice to use gestures is with the designer and his decision is influenced by useful contributions that movements make to the evolving thoughts.

Notes and reference

  1. Interestingly Robert McKim has also talked of sketches as vehicle of thoughts. See McKim, R., (1972) Experiences in Visual Thinking. Brook/Cole, California
  2. For more on embodied cognition refer to Wilson, M., (2002). ‘Six views of embodied cognition’. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. 9 (4): 625-635
  3. Pande, P., & Chandrasekharan, S., (2017) Representational competence: towards a distributed and embodied cognition account. Studies in science education, 1-13
  4. Even in the radio era when the musicians could not be seen, the gestures were not absent, but were less conspicuous.
  5. There is also conscious production of practiced bodily responses, as part of learning a spatial task. Most sportsmen practice their playing actions in the air, to reinforce their embodied responses, but their relationship with thoughts is slightly different.
  6. Location of objects or elements with respect to the body is common and is considered almost innate. George Lakoff points out that human movement revolves around standing erect and moving the body in an up-down motion. Humans innately have these concepts of up and down. Lakoff and Johnson contend this is similar with other spatial orientations such as front and back too.