Embodied cognition theory states that our thoughts and emotions are profoundly affected by our physical bodies. A new study takes this idea further, claiming that our bodily states — particularly when they're urgent — can even influence our metaphysical beliefs.

Unlike Cartesian mind-body dualism, embodied cognition puts forth the notion that the mind is not only connected to the body, but that the body influences the mind. The theory, though controversial, suggests that our cognition, or brain states, are strongly determined by our experiences in the physical world. Indeed, previous studies have shown that our bodily movements and configurations can influence our attitudes.

For example, we enjoy things more when we nod yes, we are happier when we smile, and we suspect that botox injections stunt our ability to feel emotions. In addition, people's judgements of social closeness can be influenced by room temperature, and their attentional style by the clothes they wear.

But does embodied cognition also apply to our philosophical beliefs? Psychologists Michael Ent and Roy Baumeister ran several surveys to find out.

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Results from the first survey, which exclusively considered people with panic disorder and epilepsy, showed that individuals with these conditions feel that people in general have less free will — a finding consistent with the premise that having less control of one's body undermines belief in free will.

To assess feelings of free will, the researchers asked such questions as, "I actively choose what to do from the options I have."

A second study asked people to rate their current state of needing to urinate, wanting sex, feeling tired, or hungry. Aside from hunger, those who felt any of these physical needs tended to report lower beliefs in their own personal free will. A third survey addressed the hunger issue, showing that non-dieters believed less in free will when they felt hungry, while dieters showed a trend in the opposite direction (makes sense).

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The British Psychological Society offers an explanation — and some important caveats — about these findings:

Ent and Baumeister concluded that "embodiment may be a more far-reaching phenomenon than previous research has demonstrated" affecting not only people's views of the world and interactions with others, but also their abstract, philosophical beliefs. "Others have assumed that beliefs about free will are shaped by religious and political doctrines and logical reasoning," they said, "yet such beliefs are at least influenced by bodily cues as seemingly innocuous as a full bladder or an unfulfilled desire for sex."

Some may find these conclusions premature. This was not an experimental study, so rather than states of physical need being induced, they were entirely subjective. Of course physical need is a subjective experience, but the current methodology can't rule out the possibility that people with reduced beliefs in free will also tend to be more sensitive to their physical needs, or more happy to disclose them. In a similar vein, unmeasured factors such as mood or personality could be causally responsible for both greater sensitivity to one's physical needs and a reduced belief in free will. Unmeasured factors, such as differences in affluence and lifestyle, could also help explain the findings for people with epilepsy and panic disorder, without recourse to theories of embodied cognition.

All this said, this conclusion is far from outrageous. They're probably right. That our bodies have a profound influence on our mental thoughts shouldn't come as a surprise; in fact, it's an assumption that drives many AI researchers who contend that a machine, in order to experience the world subjectively, must be embodied. When it comes to body and mind, you can't have one without the other.

Read the entire article at BPS Digest. And check out the entire study at Consciousness and Cognition: "Embodied free will beliefs: Some effects of physical states on metaphysical opinions".

Top image: momoforsale/shutterstock.

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