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Day 26/03/2014

{ Rethinking Cognition } Is Moving the Key to Deeper Thinking?

Heart Poster

What if we are meant to be moving while we are thinking?

When I was a teenager, I spent many winter weekends shoveling the snow off a very small pond in western Massachusetts so that I could ice skate. I wasn’t a particularly good skater, and because the ice was generally bumpy and scarred and hemmed in by snowbanks, I had to keep a constant eye on the ice as I moved forward. I would skate around and around on that little pond for hours in a pleasant sort of trance.

As a freshman in college, I took an introductory graphic design class that allowed only “hand work,” no computers. I vividly remember one particular assignment, a pair of posters. For one, I cut and glued a grid of thirty identical paper arrows trained on a heart. For the other, I cut and glued thirty or forty identical hearts taking a precipitous and bouncing fall. (I guess it was Valentine’s Day.) I stayed up till dawn, contentedly cutting and gluing, cutting and gluing. I was focused but relaxed. Time flew.

After college, I was introduced to Peter Elbow’s practice of “freewriting” by my Riverdale colleague David Nicholson, a veteran member of the English department. Freewriting is a 10- to 15-minute spell of writing by hand, without stopping or editing. As such, it’s useful to focus on the constant motion of the hand to ward against self-editing. For me, freewriting works like a dredger, hauling ideas from the depths of my mind.

Those simple, repetitive motions  — watchful ice skating, repeated cutting and gluing, writing by hand — required a low level of attention that seemed to draw out ideas with greater fluidity than usual. It was as if the physical activity quietly occupied the dominant region of my brain, allowing a more remote realm to emerge without obstruction.

Whether gluing pieces of paper, chopping vegetables, or mowing the lawn, repetitive motion may create a constructive form of distraction that gets us out of our own way. It might even help give rise to flow.

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I didn’t link the three experiences I describe above until I came across the research of art educator and Teachers College professor Andrea Kantrowitz. She studies the cognitive basis of drawing, in particular how the physical experience of sketching gives experienced artists access to ideas and understanding. In an 2012 article entitled “The Man behind the Curtain: What Cognitive Science Reveals about Drawing,” she examines the important place of drawing and sketching in many artists’ thought processes.

[Drawing] is a powerful tool for nonverbal inquiry, for thinking through problems and analyzing experiences. Beginning to draw, you immediately discover that you understand far less about what you see than you had assumed and that there is much more there than you had imagined. Drawing enables the drawer to see and comprehend that which is beyond words.

Could that understanding come, in part, from the physical movement drawing requires?

 […] Human thought is often continuous. Quick, gestural drawing—that is, sketching—unlike these other symbol systems, is also continuous…. As neuroscientist Vinod Goel explains, sketching is replete and dense. Its indeterminacies and gaps reflect the way we actually think through problems and provide openings for the new and unforeseen. Ambiguity is not only tolerated but cultivated by expert practitioners in order to make room for the draftsman to be surprised by her own work. 

Cognitive scientists have studied the drawing practices of experts who use rough sketches to inspire new design solutions. More than a mere aid to short-term memory, sketches are not just about lightening cognitive load, or even making new combinations. Sketches support radical restructuring of percepts and concepts, stimulating new analogies and leading the way to innovation and invention. Through disassembling and making new combinations, old sketches may generate new ideas.

This area of research draws on the theory of embodied cognition, which holds that cognition doesn’t reside exclusively in the brain but rather is the integration of brain activity and bodily experience.

As I sit and write this — not having risen, or effectively even moved, for a couple of hours — embodied cognition makes intuitive sense: we probably evolved to do our best thinking in action, not in perfect stillness. As a species we have never led less physically active lives than we do now, at least in the developed world. Think of the dozens of daily tasks that machines have largely taken out of our hands: plowing, threshing, kneading, mending, weaving, and so on. The sedentary way in which we live — and experience school, for that matter — is entirely new to our species, and it may be cutting us off from deeper thinking and ideas.

Doodling and fidgeting by certain students are increasingly tolerated by educators who understand that such habits actually help those learners concentrate. Might a limited degree of physical activity enhance the thinking of every student?

If so, how might we constructively bring movement into our thinking, particularly in schools? What physical activities would enhance students’ cognition — rather than dissipate it?

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