Embodied cognition: what it means to “Throw Like a Girl”

While I tell myself now that I’m just “not the athletic type,” the reality is that I used to be. Back in middle school, I recall actually really enjoying track and field, basketball, and soccer. But the age at which young girls enter peak physical shape also marks a time in which ill-rehearsed gender roles begin to cement themselves and become immutable features of our social repertoire.

The rehearsal of these gender performances run deep enough to mold even our most basic bodily movements. In “Throwing like a Girl,” Iris Young dissects the work of two of my favourite philosophers-the notorious SDB and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (who was, coincidentally, Simone de Beauvoir’s first boyfriend).

You’re probably already familiar with de Beauvoir’s Second Sex, in which she describes some of the structural biological differences between men and women that have perhaps led to female oppression.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, also a preeminent phenomenologist at the time, argued mostly for the primacy of embodiment – meaning that any sweeping claims about the nature of the external universe must first take into account our physical bodies and how they move, perceive, sense, and interact with the outer world.He would argue that if you want to study consciousness, you can’t only study the brain – you must understand the basic sensorimotor phenomena which feed the brain everything it knows.

The concept of embodied cognition is taking off in cognitive neuroscience these days. The embodiment thesis suggests that “many features of cognition are embodied in that they are deeply dependent upon characteristics of the physical body of an agent, such that the agent’s beyond-the-brain body plays a significant causal role, or a physically constintutive role, in that agent’s cognitive processing.”

This is, of course, a hot topic in AI research; Alan Turing himself said that in order for AI to think and speak like a human, it would probably not only need heavy-duty cognitive processing power… it would require fully human-like peripheral sensorimotor capabilities, as well.

In any case, Young’s hypothesis suggests that despite the purely physical, genetically-encoded differences between men and women, one’s being a woman prevents her from achieving her full physical potential because to some degree, she is constantly engaging in self-objectification.

When, for instance, a ball is thrown to me, I have a tendency to think that it is being thrown at me,and will then run, duck, and hide, instead of trying to catch it. (I was never really one for heading the high balls in soccer). Or when girls learn to ride bikes or ski, they often see themselves as the object of a motion, rather than its originator.

I’ve often wondered why horse-back riding was such a female-dominated sport, and Young’s essay shed light on this for me. The classic Freudian explanation is that young girls crave the ability to tame and control a wild, powerful animal (representative of the id)– the horse becomes an extension of the rider’s willpower, such that the ego draws power from the id in the act of controlling it. Another classic Freudian analysis would be the innate sexuality of the physical vibrations for little girls. Yet another is the idea that young girls (lacking a phallus, and therefore hopelessly incomplete) are attracted to and wish to possess powerful, phallic creatures like horses.

Young’s theory might explain this innate draw in a much more consistent (and less misogynistic) way. If it’s true that women have a tendency to see themselves relationally (in relation to the features of their physical environment), then horseback riding is quite naturally appealing to young girls, being one of the only solo sports in which one must position oneself in relation to another agent (the horse) in order to succeed. Contrast this sport to something like dirt-bike riding or motocross: quite similar in concept (control a thing, make it go as fast as possible), and yet you’d be hard-pressed to find a single girl in the top 100 motocrossers in the world. This is because when girls learn to ride a dirt-bike, they see themselves as the object of the motion, rather than its originator; whereas horseback riding forces them to position themselves in relation to the horse. To be a good horseback rider, you have to understand the horse’s wants, coax it to change direction, and praise it constantly for achieving your ends. This is, of course, in addition to all the other good analysis about animals and women and our innate penchant for empathizing with creatures of nature.

Young’s paper also touches on the almighty male gaze and its effects on our bodily comportment. In my track and field days, I can definitely recall girls holding back in shot put simply because they were afraid of how it would look to other people (way too masculine a sport). Not to mention all the girls who run away from the frisbee instead of trying to catch it because they don’t want to get hit. Her  hypothesis is elegant, and complete: Women are used to being looked at and acted upon, like objects rather than subjects. And this conditioning changes even our most fundamental cognitive processing at a basic, sensorimotor level. We see ourselves in relation to the objects of our environment, rather than free and autonomous agents within it.

As a result, we are confined by our own bodies. Rather than seeing them as avatars through which we can achieve our ends, we view them as hindrances. We seldom throw a ball or lift a box with our full weight and corporal potential because we are conditioned to believe we are delicate objects and to constantly second-guess our chances at success.

The cognitive component to this argument cannot be understated.The way we understand and control our own bodies is crucial to the way that we think and perceive the world around us. Think of the recent neuroscience papers which demonstrate that visual processing is modulated by active flight in drosophila (fruit flies). This could essentially show how the very act of moving and dynamically controlling our bodies changes the way we visually process the world in real-time. Recent fMRI studies have also shown how the planning and perception of actions may be influenced by one’s body posture. Popular science outlets have moreover found clickbait fodder in studies showing that “power posing” (assuming a broad, upright posture of dominance) produced lower cortisol and higher testosterone levels in both men and women, leading to socially advantageous behavioral changes. The implications of this particular finding are disturbing when paired with the observation that women are rewarded for taking up as little physical space as possible in social situations, both literally and metaphorically. I shudder to think of the neurological effects that being taught to “sit like a lady,” “walk like a woman,” and “throw like a girl” has on the way a woman perceives her sense of self, her body, and the obstacles and challenges in her environment. It scares me to think that these effects might be so deep-rooted as to impact us at the level of primary sensory perception, sensorimotor modulation, and downstream cognition.

At a very basic cognitive level, Young suggests that young girls are typically conditioned to be “field-dependent” learners, as opposed to their field-independent male counterparts. The idea of field dependence as cognitive style was one of the earliest of its kind, advanced by Herman Witkin in the 60’s; and the support for this gendered trend is quite undeniable. Women perceive themselves to be more or less continuous with their spatial environment, while men perceive themselves as free, central agents within it. Unsurprisingly, this cognitive style suggests women are more heavily context-driven; female performance in a clerical task seemed to be far more affected  by whether their examiner seemed “approving” or “disapproving” throughout, reflecting a “greater attentiveness to the attitudes of those around them.”

Fascinating essays like Young’s make me certain that as the themes of neuroethics expand to encompass those of neuroexistentialism, feminist theory will play an increasingly prominent role.


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