The Cartesian paradigm which dominated (plagued?) science for the past three centuries is gradually being jettisoned. In the cognitive sciences, one of the latest theories being actively researched is called Embodied Cognition, which posits that the mind is inextricably tied to the environment. It argues that higher cognitive processes are shaped by and grounded in the bodily experience. In the works of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother Mirra Alfassa, we find unstinting affirmation for this model of cognition; in fact, their whole model of Integral Psychology is based on a fine-grained differentiation of the intricate connection between the mind, the vital and the physical parts of the human consciousness. In this article, we present the connection between the Integral Psychology of Sri Aurobindo and Embodied cognition.
It was previously theorized that the brain behaves like a computer, processing data largely independently of the body. By contrast, the recent theory of “Embodied Cognition” says that the mind can be influenced by the temperature of the room, the texture of the objects one is in contact with, the hardness of the chair one is sitting on and so on and so forth. The human psyche can tie physical cleanliness with moral purity – called the Lady Macbeth effect(“Out, damn spot! Out I say!”). Recollection of past emotional states is also said to influence the mental judgements being currently made. These are excerpts from a few experiments discussed on the Discover Magazine blog.
On the bodily influence on the thought process:
Ackerman showed that holding a light or heavy clipboard can affect a person’s decision-making. In a study of 54 volunteers, those who clutched the heavier board rated a job candidate more highly based on their resume, and thought that they displayed a more serious interest in the job. They even rated their own assessments as being more important! …. According to Ackerman, these effects happen because our understanding of abstract concepts is deeply rooted in physical experiences. 
On the effect of cleanliness on moral judgements:
Chen-Bo Zhong from the University of Toronto and Katie Liljenquist from Northwestern University have now revealed the strong links between unblemished hands and stain-free hearts in a series of clever psychological experiments. They asked two groups of people to remember a good or bad deed from their past. Afterwards, the volunteers solved a simple word puzzle by filling in the missing letters in three incomplete words: W_ _H, SH_ _ER and S_ _P. Remarkably, those who remembered unethical deeds thought of cleaning-related words, like shower, wash and soap, about 60% more often than other words that could equally have fit, like wish, shaker and step. Those who remembered ethical actions showed no such preference 
Regarding the effect of the room atmosphere on the mind:
In a second experiment, the trio again ushered 99 students into either a scented or unscented room. They were given a pack of miscellaneous tasks, including a flyer requesting volunteers for a charity called Habitat for Humanity. Those in the citrus-scented rooms were more likely to be interested in volunteering, and almost four times more willing to donate money to the cause….Zhong’s new study also provides some indirect support for the broken windows theory, which suggests that signs of petty crime, like the eponymous broken windows, can trigger yet more criminal behaviour. Disorder breeds disorder. 
These are a few parallel remarks by the Mother Mirra Alfassa which corroborate the observations we saw above. In the first passage, she discusses the physiological influence on cognition:
The sense organs are under the influence of the psychological state of the individual because something comes in between the eye’s perception and the brain’s reception. It is very subtle; the brain receives the eye’s perceptions through the nerves; there is no reasoning, it is so to say instantaneous, but there is a short passage between the eye’s perception and the cell which is to respond and evaluate it in the brain. And it is this evaluation of the brain which is under the influence of feelings. It is the small vibration between what the eye sees and what the brain estimates which often falsifies the response. And it is not a question of good faith, for even the most sincere persons do not know what is happening, even very calm people, without any violent emotion, who do not even feel an emotion, are influenced in this way without being aware of the intervention of this little falsifying vibration. At times moral notions also intermix and falsify the judgment but we must throw far away from us all moral notions; for morality and Truth are very far from each other (if I am shocking anybody by saying this, I am sorry, but it is like that). It is only when you have conquered all attraction and all repulsion that you can have a correct judgment. As long as there are things that attract you and things that repel you, it is not possible for you to have an absolutely sure functioning of the senses. 
In this passage, she discusses the environmental influence on cognition:
One believes he has his own way of thinking. Not at all. It depends totally upon the people one speaks with or the books he has read or on the mood he is in. It depends also on whether you have a good or bad digestion, it depends on whether you are shut up in a room without proper ventilation or whether you are in the open air; it depends on whether you have a beautiful landscape before you; it depends on whether there is sunshine or drain! You are not aware of it, but you think all kinds of things, completely different according to a heap of things which have nothing to do with you! 
The Integral Psychology of Sri Aurobindo explains the notion of “embodied cognition” through a tripartite division of the human mind as follows:
- The mind proper: This is further sub-divided into the three parts: the thinking mind concerned with ideas in their own right, the dynamic mind centered at the Ajna Chakra which is focused on the realization of the idea, and lastly the externalizing mind centered at the Vishuddha or Throat Chakra which is concerned with the outward expression of the idea.
- The vital mind: This is the part of the mind which is under the influence of the vital (Prana or energy). Its function is not to think but to dream and imagine the future. It is adroit at finding self-justification for the ambitions and passions which arise from the heart. When the day is sunny or the room is bright, the vital mind exults but when atmosphere is dull and dreary, it sulks.
- The physical mind: This is the part of the mind which is shackled to the physiological state of the body. The physical mind is fixed on physical objects and happenings, sees and understands these only and deals with them according to their own nature. It relies solely on the input of the senses and has difficulty responding and accepting any notion of a higher consciousness – imagination, intuition, etc. In it’s extreme mechanical aspect, it worries whether the door has been locked, whether the lights in the house were turned off, and whether the bills have been paid.
The tripartite division posited above is a direct reflection of Man’s evolutionary origin. These are the animalistic atavisms which continue to live within the human consciousness and shape the thought process, according to Sri Aurobindo:
The course of evolution proceeding from the vegetable to the animal, from the animal to the man, starts in the latter from the subhuman; he has to take up into him the animal and even the mineral and vegetable: they constitute his physical nature, they dominate his vitality, they have their hold upon his mentality. His proneness to many kinds of inertia, his readiness to vegetate, his attachment to the soil and clinging to his roots, to safe anchorages of all kinds, and on the other hand his nomadic and predatory impulses, his blind servility to custom and the rule of the pack, his mob-movements and openness to subconscious suggestions from the group-soul, his subjection to the yoke of rage and fear, his need of punishment and reliance on punishment, his inability to think and act for himself, his incapacity for true freedom, his distrust of novelty, his slowness to seize intelligently and assimilate, his downward propensity and earthward gaze, his vital and physical subjection to his heredity, all these and more are his heritage from the subhuman origins of his life and body and physical mind. 
For more on this model of psychology, please refer to the page on the Constitution of Man or the wikipedia page on the Integral Psychology of Sri Aurobindo. For in-depth information, see the two books A Greater Psychology and Sri Aurobindo and Future Psychology published by A.S. Dalal on Integral Psychology [7, 8]. You can also buy them via SABDA by following these links: A Greater Psychology and Future Psychology. Indra Sen, a disciple of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, pioneered the field with his book Integral Psychology
- Heavy, rough and hard – how the things we touch affect our judgments and decisions Discover Magazine Blog, June 25, 2010.
- The Lady Macbeth effect – how physical cleanliness affects moral cleanliness. Discover Magazine Blog, July 5, 2008.
- Clean smells promote generosity and fair play; dark rooms and sunglasses promote deceit and selfishness. Discover Magazine Blog, Feb 8, 2010.
- Mother Mirra Alfassa. Collected Works of the Mother, Vol 4, p 11
- Mother Mirra Alfassa. Collected Works of the Mother, Vol 6, p 258
- Sri Aurobindo. CWSA Vol 25, Human Cycle, p 74.
- A.S. Dalal. A Greater Psychology—An Introduction to the Psychological Thought of Sri Aurobindo. Tarcher/Putnam (December 2000)
- A.S. Dalal. Sri Aurobindo and the Future Psychology SABDA Pondicherry.
- Similarity between Neurological and Yogic models of human memory
- Epistemology of perception
- The action of subliminal memory
- Sleep disorders : somnambulism and somniloquy
- Sri Aurobindo on synchronicity
- The brain is not the mind as per Yoga psychology
- The existence of vital signs during sleep or coma
- Four epistemic methods of consciousness
- Illustrating Integral Psychology using the Gita
- Explaining out-of-body and near-death experiences