Embodied cognition in Yoga psychology

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. [1]

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 [2]

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. [3]

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. [4]

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! [5]

The Integral Psychology of Sri Aurobindo explains the notion of “embodied cognition” through a tripartite division of the human mind as follows:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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. [6]

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


  1. Heavy, rough and hard – how the things we touch affect our judgments and decisions Discover Magazine Blog, June 25, 2010.
  2. The Lady Macbeth effect – how physical cleanliness affects moral cleanliness. Discover Magazine Blog, July 5, 2008.
  3. Clean smells promote generosity and fair play; dark rooms and sunglasses promote deceit and selfishness.  Discover Magazine Blog, Feb 8, 2010.
  4. Mother Mirra Alfassa.  Collected Works of the Mother, Vol 4, p 11
  5. Mother Mirra Alfassa.  Collected Works of the Mother, Vol 6, p 258
  6. Sri Aurobindo.  CWSA Vol 25, Human Cycle, p 74.
  7. A.S. Dalal.  A Greater Psychology—An Introduction to the Psychological Thought of Sri Aurobindo. Tarcher/Putnam (December 2000)
  8. A.S. Dalal.  Sri Aurobindo and the Future Psychology SABDA Pondicherry.

Related Posts

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  2. Epistemology of perception
  3. The action of subliminal memory
  4. Sleep disorders : somnambulism and somniloquy
  5. Sri Aurobindo on synchronicity
  6. The brain is not the mind as per Yoga psychology
  7. The existence of vital signs during sleep or coma
  8. Four epistemic methods of consciousness
  9. Illustrating Integral Psychology using the Gita
  10. Explaining out-of-body and near-death experiences

16 thoughts on “Embodied cognition in Yoga psychology

  1. Pingback: Memory transference in organ transplant recipients | Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo & The Mother

  2. stumblingmystic

    Nice post! I’ve been thinking about the same thing. It’s quite sad that cognitive scientists don’t know anything about the integral yoga, because it is the embodied cognition par excellence.

  3. Sandeep Post author

    Some more evidence…

    Two recent studies from Germany provide evidence that sensory perception is diminished in depressed individuals…

    To determine if depression has an effect on vision, neuropsychiatrist Ludger Tebartz van Elst of the University of Freiburg hooked up depressed patients and control subjects to a pattern electroretinograph, a device that measures electrical signals in the retina. When viewing black-and-white checkerboard images, people with depression showed markedly reduced electrical responses….

    Separately, otorhinolaryngologist Thomas Hummel of the University of Dresden Medical School explored odor perception in depressed patients. Compared with control subjects, he found, people suffering from depression were less able to detect weak smells; MRI scans revealed that they had smaller olfactory bulbs, the brain structures involved in odor perception.

    Source: http://discovermagazine.com/2010/dec/01-how-depression-dulls-the-world-literally

  4. Pingback: On absent-mindedness, instinctive and willful actions | Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo & The Mother

  5. Pingback: Insights into animal cognition | Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo & The Mother

  6. Sandeep Post author

    The Mother says above, “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…”

    Studies done by psychologist Jerome Bruner in the mid-twentieth century were the first that supported the above observation. He developed the “New Look” approach which proposed that the perceptual processes are subject to motivational influences.

    In 1947, Bruner published his classic study Value and Need as Organizing Factors in Perception in which poor and rich children were asked to estimate the size of coins or wooden disks the size of American pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters and half-dollars. The results showed that the value and need the poor and rich children associated with coins caused them to significantly overestimate the size of the coins, especially when compared to their more accurate estimations of the same size disks. (from wikipedia)

    Similarly, before the 1960 US election, supporters of two candidates Kennedy and Nixon were asked which of the two is taller. Kennedy supporters inevitably thought Kennedy was taller.

    Two groups of students were introduced to the same person, for one group as Mr X from England and for the other as Professor X from England. The Professor was judged to be taller than the ordinary man.

    Similarly, another classic study conducted by Bruner and Leo Postman showed slower reaction times and less accurate answers when a deck of playing cards reversed the color of the suit symbol for some cards (e.g. red spades and black hearts)


    Click to access Bruner%20and%20Goodman.pdf

  7. nizken

    It’s a metaphor for the vibes in this context. Every group has an atmosphere around it, I’m sure you have noticed that the atmosphere at a party or rock concert is different from that at a meeting.

    In this sentence I don’t think he refers to any particular “soul-entity” as such. He refers to the group-vibes 😉

    1. Sandeep Post author

      To supplement what Nizken said earlier…

      Mother: There are individual egos and collective egos. For example, the national ego is a collective ego. A group may have a collective ego. The human race has a collective ego. It is bigger or smaller….One has many egos inside oneself. One becomes aware of them when one begins to destroy them: when one has destroyed
      an ego, that which was most troublesome, usually it creates a kind of inner cyclone. When one comes out of the storm, one feels, “Ah, now it is over, everything is done, I have destroyed the enemy inside me, all is finished.”…..

      Usually collective egos are inferior in quality to individual egos. Instead of being a multiplication or even an addition, it becomes a diminution, usually. Psychologically it is a well-known fact. Take men individually, they show common sense. But put them all together, it makes a stupid human mass.

      (Collected Works of the Mother, vol. 7, pp 11-13)

      Mother: The level of collective consciousness is always lower than the individual level. It is very noticeable, for example, that when men gather in a group or collect in great numbers, the level of consciousness falls a great deal. The consciousness of crowds is much lower than individual consciousness, and the collective consciousness of society is certainly lower than the consciousness of the individuals constituting it.

      (Collected Works of the Mother, vol. 9, p 354)

      Sri Aurobindo : There is everywhere a group energy, group life, group mind, and if soul is, then we have reason to believe that however elusive it may be to our seizing, there is a group-soul which is the support and foundation—some would call it the result— of this communal variety. That gives us a ground for a group karma. For the group or collective soul renews and prolongs itself and in man at least develops its nature and experience from generation to generation. And who knows whether, when one form of it is disintegrated, community or nation, it may
      not wait for and assume other forms in which its will of being, its type of nature and mentality, its attempt of experience is carried forward, migrates, one might almost say, into new-born collective bodies, in other ages or cycles? Mankind itself has this
      separate collective soul and collective existence. And on that community the community of karma is founded; the action and development of the whole produces consequence of karma and experience for the individual and the totality even as the action and development of the individual produces consequences and experience for others, for the group, for the whole. And the individual is there; you cannot reduce him to a nullity or an illusion; he is real, alive, unique. The communal soul-variation mounts up from the rest, exceeds, brings in or brings out something more, something new, adds novel powers in the evolution.

      (Collected Works of Sri Aurobindo, vol 13, Essays on Philosophy and Yoga, pp 362-363)

  8. Pingback: Hands can become independently conscious | Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo & The Mother

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