Helsinki Summer School keynote: David Kirsh ”Thinking with Our Body and Other Things”

Helsinki Summer School keynote: David Kirsh ”Thinking with Our Body and Other Things”

The Helsinki Summer School on Cognition, Communication and the Brain presents a special keynote lecture given by Prof. David Kirsh, UCSD.

The lecture is free of charge and open to everyone interested in embodied cognition and systematic ways of looking at human behaviour in ecologically-valid settings.


Where does thought, creativity and understanding come from? For much of the past decade I have been studying the creative practice of a super expert choreographer. I have also been studying problem solving, design thinking and new approaches to situated cognition. A common element running through these studies is that in natural contexts people use resources of all sorts to think with. They use their bodies, their gestures, instruments, tools, representations and everyday objects. The simple thesis I advance is that people often think their ideas through by modeling them. The models they create are partial and personal. Sometimes these models are encoded in recognized forms: words, drawings, writing. But often people use their body to create a partial model of the thing they are trying to understand.

For instance, when thinking through the structure of a movement, dancers will usually ’mark’ the movement rather than dance it full out. Marking is a movement reduction system like gesturing. This external modeling is itself a form of thinking because it is directed, interactive and representational. It should be regarded as much a part of thought as other expressive modalities, such as speaking, writing or drawing, all usually recognized as enactions or encodings of thought.

To defend this view, I describe how thought often relies on active perception enhanced by mental projection. Because interacting with things, including moving our bodies, can improve projection it forms part of an interactive strategy for thinking. This explains how we can harness the analog computation performed by moving objects to share the computational effort of thought, and so keep thought moving forward.