Perception is Embodied (but what does that mean?)

Of course, we all know that each of us sees things a little differently.

For example, if you’re lactose intolerant (or a vegan), dairy ice cream looks very different to you than it might to someone else. If you were bit by a dog as a child, then you don’t see them as the same friendly lovable animals someone else might. And we all have different reactions when we see political messages.

It’s easy to account for many reasons why we perceive things differently, including our history, preferences or mood. But you may not know– as I didn’t!– that our perception of objects and experiences is also affected by our perceived ability to act on those objects or experiences.

Our perception of objects and experiences is affected by our perceived ability to act on those objects or experiences!

What does this mean? Well, the information we perceive about the size, speed, distance, etc., of an object is not completely objective. That is, there’s not little ruler in our brain saying, “that object is 8″ high!” Instead, our brain considers how we might interact with that object, and how effective we might be in those interactions.

What does embodied perception mean?

Imagine you’re playing baseball, bat in hand, watching as a ball flies toward you. How big that ball looks depends on your perceived ability to hit it. Mickey Mantle once said (after hitting a 500 foot home run!), “I just saw the ball as big as a grapefruit.” In contrast, Joe Medwick (another MLB player, if not as famous) commented that being in a slump was like “swinging at aspirins.”

Rob Gray has studied the effects of embodied perception in sports and found that it’s true– top athletes truly do perceive the ball (or goalposts, net, bullseye, golf hole) to be bigger than those with less skill. In other words, their confidence in their ability causes them to see it as a more achievable target.

So maybe you’re not a pro athlete, or even much of a casual athlete. There are still profound implications for embodied perception theory. For example, a 1999 study by Proffitt and Bhalla demonstrated that people who were wearing a heavy backpack; older or in declining physical health; or of lower physical fitness were more likely to say that a hill looks steeper than those are younger, taller, or not wearing a heavy backpack. Another study determined that those in a sad mood would determine the hill to be steeper than those who did not report a sad mood. And yet another study (these guys like to study hills!) showed that fear can also determine one’s perception of steepness.

There are many fascinating studies that show that we perceive the world around us based on our ability to interact with it. We look at stairs and decide whether or not we can climb them based on our eye height, or limb length.

We see our environment not as it is, but as it is for us.

Dr. James Gibson has studied just how animals perceive the world around them. He speaks about it in terms of “affordances,” as in, “What can this environment afford me?” When we look at a wall, we are determining whether or not we can get through or over the wall, or perhaps whether or not it might keep others out. We determine whether or not we will fit into a chair (a major issue for those with larger bodies). We see our environment not as it is, but as it is for us.

Using embodied perception to our advantage

This concept of embodied perception means that our mental, emotional and psychological experience of a person, situation, or object is affected by our ability to maneuver it.

If we feel able to move well, we are more likely to feel confident about how we’ll handle a situation. If we don’t feel strong or mobile, a situation may feel more challenging, frightening or dangerous. We may find ourselves avoiding this type of situation or encounter completely.

This is one of the many ways that a movement and embodiment practice can have a positive effect on our mental/emotional health. There are lots of great ways to work on this. Play, strength, dexterity, balance and mobility training are all important. In many cases, I find that my clients simply haven’t had the opportunity to practice– or even try!– doing some things.

One of my clients had been feeling nervous about getting on and off her new boat– the ladder felt challenging for her. As she’s grown stronger and more confident in her body, she no longer fears the ladder– it looks quite different to her.

Another client had learned to fear bending his knee too far as it felt unstable. He would consider any new movement by thinking about how his knee would handle the challenge. The other day, I watched him move effortlessly from standing to hands-and-knees– something that was completely undoable six months ago. His perception of the environment has shifted so drastically that he almost can’t remember what it felt like to be afraid of that knee giving out.

Access to the right tools to assist us is also a big part of embodied perception. For example mobility aids, vision assistance, hearing aids or prosthetics can help us to perceive our environment differently. Before I put my contact lenses on in the morning, I am seriously visually impaired, and it impacts my behavior. I can’t drive a car, watch TV, make proper eye contact, etc. I need to behave in a risk-averse way until I’m able to see properly.

Some things will always be beyond our control or abilities. Many folks lack access or privilege to be able to manipulate the world around them. And few of us will ever see the baseball “as big as a grapefruit.” I’m more interested in folks seeing the possibilities here for greater confidence– not just physically, but emotionally and mentally as well– that comes with a movement practice. Embodied perception as a concept means that we have an opportunity to address anxiety and stress with movement– and it can be a lot of fun, too.

4 thoughts on “Perception is Embodied (but what does that mean?)

  1. I really enjoyed reading this Laura. The baseball as either a grapefruit or aspirin had me laughing, and it really made sense too. I watched Hamlet in awe of Ofelia’s ability to jump to high places- right now she’s sleeping on top of the fridge. He never tried getting higher than a chair, or my bed- which is a mattress only on a low platform. We moved to this apartment over 5 years ago. About 4 months after being here I came home to find him spread out on the window, which is rather high. I was shocked, he seemed even more so. Now he has no problem jumping onto and off the kitchen counter, He is still eyeing the top of the fridge and yikes if he does! I am going to bring this information into my own awareness of activities. Thank you for this.

  2. Really interesting and so true. Some days I perceive the house cleaning to be no big deal and I have energy around it. When I perceive it to be a big chore, I feel sluggish and tired. Same situation. Two perceptions. Two different embodied responses.

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