Il presente articolo è stato pubblicato come “Letter” sul Social Network scientifico “Academia” nel 2021.

This paper origins from several years of studies and researches on cognition, knowledge and cognitive processes. It aims to contribute to a better understanding of some current issues related to this research area, and to point out a way for possible solutions.

Research in such area has come, today, to a substantial stalemate: vexed questions like the relationship between emotions and reason, the role of the body in cognition, as well as the explanatory power of neuroimaging for observable behaviours, and so on, seem to be far from being settled.

Very roughly, we can divide this research area into two opposite fields: cognitivism vs. embodiment theories. It is a rough representation because it does not take into account the different positions which are present in each field, and the innumerable nuances in which the basic concepts are expressed1. However, at the core of it, cognitivism conceives the brain as a data processing machine, the Central Nervous System (CNS) as the absolute command and control centre of the whole organism, and the body as a mere instrument of the CNS, like a mechanistic effector only. Oppositely, the many different versions of embodiment share the idea that the body, and its interactions with the CNS and with the environment, have a crucial role in human behaviour, knowledge and cognitive processes.

The most interesting aspect, however, is the common trait shared between the opposite fronts: for they both, brain and CNS guide human behaviours. For cognitivists, brain is a real command and control centre which works through algorithms and information processing (perception as input, motor answers as output); the brain/body relationship is one-way from perceptions to brain processing to motor answers. Embodiment upholders have a different concept: brain processes are fed through the “mediation” of the body and the relationship between the two is circular, with continuous reciprocal influence. In other words: cognitivism proposes an expressly divided vision, with the brain (and/or mind) rigidly separated from the body and in dominant position. For embodiment theories, the organism is an “integrated system”, as much as to say it is composed by different parts which are just assembled to work together, not composing a true unique reality.

There is a communication aspect to be underlined: the cognitivist stance is in a growing contradiction with experimental data and philosophical considerations; however, it proposes a simple model to support its idea, i.e. the metaphor of the computer to represent the brain, which anyone can understand. On the contrary, embodiment positions appear to be more in line with observations and philosophical reflections, but the circular relationship between body and CNS is much less simple to be understood, and the way such circular relationship can lead to effective reactions and behaviours is more difficult to be figured out.

Apart from this, in synthesis, it seems that both sides cannot look at human organism as a unit. In my opinion, that is the main reason why, while studying knowledge and cognitive processes, we regularly stumble upon some sort of dualism: we feel that computationalism, the algorithmic explanations and the metaphor of the computer cannot answer all the questions; we feel that non-digitalizable aspects do exist. However, at present, it is more a feeling than a proved reality; and a reliable model which is actually alternative to the cognitivist metaphor of a computer has not yet been proposed. Systemic (holistic) approaches do try a step ahead2; however, all in all, the relationship among the components as separate and the organism as a unit remains unclear.

Where does the problem lay? In my opinion it lays on the universally accepted current paradigm of determinism, the Galilean legacy on experimental method. This specific subject cannot be detailed here; however, the basis of such experimental method is isolating variables from the system under investigation, studying them one at a time in a laboratory, and in the end recomposing the whole studied system. There are difficulties: for example, we know that variables studied as isolated or studied as situated in the system they belong to, behave differently; so, we cannot draw thoroughly reliable conclusions on real systems from laboratory studies. Recently Vittorio Gallese confirmed this (Gallese, 2020): he said that neuroscientific laboratory research is similar to looking at reality through a keyhole because reality cannot be fully rendered in a laboratory.

Following a research path that cannot be synthesized here, we3 concluded that instinctive reactions and rationality stay in a linear sequence, but with overturned steps with respect to the classical sequence perception-processing-reaction. At first, a stimulus triggers an automatic reaction which involves the entire organism; conscious processes develop starting from it. We soon discovered that philosopher and psychologist William James (1842-1910) had proposed such interpretation more than one century ago (James, 1890); one of his examples is particularly enlightening. If, while strolling in a wood, I encounter a bear and then flee, common interpretation would be: I see the bear (perception), I know it is a dangerous animal (conscious processing), I get frightened and run away (reaction). Oppositely, James’s interpretation was: when I realize there is a bear, then my body (my organism) starts a desperate run (automatic reaction); while I’m fleeing, I become conscious of my organism state, i.e. I realize my breath is short, my heartbeat is accelerated, my skin has got goose-flesh, and I name all this “fright”.

But this is not enough. In the life sciences field, any new hypothesis must comply with Evolution theory; does the hypothesis I described comply? We think it does. The simplest multicellular animals we know are Porifera and Coelenterata (say sponges and jellyfishes); actually, Porifera have no Nervous System and Coelenterata have Nervous Systems with no central organ comparable with a brain. Canadian biologist Sally Leys’s opinion (I quote by memory) is that our concept of a Nervous System based on a brain which controls and governs all neural activities is overestimated and needs a complete revision4. It seems that, in animal evolution, the presence of a Nervous System starts as a pure network, rather than as a centre which branches into the whole organism in order to control its activities. Its function seems to be to connect and to allow coordination in order to improve the surviving capacities of living beings.

Human species did not emerge as destined for culture and civilization; rather, it emerged in force of non-finalistic Nature processes and built culture and civilization thanks to its surviving capacities. These were linked to its special brain also; however, not in the sense that human beings usually think before acting. In the natural hostile environment in which Homo sapiens evolved, surviving depends more on fast reaction capacities than on reasoning abilities (which require time, which are slow, Kahnemann 2011). As much as to say that immediate and automatic reactions are the first instrument for surviving; culture and civilization come later and are built on those reactions.

In addition to all this, we found an experimental confirmation. I am referring to our publication “Contributions to a neurophysiology of meaning” (Maffei et al. 2015). Using a “human-organism-as-a-unit” approach we documented the process of natural language interpretation and our research proved that automatic reactions precede (do not follow) conscious thinking. We also underlined that consciousness, at first, is not directly related to the triggering event (e.g., in James’s example, encountering the bear); rather, it is to the automatic reaction. At first, an immediate conscious contact with external events is precluded to us. Only in a following passage (and just under certain conditions) it will be possible to approach back the real event, rationally analyse it, and make intentional choices.

Our idea5, once confirmed, could have a further important consequence, at which I can just hint here. The automatic reaction is global (organism level) and immediate; it is fully comparable with an aesthetic reaction while facing a piece of art. There is the possibility that aesthetics spreads all over human life, rather than being restricted to the worlds of art and philosophy, and that it is the standard approach of human beings to the things of their lives.


Allen M, Friston KJ. 2016. From cognitivism to autopoiesis: towards a computational framework for the embodied mind. Synthese – An International Journal for Epistemology, Methodology and Philosophy of Science. Springer Open Access. Retrievable at . DOI 10.1007/s11229-016-1288-5

Bateson G. 1972. Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Borghi AM, Caruana F. 2015. Embodiment Theory. In: James D. Wright (editor-in-chief), International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 2nd edition, Vol 7. Oxford (UK): Elsevier. pp. 420–426.

Fuchs T. 2018. Ecology of the brain: The phenomenology and biology of the embodied mind. Oxford (UK): Oxford University Press.

Fuchs T. 2019. Embodied cognition and the neo-gnostic roots of Trans-humanism. Speech at the 2019 event Human flourishing in a technological world: a Christian vision. Retrievable at

Gallagher S. 2012. Taking stock of phenomenology futures. The Southern Journal of Philosophy. Volume 50, Issue 2, June 2012.

Gallagher S. 2018. Decentering the Brain: Embodied Cognition and the Critique of Neurocentrism and Narrow-Minded Philosophy of Mind. Constructivist Foundations – An interdisciplinary Journal. Vol. 14, N° 1. Retrievable at

Gallese V. 2020. Quali neuroscienze per quale psichiatria? Speech at the series of conferences “La psichiatria verso il futuro” [Psychiatry towards the future]. Società Italiana di Psichiatria – Sezione ligure [Italian Psychiatry Society, Liguria section]. Genoa (I), February 3d, 2020. Retrievable at

James W. 1890. The principles of psychology. New York (USA): Holt.

Kahneman D. 2011. Thinking fast and slow. New York (USA): Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Leys SP, Mah JL, McGill PR, Hamonic L, De Leo FC, Kahn AS. 2019. Sponge Behavior and the Chemical Basis of Responses: A Post-Genomic View. (From the symposium “Chemical responses to the biotic and abiotic environment by early diverging metazoans revealed in the post-genomic age” presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, January 3–7, 2019 at Tampa, Florida). Integrative and Comparative biology, Vol. 59, n. 4, pp. 751-764. DOI: 10.1093/icb/icz122

Maffei R, Convertini LS, Quatraro S, Ressa S, Velasco A. 2015. Contributions to a neurophysiology of meaning: the interpretation of written messages could be an automatic stimulus-reaction mechanism before becoming conscious processing of information. PeerJ 3:e1361

Maffei R. 2012. Le parti e il tutto: cosa intendiamo per “visione sistemica” (The parts and the whole: what do we mean with “systemic vision”). Il Caos Management n. 70, 2012. Retrievable at

Maffei R. 2021. If gut instincts orient heads: rethinking the relationship among instincts and reason. [This is the (synthesized and a bit advanced) version of my speech “… la testa lavora di pancia: ripensare il rapporto fra istinti e ragione” at the Conference “Le emozioni ritrovate” (Retrieving emotions), held in Florence, 2021, April 10th]. Retrievable at (original speech, in Italian, retrievable at

Mah JL, Leys SP. 2017. Think like a sponge: The genetic signal of sensory cells in sponges. Developmental Biology 431 (2017) 93–100. DOI:

Mansoor F, Atefeh R. 2014. An Introduction to Embodied Cognition. International Journal of Language and Linguistics. Vol. 2, No. 4, 2014, pp. 283-289. DOI: 10.11648/j.ijll.20140204.16

Milkowski M. 2017. Why Think That the Brain Is Not a Computer? APA Newsletter / Philosophy and computers. Spring 2017, Volume 16, Number 2.

Milkowski M. 2018. Objections to computationalism: a survey. ROCZNIKI FILOZOFICZNE. Tom LXVI, numer 3 – 2018. DOI:

Smith R. 2019. Non-computing Machinery and Intelligence. Retrievable at

Varela FJ, Thompson E, Rosch E. 1991. The embodied mind. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA (USA).

Wilson RA, Foglia L. 2016. “Embodied Cognition”, In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Retrievable at

1Available literature is simply countless. A good point of the situation can be found in Fuchs, 2018; the many reviews which have been published in recent years are of some help for the scholar, and among them I suggest Gallagher, 2018; Milkowski, 2018; Allen & Friston, 2016; Borghi & Caruana, 2015; Mansoor & Atefeh, 2014; Gallagher, 2012. More specifically, about Cognitivism defense, Milkowski, 2017. About embodiment theories, the basic work Varela & Thompson & Rosch, 1991; besides this, Wilson & Foglia, 2016. About AI and cognition, Smith, 2019; as a critique of some extreme cognitivist positions (post-humanism and trans-humanism), Fuchs 2019.

2For the scientific bases of systemic vision see the fundamental work Bateson,1972; in addition, a synthetic introduction to the subject with examples and abundant references can be found in Maffei, 2012.

3Using “we” I refer to the research group internal to the Cultural Association (non-profit) ARPA-Firenze APS, established in Florence since 2004. I lead the group, named A.L.B.E.R.T. (Arpa-Firenze APS Landmarks on human Behaviour Experimental Research Team).

4Leys’s laboratory website states: “Our main research focus is understanding how key features of animal body plans may have arisen including nerves, muscle, epithelia, and guts. Our work takes a whole organism approach, from ecology, to physiology, to using molecular biology of a range of animals” ( Her publications are specialistic but, from time to time, refer to general questions which could interest lay people also; for example: Leys et al., 2019; Mah & Leys, 2017.

5A slightly wider presentation can be found in Maffei, 2021.