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The Dynamics of Learning

Dr. Susan Hrach, PhD from the University of Washington, is Professor of English and Director of the Faculty Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning at Columbus State University. We discuss her new book Minding Bodies, How Physical Space, Sensation, and Movement Affect Learning.

You can listen to Dr. Susan Hrach at the following podcast

More from Dr. Hrach can be found at Twitter @susanhrach or at

David: Can you describe some of the research behind Minding Bodies and how you were led down this path?

Susan: Over my 20+ years as a faculty member, I’ve led a number of study abroad programs, and several years ago, I got curious about why place-based, experiential learning works so well. I’m the director of our Center for Teaching and Learning, and I wanted to think about how we might apply some of the same principles to learning on campus. I spent a semester at the Bodleian Library in Oxford (UK) researching the neuroscience of embodied cognition, and another couple of years afterward reading cognitive psychology and related scholarship on holistic wellness.

David: ‘Embodied cognition’ is a term not familiar to many. Can you situate it in a proper context?

Susan: Embodied cognition recognizes that your whole body and your immediate environment play a role in your thinking process -- internally, things like your heart rate, your fluctuating hormones, your digestive functioning, and your level of bodily energy; and externally, things like the conditions of the physical space you occupy, the position of your limbs and posture, and the other living creatures surrounding you (people, animals, plants). These factors combined with the sum total of your prior experiences affect every moment of perception.

David: Does embodied cognition say anything about enhancing creativity?

Susan: Lots of studies and anecdotal experience show that walking enhances cognitive processes; there’s some particularly interesting research on the brain growth that results from more complex kinds of movement, especially dancing (here’s a 2017 piece from the NYT).

We are essentially a very social species with very dexterous bodies, so when we move our bodies in complex ways that are coordinated with other people’s movements, our brains are highly stimulated.

David: People who study learning in STEM, have focused on interactive learning. Can we connect this to embodied cognition?

Susan: Interactive learning brings human sociality into the process, which keeps us engaged and offers us a diversity of perspectives to gain understanding. Embodied learning adds a physical dimension to the experience, which means paying attention to the room itself and how conducive it is to interaction and freedom of movement, as well as how to leverage students’ available energy by giving them hands-on experiences with concrete objects as direct encounters with the material. STEM disciplines are very lucky to have a lab component built into the course; ideally, the lab experience comes first, emphasizes noticing details, and stimulates curiosity for further understanding.

David: In this ‘age of the chair’, it seems that most of how the educated workforce goes about its tasks is negatively conditioned by the same issues that plague students.

Susan: Learning, i.e. sitting for hours in classrooms, cubicles, offices. Does embodied cognition highlight a larger societal problem? This is one of the unfortunate side effects of industrial-age society that has persisted in the information age. Children are often given a little more freedom of movement and hands-on learning experiences in school (although not in all cases, sadly), but adolescents and adults are expected to sit quietly and watch or listen as their primary mode of learning. Most adults become capable of tolerating these expectations, but humans on the whole are built to move.

We’ve engineered movement out of our lives, so that we have to set aside special time for “exercise.” But even a strenuous workout at the gym for an hour cannot overcome the effects of sitting inside all day for years and years. If we really want to get our brains and bodies back in sync with the way they evolved to operate, we need to spend a lot more time outside, moving in various ways throughout the day, sleeping more, and eating a variety of natural foods.

David: Thank you Professor!

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