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The Need for 6E Cognitive Science

Because 4E cognitive science is two E's too few.

Key points

  • Over the past few decades, cognitive science has ceased to focus exclusively on formalisms and an analogy between the mind and digital computers.
  • 4E cognitive science stresses the fact that cognition is often embedded, extended, enacted, and embodied.
  • Accounts of embodied cognition require equal attention to two additional E's: emotion and evolution.

Understanding 4E cognitive science

Cognitive science has expanded beyond its earlier focus on formalisms and an analogy between the mind and digital computers and has witnessed the ascent of more wide-ranging conceptions of cognition. Reference to “4E” cognitive science has become a standard convention in the field.

4E cognitive science argues that the workings of the mind or brain’s mechanisms do not exhaust what can be captured about cognition and human behavior. The 4Es headline the fact that cognition is also typically:

  • Embedded in a physical and sociocultural environment (e.g., what is involved in knowing how to square dance)
  • Extended by offloading and ordering information in external structures (e.g., the coded coordination between a library’s catalog and books’ locations)
  • Enacted through practice and the development of motor routines that facilitate and even initiate cognitive accomplishments (e.g., using an abacus)
  • Embodied to the extent that concepts are rooted in our bodies, having characteristic configurations and orientations (reflected, for example, by bodily-based metaphors in ordinary language, such as the foot and head of a bed)

Of course, these categories overlap. Square dancing and knowing how to do so hang on enacting and embodying patterns embedded within activities with other dancers in conjunction with appropriate music in a range of physical settings.

Embedded and extended cognition primarily concern the ways in which context matters. To the extent that candidate movements and actions underlying cognitive states depend upon the sociocultural context, enacted cognition is also wedded to the peculiarities of cultures.

Embodied cognition and meaning

It is in treatments of embodied cognition where scholars have pursued the most ambitious proposals. They are ambitious, first, in that they argue that embodied cognition is foundational. Mark Johnson and Don Tucker (2021, 116) assert that “. . . all our meaning is rooted in and grows from our bodily transactions with our world.” They do not confine this to linguistic meaning, which they think arises from embodiment but does not exhaust the meaningful. For them, embodied meaning informs all nonlinguistic meaning, too, including that associated with everything from gesture to the arts to ritual. They stress that the processes of meaning-making overwhelmingly operate below the level of consciousness.

Accounts of embodied cognition are ambitious in a second sense. In at least one regard, embodied cognition and the meanings that flow therefrom do not depend on the sociocultural context. Culture has myriad influences on embodiment, but not everything about embodied cognition is culturally contingent. Our experiences of embodiment have much in common, including such things as spatial relations (e.g., containment), orientations, and directions as well as motions, paths, forces (and barriers and counterforces), balance, and so on.

Embodied cognition calls for a 6E cognitive science.

Any plausible account of embodied cognition must allow for emotions and the (bodily) feelings that they cause. Antonio Damasio has argued on the basis of research in clinical neurology and neuroscience that virtually all cognitive processing has an affective dimension. Emotions, in effect, disclose humans’ appraisals of the various circumstances in which they find themselves. Four aspects of those emotionally-driven appraisals deserve note.

1. The appraisals and the responses that they initiate are automatic.

2. Emotions should be distinguished from the feelings that usually follow them. The emotional appraisal and the response are initiated before any feelings that might occur. The feelings may be delayed or faint. Even when feelings rise to the level of consciousness, people may ignore or deny them. Although feelings characteristically accompany emotions, they are not necessary.

3. Those automatic responses are not mere passive, post hoc registrations of inputs. These automatic responses often constitute the springs of actions, which are “geared to produce fluid functioning within our environment” (Johnson 2007, 61).

4. Talk of the role of the emotions in assuring “fluid functioning” assumes that the emotions are adaptations. To assume that the emotions operate for our benefit is to hearken to their evolutionary heritage. Johnson (2007, 58, fn. 2) recognizes that emotional responses can sometimes lead to counterproductive or even self-destructive behaviors, but he thinks that generally, the “emotions tend to preserve the flourishing of the organism.”

Pondering embodied cognition will inevitably implicate its emotional dimensions, and the key to understanding cognition’s emotional dimensions is to examine their evolutionary foundations. In light of such considerations, the 4E conception of cognition is two E’s too few. A 6E conception of cognition, which gives emotion and evolution their due, will offer a richer account of the mind’s workings. Given the pervasiveness of the emotional coloring of cognition and given the entrenchment of evolved dispositions of mind, these two E’s deserve no less attention than the original four.


Damasio, A. R. (1999). The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. New York: Harcourt Brace and Company.

Johnson, M. (2007). The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Johnson, M. and Tucker, D. (2021). Out of the Cave: A Natural Philosophy of Mind and Knowing. Cambridge: MIT Press.

McCauley, R. N. (2020). “Recent Trends in the Cognitive Science of Religion: Neuroscience, Religious Experience, and the Confluence of Cognitive and Evolutionary Research,” Zygon 55 (1), 97-124.