The Right Side of Cognitive Science: Daniel Casasanto Explores How The Body Shapes The Mind

The two faces of Daniel Casasanto.

A visitor to Daniel Casasanto’s research website will see two photos of the assistant professor of psychology. The photo on the left shows Casasanto during a recent stint at MIT, the smiling picture of academic reserve. But in the photo on the right, Casasanto glares furiously across the stage as Spiridione in Donizetti’s Il Campanello di Notte.

Cognitive scientist or classically trained musician, which Daniel Casasanto you prefer might all depend on whether you’re a lefty or a righty.

Casasanto examines how people’s experiences, their native language, culture, and bodies, affect their perception and cognition. His most recent research explores his body-specificity theory. The theory, recently featured in Scientific American, posits that people with different kinds of bodies think differently.,

Differences between people’s bodies predict differences in their neural and mental representations, in domains including language, mental imagery, and emotion,, Casasanto explains. Even our most abstract thoughts depend in part on the particulars of our bodies.,

In one set of studies recently reviewed in Current Directions in Psychological Science, Casasanto and his colleagues probed right- and left-handers’ ideas about good and bad. Casasanto posited that the way people use their hands should influence their judgments about abstract notions like value, intelligence, and honesty.

As predicted, when participants had to decide which of two products to buy, which of two job applicants to hire, or which of two alien creatures looks more trustworthy, right- and left-handers responded differently. Right-handers tended to prefer the product, person, or creature they saw on the right side of the page, but left-handers preferred the one on the left.

Why do righties and lefties arrive at opposite decisions? We’re more fluent using our dominant hand than our non-dominant hand,, explains Casasanto. As a result, people unconsciously associate good things with their dominant side, and bad things with their non-dominant side., To test this explanation, Casasanto and colleagues showed that temporarily handicapping someone’s dominant hand can reverse the association between left-right space and their conceptions of good, and bad.,

Casasanto’s body-specificity experiments challenge a long-held belief of cognitive theorists: For a long time, it was believed that the most interesting things about the mind are innate,, says Casasanto. The assumption was that everyone comes out of the womb with our individual cognitive structures already in place. But the body-specificity case studies show that individual experience plays an important role in shaping the mind.,

The body is not the only source of mind-warping experiences. Bodily relativity, the idea that the body influences the thought processes, is analogous to cultural and linguistic relativity, which hold that customs and language similarly shape the mind. That’s why Casasanto is also undertaking studies that examine how culture and speech shape our thoughts, further challenging conventional wisdom about how the mind works.

Groundbreaking research is all well and good, but what about that opera photo? When Casasanto wasn’t studying cognitive science at Penn, Stanford, and MIT, he found time to tour the United States and Europe as a professional opera singer. It’s fitting, then, that Casasanto should take up teaching at The New School, which is, after all, the rare university that houses both leading social science laboratories and a world-class conservatory.

To find out more about Casasanto’s research (and his musical career), visit his website, www.casasanto.com.