Proxemics and The Embodied Mind: The hidden dimension of learning.

(1500 words)

img_6512There are two fields of study that I would like to bring together to create a deep but accessible framework to examine the impact of the environment on student learning. Of particular interest to me is the impact of the presence books on learning in combination with other technologies however this framework could be applied to many other aspects of the learning environment.

  1. Proxemics
  2. The Embodied Mind.


The field of proxemics is based on the work by Edward Hall in the 1960’s. In his book, “The Hidden Dimension” (1966) he states that “man and his environment participate in molding each other” (p5) and “in creating this world he [she] is actually determining what kind of an organism he [she] will be” (p5). The language that Hall enlists in talking about the spaces we inhabit emphasises with rich clarity the complex role our environment plays in shaping who we are. He talks about “the language of space” (p91), “the dynamism of space” (p114) and situational personalities (p115) and in describing Japanese gardens (pp153-154) he states that “the study of Japanese spaces illustrates their habit of leading the individual to a spot where he can discover something for himself”. image 14While much of his work has been enlisted in the study of social interactions (see his descriptions of the “intimate” 20cm, “personal” 120cm, “social” 365cm and “public space” 365cm+ spaces), “The Hidden Dimension” compels the reader to go further in considering human environments as very real expressions of humanity as well as exerting a powerful influence on our humanity. Greenberg et al have taken this further by analysing the role of technology in human spatial engagements. As people move through physical spaces through various levels of proximity, connectivity mediated by technology now strongly influences our interactions as never before. Peterson et al. has considered the relationship between proxemics and human-computer interactions by taking the Hall definitions of personal space and applying a situational space model to examine and analyse interactions and mediators in a given situation. Proxemics therefore continues to provide a basis for examining human-human and human-technology interactions using a range of proxemic notation systems  (Hall 1963, Pederson et al. 2012) that in a modified form could be used to examine learning environments.

The Embodied Mind

The hypothesis of the embodied mind poses the question: is consciousness and subconscious cognition only a function of the brain (known as the Cartesian Cognitive Science) or do cognitive processes extend beyond the brain, beyond the skin and beyond what we can sense (Non-cartesian cognitive science)? (Rowlands 2010). Cartesian cognitive science is based on the idea that mental processes – such as perceiving, remembering, thinking and reasoning – only exist in the brain. By contrast, the embodied mind draws us to consider mental processes as, in part, including the environment that lies outside the brain. image 44The embodied mind thesis goes further than just recognising that cognition is influenced by the environment but poses that cognition is inextricably linked to the human body as a whole, the context of the body and beyond (the “extended mind”). This means that the how we move, manipulate and interact with our environment, to some extent, actually constitutes fundamental functions of cognition. While watching young children, adolescents and adults in the library, it actually becomes difficult to imagine a form of thinking that does not involve interacting with the environment and manipulating objects (such as books) as an intrinsic component of thought. If the thesis of the embodied mind is accepted, the concept of the environment as the third teacher (Cannon Design, Capacity Building Series Ontario)  is of even greater significance than may have been originally thought.

Bringing Proxemics and the Embodied Mind together

Everyday I observe students interacting with spaces, with each other and with objects (such as books a range of other technologies) in a very complex social and spatial dance. The interplay between the environment and the students has a profound impact on their interactions and actions. This is not a one-way interplay since they also exert their own influence on the environment around them. These interactions seem so tightly bound to their states of mind and their processes of thinking that the thesis of the embodied mind seems intuitively obvious. The way students physically manipulate books and other technology in the library appears to form a scaffold for their thinking to such an extent that it is like watching their cognition itself. For example, anecdotal observations in the library indicate that given a variety of technologies (books, pencils, paper and iPads), the students will move fluidly between them all, switching and engaging with their environment and each other in a flow of play that is so much a representation of their cognition that it appears to actually constitute a core component of their cognition. While in other spaces in the school where laptops and static desk arrangements dominate the room, students will converge on habitual stereotypical behaviours such as primarily using laptops for research on the Internet with minimal collaboration or consideration for other research methods. My hypothesis is that if we fill these classrooms and the library with a rich variety of appropriate technologies, invite students to bring their own and provide support with classroom configurations that foster a wide variety of research strategies (e.g. observations, data gathering, interviews, collaboration, visual note-taking, reading etc), then student behaviour will become far more diverse, differentiated and student led. The result will be differentiated, deeper, diversified and engaged thinking.

A more specific example

Anecdotal observations in the library have indicated that given a wide variety of spatial and technological resources (including books, magazines, comics, iPads, tables, lap-tables, couches, beanbags, floor cushions, pencils, scissors, and paper as well as resources the students may bring into the library) the students will access all of these in a flow of play and interaction. Sometimes utilising all of these resources at the same time or, more often, in a tidal ebb and flow as fads come and go. b3516-philips2bimageStudents will sometimes converge on a particular collection of books, or a favourite Youtuber, or an origami club or a stage performance with costumes brought with them from the classroom. Everyday we tidy and arrange furniture, technology and books in slightly different ways to invite students to engage with the library in different ways. As a result, different interactions occur, diverse uses of the spaces emerge and different ways of thinking happen. The result is learning.

Teenagers and technology preferences

I wonder, do teenagers choose digital technologies in the classroom because:

  1. they are expected to by the teacher (a confirmation bias based on the assumption that teenagers do in fact prefer digital technologies for learning)?
  2. It is the technology that is within arms reach or close by. The time of going to interview someone or visit the library requires purposeful decision of the teacher to “allow” this level of mobility.
  3. School virtual and physical structures strongly imply certain student products such as only electronic submission of summative assessments (in the form of Microsoft Word or PDF documents).

Therefore, opening up and extending the classroom so students are encouraged to move within the room and beyond it may similarly open and extend thinking. Do such environmental changes fundamentally alter their cognitive processes and therefore their learning?

Possible Framework


Utilise the metrics and frameworks of proxemics to observe, gather data and analyse the spacial parameters of students in a particular location.

Embodied Mind

Observe, gather data and analyse the impact of altering various components of space on student thinking.

The consideration of the environment as the third teacher with a powerful impact on student learning is not new however using the metrics and frameworks of proxemics to examine the impact on student cognitive function that involves the science of the embodied mind offers some significant opportunities for action research in learning environments.


Hall, Edward T. “A System for the Notation of Proxemic Behavior”. American Anthropologist 65 (5): 1003–1026 (October 1963). doi:10.1525/aa.1963.65.5.02a00020
Henriksen, Danah, Jon Good, and Punya Mishra. “Embodied Thinking as a Trans-disciplinary Habit of Mind.” TechTrends 59.1 (2015): 6-11.Proquest. Web. 24 Mar. 2016.
Pfeifer, Rolf, Josh Bongard, and Simon Grand. How the Body Shapes the Way We Think: A New View of Intelligence. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2007. PDF.
Rowlands, Mark. The New Science of the Mind: From Extended Mind to Embodied Phenomenology. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2010. Print.





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