Behavioral and Brain Sciences

The dynamics of embodiment: A field theory of infant perseverative reaching

Esther Thelen a1, Gregor Schöner a2, Christian Scheier a3 and Linda B. Smith a4
a1 Department of Psychology and Program in Cognitive Science, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN 47405
a2 Centre de Recherche en Neurosciences Cognitives, C.N.R.S., Marseille, Cedex 20, France
a3 Department of Biology, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA 91125
a4 Department of Psychology and Program in Cognitive Science, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN 47405


The overall goal of this target article is to demonstrate a mechanism for an embodied cognition. The particular vehicle is a much-studied, but still widely debated phenomenon seen in 7–12 month-old-infants. In Piaget's classic “A-not-B error,” infants who have successfully uncovered a toy at location “A” continue to reach to that location even after they watch the toy hidden in a nearby location “B.” Here, we question the traditional explanations of the error as an indicator of infants' concepts of objects or other static mental structures. Instead, we demonstrate that the A-not-B error and its previously puzzling contextual variations can be understood by the coupled dynamics of the ordinary processes of goal-directed actions: looking, planning, reaching, and remembering. We offer a formal dynamic theory and model based on cognitive embodiment that both simulates the known A-not-B effects and offers novel predictions that match new experimental results. The demonstration supports an embodied view by casting the mental events involved in perception, planning, deciding, and remembering in the same analogic dynamic language as that used to describe bodily movement, so that they may be continuously meshed. We maintain that this mesh is a pre-eminently cognitive act of “knowing” not only in infancy but also in everyday activities throughout the life span.

Key Words: cognitive development; dynamical systems theory; embodied cognition; infant development; motor control; motor planning; perception and action.