Manipulating the body, measuring the body, and tinkering in the name of Psychology

How to measure the body, or tinkering in the name of Psychology

It is noteworthy that all these efforts involve technology of some kind. Some of the examples use general recording technology combined with a lot of laborious coding. Other experiments creatively adapt consumer hardware such as joysticks, WII balance boards or keyboards for their purposes, often adding special computer programs. Still others use expensive and specialized technology, such as expensive professional motion trackers.

There is a long tradition of psychologists tinkering with technology to measure behaviour. It actually goes back all the way to the founding fathers of modern psychology, such as Galton, Wundt, Helmholtz, and others, who all built wondrous devices to measure behaviour, including its speed (see Figure 1). Obviously, technology and tinkering with it is needed to come up with ways to fuel a new wave of embodiment research that measures the living body. What can that be?

Clock designed by Jacques-Arsène d'Arsonval (1851-1940) to measure speed of transmission in nerves.Clock designed by Jacques-Arsène d'Arsonval (1851-1940) to measure speed of transmission in nerves.

It just so happens that this need for measurement technology coincides with a renaissance of tinkerers and makers in general. The availability of open source software and hardware that is cheap and flexible has led to an increase of people who dare to build hardware themselves, and program it themselves. In computer science departments and elsewhere, so-called maker spaces are opening, inviting people to experiment with building their own gadgets.

One cornerstone of this movement is a family of small microcontroller boards called Arduino – essentially tiny computers that have only the fraction of the power of a PC, but also cost only the fraction of a PC (see a TED video at [], and find out more at their website []). These microcontroller boards can be hooked up to a PC, and become themselves the hub for a range of sensors. For instance, you can get sensors that measure acceleration, position in space, temperature, or distance to the nearest object, typically for just a few euros. It is easily conceivable that all kinds of measurement instruments for embodiment studies can be built with this hardware, measuring movements and positions of body parts, or skin temperature, to name just a few.

Of course, this will not reach the precision of professional hardware. However, what may be more important than excellent precision is that a community has sprung up around these Arduino boards and hardware in general, where know-how and computer code is shared openly. Measuring the body becomes affordable and workable.

In our own lab, we are already using Arduino hardware to build up experimental devices. Here are three examples: We started by hooking up an Arduino to a computer, connecting it to two buttons, and programming the Arduino in such a way that it could interface with one of the standard software packages used by psychologists. We tested the performance, and results were excellent: Our device was able to measure reaction time as well as professional hardware, with millisecond precision (to learn more, read Schubert, D’Ausilio, & Canto, 2013). We also tested whether an Arduino combined with a device measuring its own angle, a gyroscope, can replace the laborious frame-by-frame coding of head movements by tracking movements, and this works as well (see a short description and videos on our blog). Finally, we were also able to hook up a temperature sensor, giving us a cheap way to measure finger temperature. We also realized that we could not only connect sensors, but also components that do something – lights, small vibrators to apply tactile stimulation to the body, and more. With this interface in place, all the building blocks are there so that experimental psychologists curious enough to measure bodily behaviour can start experimenting.


One implication of the embodiment approach, the topic of this special issue, is that even when we think about abstract concepts, we use representations arising from bodily experiences. Many experiments supporting this idea have been manipulating the body and showing effects on thought. Such experiments are easy to do and often impressive, but they have some weaknesses. Researchers will of course not stop conducting such studies and neither should they – often they provide excellent illustrations of a particular embodiment. However, the reverse experimental direction, namely manipulating thinking and measuring the body, will probably become crucial in future research.

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