Seeing mountains in molehills: Embodied visual perception of the environment

However, it is possible that this process may actually backfire in some cases. If perception is influenced by energy and helps to regulate action, this process may help to explain some alarming trends. Consider the current worldwide obesity epidemic. More than 1.4 billion adults, and 40 million children under the age of five, are overweight or obese around the world (WHO, 2013). One primary cause of obesity is insufficient exercise. Less than half of American adults get the recommended amount of daily activity prescribed by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, 2012). In addition, obese individuals are approximately 28 percent less likely than average-weight Americans to exercise frequently (Mendes, 2011). It is possible that obese or overweight individuals aren’t exercising enough because they literally see the world in ways that may be disastrous to good health. The distance to the end of the block may look more daunting or the hill may appear more precipitous. The visual cues that physically unfit individuals receive from their environment suggest their travels may be more difficult and they may choose then to refrain. In such cases, the embodied nature of visual perception, which may usually help regulate our behavior in beneficial ways, might actually be hurting people who are overweight or obese. It may perpetuate a cycle of inactivity that leads to further weight gain.  

To counter the effect, people may need to learn to rein in, overcome, or counteract their embodied visual experiences. Researchers can use what they know from recent studies to develop effective strategies for shifting people’s experiences of their environment. For example, people see things they consider desirable as closer to them than things that are actually equally far away but undesirable. A $100 bill that people had the chance to win appeared closer than a $100 bill they had no shot at winning (Balcetis & Dunning, 2010). The same distance can look shorter the more appealing, desirable, exciting, or pleasant the thing at the end of the space. Based on this finding, it seems possible to design strategies that might change perceptions of the environment. For instance, one might increase the appeal of either getting to the finish line or the allure of the metaphoric carrot at the end of the stick. Such mental trickery, aimed at increasing the charm, appeal, or magnetism of the goal, might result in it appearing closer.  These and other suggestions might induce perceptual experiences that encourage action, exercise, and movement.

Disembodied visual perception

One open research question is whether visual perception is ever disembodied. Are there situations in which people’s perceptual experiences do not depend on the states of their bodies? Although this question is still an open one, some recent research suggests shifting people’s mindsets might influence the extent to which they rely on bodily states when making perceptual judgments (Maglio & Trope, 2012). Embodied perception studies have found that people perceive distances to be greater when they are wearing heavy backpacks (see Proffitt, 2006). However, this effect appears to go away when people adopt a more abstract, compared to concrete, mindset (Maglio & Trope, 2012). This research suggests visual perception can be divorced from states of the body in certain circumstances. Much like the researchers who have recently called for further exploration into the true nature of embodied cognition (Wilson & Golonka, 2013), we suggest the future of embodied visual perception should include test cases under which visual perception may not be influenced by the body or the mind. In addition, exploring whether other sensory modalities, such as hearing or smelling, are influenced by physical or mental states is a fruitful avenue for further research.


In a recent interview, marathon runner Nathan Walkowicz described one strategy he uses during training: He thinks about the entire run as if he’s just running the distance around his neighborhood block at home (Bayoff, 2013). He pictures first running to his mailbox, then running to the stop sign at the corner, and so on. By shifting his experience so that every checkpoint seems within reach, he tricks himself into believing that the finish line is close which helps him continue on. In much the same way, visual perceptions of the environment may be distorted to enable us to effectively meet and manage goals. As recent and ongoing work suggests, visual perception is sensitive to current and chronic physical and psychological states in the service of regulating action.

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