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How to Listen To (and Learn From) Your Body

Learning is more than what we take in with our brain. Dr. Simon Roberts shows us how we can unlock the potential of "embodied knowledge."

Words by Tony Ho Tran, Visuals by Emma McKhann

When was the last time you unlocked your phone?

If you’re like me, it was probably much too recently. If you’re also like me, you probably didn’t even think about it when you took your phone out, punched in the unlock code, and pulled up Instagram or Reddit or Facebook or whatever else.

Call it force of habit. Call it muscle memory. Whatever you do call it, the experience you go through is actually one of the most powerful abilities the human body has to offer: embodied knowledge—a form of learning that allows us to soak up practical skills through observation and experience.

Embodied knowledge allows us to access crucial instinctual habits that guide our everyday lives, from driving to work each morning, to signing our names, to more complex tasks like the way a painter lays down a brushstroke or a surgeon wields her scalpel.

It’s a type of knowledge that Dr. Simon Roberts knows well. After all, he wrote the book about it.

The Power of Not Thinking dives deep into this phenomenon, allowing readers to learn more about the unseen forces that guide our habits.

“We talk about ‘muscle memory’ proverbially and some of it is exactly that,” he explains. “The repetition of movements lays down a sense of what needs to be done.”

When we take embodied learning and apply it to our users, we can find that we gain a deeper understanding of their pains and desires.

We took some time out of Dr. Roberts’ busy day to discuss his new book, as well as the best ways we can apply the lessons of embodied knowledge to our careers and everyday lives.

The more experiential that is and the more vulnerable it makes somebody, the more likely it is that they’re going to remember it and it’s going to have some impact on them.

Dr. Simon Roberts

dscout: How did you become interested in the subject of embodied knowledge?

Dr. Simon Roberts: The short version of things is I studied anthropology.

I did a PhD in anthropology, which focused on the satellite TV revolution in India in the mid-1990s. After, I went to work for Intel, ran an R&D lab for them, and then went into consulting. We set Stripe Partners up in 2014. We noticed that traditional consulting can involve quite long, slow burn research projects. And then there's this new world of hacks and companies that have mastered the art of moving quickly

We asked, “What would it look like to develop a proposition that would allow companies to simultaneously slow down and understand the world, but also shift through the gears and come out the other side all guns blazing, knowing exactly what needed to be done?”

And then we stumbled across a client from Duracell who wanted to understand the world of outdoors and the people who spend their time in that world. We’re talking about people who love spending their weekends with GPS devices and head torches and camping equipment—stuff that requires batteries.

So we ended up renting a bunch of tents, mattresses, and camping equipment. We had it flown from Arizona to California and set up camp in Lake Morena County Park, not far from the Mexican border, a few hours from San Diego. Clients flew in from New York and stayed with us for a couple of days there.

During this time, we developed an embodied understanding of what it's like to be in the outdoors. The knowledge that went into that work resulted in an award-winning and very successful marketing campaign. And we were like, "Wow, how did that work? What was it that we did that made a difference and moved the dial?"

We started to dissect the experience. That led us to this form of knowledge that you get from experience, from being in the world rather than reading abstract documents about it.

Experiences are sensory, and very difficult to articulate. The sorts of things that we saw campers doing were not things that they felt it necessary to tell us about. But they turned out to be things that were crucial to their identity as outdoors people. The campers displayed a mastery of that environment. That's another thing that I think embodied knowledge is often connected to: the mastery of a practice or a craft.

The interest in embodied knowledge emerged from a post-mortem of a project, as we tried to understand what had happened and why it worked.

So by going out and taking on this role as an outdoors person or a camper, you gained insights that you wouldn't necessarily have otherwise gotten if you just had simply interviewed a user?

That’s right. I think there's two different levels to that.

Part of it is psychology. In psychology, which has a disproportionate influence on consumer research, the idea is that most of what we want to know is in our heads and we just need to find ways that we can get into the minds of the consumer. And I've always been resistant to that.

I'm committed to the idea that most of what we do know is very difficult to articulate. We know more than the words we can mobilize to help us articulate that knowledge. So part of this is about experiencing things as a means to understand what others are unable to articulate.

Second, most business executives spend their life putting out fires, not starting campfires. That means that over the years, the more senior he or she becomes, the more distant they get from their customers’ worlds.

And there's a simple piece of this which is taking people out into the world is a really good antidote to life spent inside a cubicle, meeting room, or on a campus. What we've learned over the years is the more experiential that is and the more vulnerable it makes somebody, the more likely it is that they're going to remember it and it's going to have some impact on them.

It's almost paradoxical the way most CEOs are people who rise up based on their experience, and yet they eventually lose it.

That idea of distance has always been something that haunts businesses. So we asked ourselves, “How can we create a business where we put a real premium on executives experiencing things for themselves?” Because if you do that, you enable a level of understanding which is far different: that’s an embodied understanding

It's not even just better understanding. It's of a different order and category. It has remarkable qualities that make it very, very, empowering for somebody in business.

Do you have an example of this process happening?

There’s an organization called Global Crossroads that turns up at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland every year and they run something called “A Day in the Life of a Refugee.”

The criticism for it at some levels is pretty obvious, this is voyeurism for rich executives with private jets. But the simulation gives them a short sense of what it's like to be a refugee. I’ve done the 24 hour version and write about it in my book. It’s an extraordinary, embodied experience.

What's really fascinating about this experience is that it challenges the premise of education—sit in silence, straight back, a teacher gives you knowledge which you absorb . Instead, they say, "You're going to learn with your body. You're going to make paper bags to try and earn money. You're going to try and make a camp. You're going to feel the cold of gun metal in the nape of your neck from a big guy wearing army fatigues." What they do is not only to give you these experiences, they also prepare the body to take on a lot of more factual knowledge about the refugee situation in the world. Your body is primed to take on information that might otherwise just bounce off you as yet another volley of statistics about other people’s lives.

That's just one example outside of business where people are using the body as the primary instrument for helping people understand the world.

Embodied knowledge is powerful because it allows us to deal with the unknown. It represents a form of knowledge that’s not rule-based. It is practical knowledge borne of experiences that allows us to improvise in situations that are entirely unfamiliar.

Dr. Simon Roberts

Part of your book deals with how we attain embodied knowledge. Could you explain how that process works?

There are at least ways in which we learn through our bodies. One is observation, and the other is practice.

Let's take observation first. We think we learn through instruction. It’s the standard learning via a teacher, or reading a book. But it turns out that your body is actually doing a lot of learning through the mere observation of what’s happening around it..

For example, you probably remember from school, your gymnastics teacher telling you how to do a somersault on the gym mat. What's actually happening when you're watching is your body is rehearsing what it's seeing. And maybe sometimes you've had that feeling as you watch somebody do something, you almost want to sort of complete the action for them. That's because your body is recreating some of what you're seeing within itself. The nerves and the muscles in your body are actually firing even though you're not performing the action. This is called innervation.

Second, we acquire embodied knowledge through practice. Through the repeated actions of tasks or activities, knowledge is quite literally laid down in our bodies, like a sort of sediment of experiences that we are able to recall quite easily.

Why is embodied knowledge so powerful?

One reason it’s powerful is because we are able to learn things without being told what to do. In my book, I talk about minaret craftsmen in Yemen who were not taught through formal instruction but acquired the knowledge of the very intricate carving just by watching.

Embodied knowledge is also powerful because it allows us to deal with the unknown. It represents a form of knowledge that's not rule-based. It is practical knowledge borne of experiences that allows us to improvise in situations that are entirely unfamiliar.

The struggle to create autonomous vehicles is, in large part, the struggle to recreate the sort of instinctive, fluid knowledge that is able to respond to entirely new situations without thinking: that’s embodied knowledge.

I would also argue it's central to the task of empathizing with other people. Empathy, I believe, starts from the body not the mind, it’s physical not psychological. I can only begin to truly understand the life of refugees when I've experienced something of what they face day-to-day with my body, not just with my mind as a series of facts. That is the power of the Refugee simulation.

So we know the benefits of embodied knowledge and what it can bring to us. Are there any downsides, or any sort of negative things that might come of it?

That’s a really good question. One way of answering that would be to say that I'm not making the case that embodied knowledge replaces everything. Or that this is some sort of silver bullet that you can point to and say, "Great, okay, school’s over. Business people, you don't need big data anymore. You don't need analysis, you don't need segmentations, you don't need any of that management science paraphernalia. You can just trust your gut."

What I'm trying to make the case for is that it's the marriage of the two that's very powerful. Because data without any sense of how the world works leaves you completely unable to make any meaningful sense of the data. You need to have an intuitive understanding of the world to make sense of data.

What’s your advice for someone who wants to employ the lessons of embodied knowledge into their careers or everyday life?

One thing we try and do in projects is ask, "How do we make an interview, not just an interview? How can we ensure that we experience something that other people experience?”

Also, how can we enable people to use their bodies in a way that helps them then articulate what it is that is going on? I think it throws up a set of challenges to how we think about what an interview is, and how we think about that in a world beyond words.

If we take the science and the philosophy of embodiment seriously, we recognize that when you learn, you retain this form of knowledge when you acquire it with your body. So how do we purposefully create experiences that are going to put you into other people's worlds?

For me, that was taking people camping. That's a sensory experience that is going to go a lot further than a PowerPoint. I think that's the challenge. How do you create bodily experiences that help people experience how it is to be in a different sort of body, or to be in a different world?

And there’s also body storming.

Body storming?

We all know what brainstorming is. It's sitting down quietly and taking ideas from our brains and putting them on a piece of paper. But a lot of what we know is sitting in our body, but difficult to express. So there's an emerging trend to bodystorm our knowledge.

And you can use that at various points in the process of new product development. So you could take a paper prototype, act with it, see how it might work, and what people's responses to things may be. And also in workshops where perhaps you've done some concept development work you get teams to act out a scenario.

We did this with a French industrial packaged gas company. We had teams act out the interactions between them and their customers. And as they introduced ideas that they had developed in the workshop into those performances, one could sense that everybody was coming to the conclusions as to which ideas were rubbish, and why that was.

So acting is a way of expressing ideas that you're not yet necessarily able to put words to or accessing knowledge that you don’t know possess.

Bodystorming is one very practical way of bringing embodied knowledge to bear on business practice - and you’d be in good company if you were to do so. From Ideo and Pixar to Intel, it’s been used to harness what people know to build great products. 

The Power of Not Thinking: How Our Bodies Learn And Why We Should Trust Them is out 9th July (Bonnier Books UK).

Simon Roberts is one the world’s leading anthropologists in business. Having studied the area for decades he now advises some of the largest global organizations, including Intel, Facebook, Spotify, Google and many other Fortune 500 companies, through his London-based consultancy, Stripe Partners. His work has been covered by the Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal and BBC Radio 4.

Tony Ho Tran is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. His articles have appeared in Huff Post, Business Insider, Growthlab, and wherever else fine writing is published.

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