I'm reading through Embodiment and Cognitive Science by Raymond Gibbs and came across this lovely breakdown of what it is that makes us human. The first time through only parts made sense. But being on my 7th pass it's all starting to sink in.* [I hate to provide an alternative to reading the entire quote at least once, but if you must opt to do otherwise, at least read the final paragraph.]
Cognitive scientists generally wish to uncover the neural and cognitive mechanisms that presumably subsume perception, thought, language, emotion, and consciousness. The essential link of bodies and persons does not imply that whole bodies are the only level at which to analyze and understand language and cognition. There are, in fact, three levels of embodiment: the neural level, the phenomenological conscious experience, and the cognitive unconscious (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999).
Neural embodiment concerns the structures that characterize concepts and cognitive operations at the neurophysiological level. Our concepts and experience are fundamentally embodied within the brain. Yet the neural level alone cannot explain the bodily basis of language and cognition. Brains do not simply receive input from the environment and provide output in the form of instructions to the body. Neural assemblies operate in relation to the entire body as it functions within concrete situations.
The cognitive unconscious consists of all the mental operations that structure and make possible conscious experience, including the understanding and use of language. The cognitive unconscious makes use of and guides the perceptual and motor aspects of our bodies, especially those that enter into basic-level and spatial-relation concepts. It includes all our unconscious knowledge and thought processes. The body is crucial at this level, because all of our cognitive mechanisms and structures are grounded in patterns of bodily experience and activity.
The phenomenological level is conscious, or accessible to consciousness. It consists of everything we can be aware of, especially our own mental states, our bodies, our environment, and our physical and social interactions. This is the level at which we feel experience, of the way things appear to us, and of qualia, that is, the distinctive qualities of experience such as the pain of a toothache, the taste of chocolate, the sound of a violin, or the redness of a ripe Bing cherry.
These three levels are not independent of one another. The details of the character of the cognitive unconscious and of conscious experience arise from the nature of neural structure. We would not have the spatial-relations concepts we have without topographic maps or orientation-sensitive cells. The neural level significantly determines, together with experience of the external world, what concepts can be and what language can be.
People are not just brains, or neural circuits. Neither are they mere bundles of qualitative experiences and patterns of bodily interactions. Nor are they just structures and operations of the cognitive unconscious. All three are present, and explanations at all three levels are necessary for an adequate account of the human mind. Not surprisingly, in my view, the three levels of embodiment together are constitutive of what it means for someone to be a human person with a particular identity and different cognitive abilities.
*Was I serious about a "7th" pass, or am I just being Hebraic?