Intercorporeality

Intercorporeality is a notion proposed by Merleau-Ponty that enables us to illuminate social cognition in an alternative way, by focusing on the relation between one's own body and that of the other.

Please remember the experience of contagious yawning. In everyday life, it is a common experience that we cannot help yawning when we see someone else yawn (Interestingly enough, it has been pointed out that children with autism show difficulty with contagious yawning). The other example is smiling. Generally speaking, smiling is not as contagious as yawning. However, when we come upon someoneʼs smiling face, we feel that the muscles around our mouth are about to make the same facial expression, even if we do not actually smile.

As is seen in these examples, intercorporeality contains a perception-action loop between self and other. Perceiving the otherʼs action prompts the same action in the self (like yawning) or its possibility (like smiling). Conversely, the selfʼs action prompts the same action, or its possibility, in the otherʼs body.

“In perceiving the other, my body and his are coupled, resulting in a sort of action which pairs them. This conduct which I am able only to see, I live somehow from a distance. I make it mine; I recover it or comprehend it. Reciprocally I know that the gestures I make myself can be the objects of anotherʼs intention.”
(Merleau-Ponty, 1951/1964, The Child's Relations with Others (W. Cobb trans.), p. 118.)


In terms of social cognition, through this reciprocity between bodies, we directly grasp the intention of anotherʼs action. For the self, to perceive anotherʼs action is potentially to take up the same action. It is through our motor capacity that we understand the meanings of the otherʼs action. Our basic ability to understand others is perceptual, sensorimotor, and non-conceptual. It developmentally (and also theoretically) precedes the cognitive capacity known as "theory of mind."

In detail, please refer to;

  • Tanaka, S. (2015). Intercorporeality as a theory of social cognition. Theory & Psychology, 25, 455-472. (Please send me an e-mail in case you need a copy)