Embodied Cognition Through Elephants


I recently returned from an incredibly enlightening trip Thailand, and spent time in the north in the cities of Chiang Mai and Pai. These are wonderful and affordable places to check out for fitness professionals, with a very health-conscious foreigner population and fresh food that is cheaper than your next protein bar purchase. I had the opportunity to spend a day at the Ran-Tang Elephant Rescue, and being the nerd I am learned quite a bit about movement and health.

Asian elephants (my extensive knowledge of species withstanding, but Asian elephants are much smaller than African elephants) have the same amount of muscles and bones, with the exception of their trunk, which has anywhere from 100-150,000 muscles in it itself. They also are highly intelligent animals, and according to studies conducted by Roth et al., elephant brains have similarities to human brains in structure, complexity, and approximately the same number of neurons in the cortex. Elephants have fantastic problem-solving abilities demonstrated by cooperative rope-pulling to reach food (think battle ropes!!!), and have self-awareness as shown by experiments involving recognition in mirrors.

Here are the top lessons elephants teach us about movement and health:

Constant Movement is a part of Survival

Elephants are always mobile, and as noted by behaviors in captivity, they will begin to “sway” or dance when they are bored. Wild elephants do not do this, as they are not kept in captivity in the wild, so mobility relative to their space is never a concern. That is, until humans impede on their natural environments, they get pissed off, and destroy houses…but that’s beside the point.

For humans, our captivity is obvious: sedentary environments that prevent movement. Because of this, its not only movement that is necessary, but movement in open spaces where freedom is perceived may change the way we benefit from exercise, especially in the brain. In addition, we may feel the effects of boredom, especially at an unconscious level, if we do not keep moving. Just look at prisoners rocking back and forth: this is a manifestation shown through repetitive movements, and insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over again. Therefore, it is not only movement that we learn is important, but variable movement (reflective of the variable, natural environments that elephants live within).

Play is Natural and Positive

Elephants also play as a part of a regular routine, which I believe yields incredible benefits for the brain and body. While younger elephants play more, limiting play, in general, is most certainly a detrimental process. In our own captive environments, play becomes necessary for brain stimulation, exploration of variable movements, and social interaction (which is richly demonstrated in the elephant species, through both teamwork and genius zoo escapes).

Integrating play through movement (elephants play while bathing, eating, and simply going about their day) is a great way to have positive effects on the body.

The Nervous System Is Very Sensitive to Our Environment

Although elephants are excellent swimmers, they never tread in deep water. They even sleep standing up due to the risk of being preyed upon when sleeping. The elephants we were with were captive rescues, but they elephants themselves do not that there is no chance of predation in this day and age.

Even though humans are not preyed upon, our nervous systems still have responses in similar ways, perhaps in more subtle fashions than we may realize. Even though we carry out certain tasks, is it healthy to dive deep into them (think stress at work)? The research on instinctive sleeping patterns is also fascinating and can provide huge implications for human physiological effects and longevity, and the ways we sleep may be setting us up for injuries in the future.

Water is Worth Conserving, and Fluids are Complex

Before elephants take baths in watering holes, they typically drink before jumping in. This is due to sanitary reasons, and they let nature purify the water for the next day. They do not stay in the water long, and it was hilarious to see these massive animals take shorter “showers” than we do (take notes everyone in California). However, I have a hunch that drinking water and being in water in that order may provide extra benefit to our extra-cellular matrices. Hydrating our systems internally, and then hydrating them externally may create a pumping action at the cellular level that can assist with nutrient transport, metabolic waste product removal, and mental-emotional benefits.


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