Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Does neuroscience promise to make us super-humans?

What does it take to master a skill? Helsen et al. (1998) suggested that for an athlete to reach a world-class level of performance at least 4000 hours need to be invested into deliberate practice. Ericsson (1990) takes it even further than that by putting forward a figure of 10000 hours (20 hours x 50 weeks / year x 10 years) to master any kind of skill.

We’re going to leave the question of how a person’s body changes with the skill acquisition for the purposes of this post and look deeper into what happens to a person’s brain. Beilock (2011) hypothesized that as a person moves along the stages of skill mastering from being a novice to becoming an expert, the skill-related knowledge is gradually migrating from working memory localized in a pre-frontal cortex to procedural memory occupying sensorimotor regions. In fact, existing neuroscience research reveals strong evidence for neuroplasticity caused by the deliberate practice. It is now evident that wide structural and physiological changes are happening in both abovementioned areas when extensive training is applied (see, for example, Draganski et al., 2004).

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Flynn’s Cat – Part I: An Exploration of Embodiment

© 2017 Simon’s Cat Limited
It is fair to say that a wide range of topics invoke discussion under the banner of embodiment, too many to discuss in a few short posts. There are however, a few themes that while not exhaustive, are prominent in the literature:

Does the body and world form part of my cognitive processing as opposed to merely causing it?

Does my body determine in some way, how I understand my world?

Can my cognition be explained solely by my interaction with the world, without appealing to representations or computational processes?

Beginning with the question of whether cognition, or at least parts of it, extend beyond the brain, a common problem from systems analysis arises, namely, where is the boundary of the system, and how might its parts be either decomposed or clustered together to aid investigation, or are questions of boundary and decomposition, themselves part of the problem.

Flynn’s Cat – Part 2: An Exploration of Embodiment

© 2017 Simon’s Cat Limited
< Flynn's Cat - Part 1 

So the cat is watching a cursor move about on my laptop screen. Is how the cat solves the problem of figuring out what the cursor is, embedded inside her somewhere sandwiched between perceiving and the movement of her paw, or is it developed and made possible through her interactions with the cursor? 
Even before this problem-solving task, how does the cat go about categorising the world she perceives? Is she constrained or limited by the body she inhabits?  I perceive her as black and white, but is that because in some way, I am physiologically equipped to perceive her as black and white.  The next door neighbour’s dog may perceive her differently. If I twist the can opener around a tin of cat food, does she perceive this, since she has no opposable thumbs to understand the concept of twisting, or does she merely see me move the can? Is there a pre-given world for either of us, or are both of us bringing it forth from our respective histories of structural coupling with artefacts in the world, which will be markedly different?

Flynn’s Cat – Part 3: An Exploration of Embodiment

© 2017 Simon’s Cat Limited
< Flynn's Cat - Part 2 

Radical embodiment theorists are the most openly opposed to traditional cognitive science.  It aims to replace traditional methods and concepts, with new foundations that incorporate emergent outcomes of dynamical systems and sense-act interactions between a body and the world it is engulfed in. In this approach, inspired in part by Gibson’s (1966) continuous interactions between an organism and its environment, computational models can never be adequate, as cognition is a continuous thing, and the body and its nervous system are in the world, so there is no need to represent them. 

Dynamical systems with their state space (a map of all possible states), certainly have explanatory power. The state space for the cat would presumably be all possible positions and movements that she could assume and her evolution would be in the form of differential equations. According to this view, cognition emerges from the dynamical interaction of the cat’s brain activity, the activities in her body and her environment. In other words, a neural mechanism in a certain sort of body, in a certain sort of environment will produce behaviours that dynamical systems equations can describe.

Flynn’s Cat – Part 4: An Exploration of Embodiment

© 2017 Simon’s Cat Limited
< Flynn's Cat - Part 3

There are many methods of evaluating a theory. Simplicity, testability, fruitfulness, power to unify, and so on. So how does embodiment stack up?

Traditional cognitive science in some aspects, has had a lot of success and has a proven track record. It has deepened our understanding of the mind in an unprecedented manner.  It has a power to unify perception, attention, memory, language under the same explanatory framework. Embodiment’s ability to be applied equally well across the range of cognitive phenomena, has yet to be proven, but it is very early days.  Appeals to concepts such as affordances, meshing, world-making, etc have as yet, an uncertain status. That a cat and I might conceive of the world differently is a difficult theory to test. Virtual reality technologies may present possibilities of testing in this area, but any findings would still be speculative at best. Traditional cognitive science is testable, and in certain cases experimental results from studies in embodiment can equally be explained by traditional cognitive science, and yet its explanations are less certain.

It must however be conceded that traditional cognitive science does not do a good job in explaining all varieties of cognition.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Umwelt, Anthropocentrism and Island Universes

“By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude. Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies—all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable.

We can pool information about experiences, but never the experiences themselves. From family to nation, every human group is a society of island universes".

Aldous Huxley – The Doors of Perception

Early Cartesian views of the mind/brain distinction implied an ego derived, individualistic separation of the self from the environment and social structures. From this perspective the subject was a production of mind and reason as somehow set aside from the natural environs surrounding it from conception. It followed that all non-human organisms were considered to have absent any actual form of cognitive capability and were reduced to simplistic, non –agentic, stimulus-response machines of reflexive action. This position of human exceptionalism has  maintained itself into the modern era due largely to the perpetuation of the mind/brain, soul/body distinction.
“The ideology lies not in the search for differences, but in the unwavering belief that humanity is defined by attributes that have absolutely no precedent in the rest of the biological world” (Radner and Radner, 1989, p.9). This may be readily identified as a Cartesian hangover into current thinking. It may be appropriate to consider the limiting effect of such a position being held for any length of time in so far as the exclusionary consequences of failing to appreciate, and investigate, other organisms from their own distinctive, varied and embodied perspective. In more recent times Barrett (2015) has addressed this sustained anthropocentric thrust into the scientific inquiry and evaluation of non-human species through the lens of 4E embodiment where common engagement is the requirement of skillfully negotiating the environment and the mutual cognitive and agentic traits necessary for doing so.

Much earlier than Radner and Barrett, Jacob Von Uexkull posited the concept of an organisms "Umwelt". This closed phenomenal experience of each living system as constituted by the components and configuration of the individual animal and resulting from which each living system engages with and experiences the world around them. Von Uexkull states that there are as many "Umwelt" as there are organisms in the world and each of which negotiate  with the environment within their own terms and physical make up. He believed that each of these distinct worlds, while beautiful and worthy of appreciation, remained only spiritually, and forever non-physically, accessible to us.

It has previously been posited that there are grounds for allowing for some degree of similarity in sentiment or reason, whatever these ultimately transpire to be, given the shared environment between species be it either human to animal or animal to animal. A consideration which may be appropriate is the "multiple realizability" thesis where mental states, such as cognitions are acknowledged to be  may be found or "realized" within any number of physical, organic systems. From this other researchers have found a high degree of similarity between the human organism and others. In primate research for example, substantially developed social and emotional behaviors and technical capability have been found which readily suggest that  "differences are of degree rather than of kind" (Goodall, 2006, p.188). This stands in stark contrast to earlier views of human exceptionalism.

Is it reasonable to maintain the view that each individual  is ultimately in a type or form of critical isolation from the world, and species, around them or does the 4E perspective now require a more engaged, enacted and mutually shared experience? Huxley framed the position with regard to such ultimate distinction between the individual and the"human group" but perhaps the advancement of embodiment theory will allow for a deeper and more enriched appraisal of each organisms unique role, value and worth within the overall system.

For anyone interested here is the full quote from Huxley:

“We live together, we act on, and react to, one another; but always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves. The martyrs go hand in hand into the arena; they are crucified alone. Embraced, the lovers desperately try to fuse their insulated ecstasies into a single self-transcendence; in vain. By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude. Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies—all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable. We can pool information about experiences, but never the experiences themselves. From family to nation, every human group is a society of island universes.”


Barrett, L. (2016) “Why Brains Are Not Computers, Why Behaviorism Is Not Satanism, and Why Dolphins Are Not Aquatic Apes”, The Behavior Analyst, 39 (1), pp. 9-23.

Goodall, J. (2006) We are not alone, The re-enchantment of the cosmos, pp. 187-192.Inner Traditions:USA.

Huxley, A. (1954) The doors of perception. Chatto and Windus:UK

Radner, D. and Radner, M. (1989). Animal consciousness. Prometheus Press:New York.

Von Uexküll, J. (1934) “A stroll through the worlds of animals and men: A picture book of invisible worlds”,  Instinctive behavior: The development of a modern concept, translated and edited by Claire H. Schiller, 8-80.  New York:  International Universities Press, Inc.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Bio-enactive framework: The perpetual life or ultimate death of the cell in the myth

(Cummins, 2016, p.3)
Although I know it's largely figurative, I can’t seem to resist my existential or reductionist tenancies for seeking out something else in the milieu for the (excellently named) 'cell in the myth' described by Cummins and De Jesus (2016).

As I read the authors’ account of their bio-enactive framework I imagined the cell running out of glucose.  But, what in the milieu causes glucose to run out?  Will the cell die without glucose?  What exactly is present in the milieu or the organism that causes the cell to die?  Otherwise, if glucose doesn’t run out, does the cell live forever?  If glucose never runs out and the cell lives forever, why would the cell evolve movement at all?  Why don't cells just evolve to grow on/ close to glucose deposits instead?  If cells grew on glucose, and didn't need to move, would cells have evolved in the first place?