Friday, 20 February 2015

Embodied Theories of Cognition

Almost every article concerning embodiment opens with the declaration that theories of embodiment reject ‘traditional’ or cognitivist approaches to explaining and understanding cognitive processes; as such approaches are inclined to equate the ‘mind’ with brain activity, and brain activity with information processing.

Traditional approaches are further delineated as tending to suggest that information, acquired via the senses, is processed abstractly into amodal conceptual data structures. In other words, knowledge is stored in the form of abstract or symbolic mental representations occurring within a semantic network of connecting units or ‘nodes’ within the brain.
According to such approaches the function of the body is only to act as a medium through which information concerning the external environment is collected and delivered to the ‘mind’ or ‘central processing unit’, where this information is then converted into abstract representations. Furthermore, these representations are coded and stored in completely independent systems without influence of the sensory or motor systems that delivered them, such that mind and body are separable and independent mechanisms.   
What is less commonly presented is what exactly is meant by theories of embodiment.
Typically, embodied paradigms are conveyed as attempting to (in the simplest of terms) acknowledge the role of the body in cognition. Unfortunately such an inadequate definition of embodiment may lead to the misconception that every theorist in this field assumes that all aspects of cognition relate exclusively to bodily states. However, as we all know, if there is one thing that theorists can reach consensus on, it is that they should avoid being in agreement on anything if at all possible.
The current situation as to reaching an exact definition of embodied cognition may best be described as unresolved. (Though as is recommended here by Ezequiel Di Paolo, one might say that a theory could be considered embodied if the explanation it gives depends, in a non-trivial way, upon the body).
A slightly more developed definition may be that embodied approaches are those which emphasis brain-body-environment interactions and perception-action connections as being the basis of both simple behaviour and complex cognitive and social skills, without the need for representational divides between domains (Pezzulo et al., 2013).
However this is not a definition that would be agreed to by all, in fact there is infrequent accord concerning the various precepts surrounding embodiment. Margaret Wilson’s (2002) ‘Six Views of Embodied Cognition’ acknowledges this debate and highlights a number of contrasting takes on embodiment.
For example, one perspective is Situated Cognition- cognitive activity occurs within a real-world environment, inherently involving perception and action. Even this is disputed as some theorists claim that all cognition is situated whereas other suggest that several cognitive activities such as planning and memories are not situated as they occur in the absence of task relevant input and output .
Another embodied outlook is that people off-load cognitive tasks onto the environment, in other words we make use of environmental features in order to enhance cognitive abilities, examples of this kind of unloading can be as simple as using ones fingers to count on or a pencil and paper. Again the extent to which the environment plays a role in cognition is contentious, the above instance is an example of a more tempered view; that the environment has a role in cognition only when it is required and drawn upon by the individual.
Whereas other approaches such as Andy Clark’s ‘The Extended Mind’ perceives the environment as a necessary and intrinsic component of cognition. (Ezequiel Di Paolo (above) criticizes the Extended Mind for taking the idea of environmental off-loading too far, that it implies that information processing can occur in the body without any neural involvement, and that Clark’s argument is actually an example of an external functionalist view).
Among the diverse perspectives on embodiment there is no strong consensus as to how important the body is to cognitive processes, there is controversy concerning the extent to which the body and the environment is involved in or influences cognitive process. Understanding the subtleties between the differ embodied theories is not always easy; the contrasting viewpoints tend to be presented together as one unitary viewpoint which is misleading and confusing,
Hopefully this piece has illustrated that theories of embodiment are wide and varied and that funnelling all the theories into one category leads to a narrow understanding of what is meant by embodiment.

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