Saturday, 21 February 2015

Try to see if from their perspective: Embodied Perspective Taking

The other day while I was studying at home a repair person asked for the code to our front gate so they could come as they pleased. I couldn’t tell them the number until I shifted my body slightly to the left, where if I were outside in front of my house, I’d be facing the dial pad, and drew the pattern of the numbers I habitually press in the air. Simultaneously I recalled the standard arrangement of numbers on a dial pad and superimposed that pattern on a mental image I had of the dial pad. 1,4,3, 6.

A few days earlier my housemate and I were on the bus and she was describing to me where her desk faces in her open-concept office. In order to do this, she took a 98 degree turn in the bus seat. A strange thing considering she likely had no bearing on her actual orientation in space relative to her office building several km away. She had perhaps somehow designated the front of the bus as being the window of her office (or some easy reference point), and then shifted her body in order to pull up a mental image of her office space.

There are several ways of understanding what was happening in these examples in terms of embodied cognition -- even in my describing them I’ve imparted some assumptions about what was going on; one way of understanding would be a weaker formulation of embodied cognition that thinks this is a prime example of the body’s influence on thought, wherein our bodies helped us recall and manipulate mental representations of numbers of a dial pad or our office’s feng-shui spatial layout; or another radical version would say there is no need to appeal to representation at all and that these examples as I’ve described them do little to show the full extent that cognition is embodied.

An interesting paper I read recently looks at patients with visual neglect, where a legion on the parietal lobe leaves the individual unaware of visual information on the corresponding side of their visual field. These subjects aren’t entirely blind to the information, however. They found that if subjects were instructed to take on the perspective of a 3rd party in the room (without leaving their current post), they suddenly do have access to the visual information that they previously were unable to see when they were looking egocentrically. In these cases the subjects aren’t moving at all but are mentally taking on the perspective of another agent in the room. What might this ‘embodied perspective taking’ suggest about cognition? Does this require a mental representation of the environment as described in the article;
perspective-taking influenced the patients’ computation of space, so that, in presence of another person, objects were no longer coded with reference to one's own body (egocentric frame of reference), but with reference to the other person's body (altercentric remapping).” (Becchino et al., 2011)
...or is there a stronger ‘embodied’ explanation that eliminates the need to appeal to computations and codings? I'm not entirely sure how to understand each of the examples I've mentioned in terms of radical embodiment. For now, I'm hanging on to mental representation.

1 comment:

  1. I do the re orientating myself thing to remember rooms all the time too! Interesting post.