Tuesday, 28 February 2017

"Consider the Cattle"

"Consider the cattle, grazing as they pass you by" is the famous beginning of Friedrich Nietzsche's "On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life." This meditation, published in Nietzsche's Untimely Meditations, takes the first few paragraphs to notice, not without despair, how the cows are completely absorbed in every present moment. Though this way of being, this Umwelt, is in our eyes more restrictive, for the cows it is in accordance with their being, and man "cannot help envying them their happiness - what they have, a life neither bored nor painful, is precisely what he wants, yet he cannot have it because he refuses to be like an animal" (Untimely Meditations, 60). Nietzsche derives many speculations from this observation, but our point of interest here is in the substantially different kind of Umwelt Nietzsche intuits between himself and the cows.

In his book Instinctive Behavior, Jakob von Uexküll writes expansively on the Umwelt, or a phenomenal/self-world. For von Uexküll, the Umwelt is akin to every organism existing within a soap bubble that is our understanding of all perceptual signs, including time and space. Furthermore, for von Uexküll this metaphor applies just as well to animals as to humans and von Uexküll, having painted an image of a world with every subjectivity existing within a perceptual soap bubble, asserts that "there is no space independent of subjects" (Instinctive Behavior, 29). However, this portrait of man's subjectivity not only makes a mockery of Nietzsche's anxiety, but alienates someone who would have otherwise been a staunch supporter of such a philosophy: Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

Monday, 27 February 2017

Embodied Cognition - developing intelligence

Smith and Gasser attempt to identify some of the crucial lessons we can learn from the development of babies, in order to understand how we could develop artificially intelligent machines.

Human intelligence, according to Smith and Gasser, is flexible and inventive and develops as a result of a huge amount of contact with a physical, social and linguistic world. If we are ever to develop artificial intelligence that resembles the creativity and adaptive qualities of human intelligence, we can learn from the development of human babies. In contrast with the traditional view of intellectual development, which purports that symbolic reasoning occurs as a result of internal representation, Smith and Gasser strongly favour the embodied perspective, which embeds learning and skill acquisition firmly within the world, not within the individual.

The first lesson we can learn from babies is that learning naturally occurs just by being situated in a particular environment. Formal teaching is not always required for learning: babies develop understanding just by perceiving the world around them and acting in it. Secondly, babies develop incrementally, by starting with very little intelligence and gradually increasing their understanding and awareness of the world and themselves. Thirdly, the high degree of organisation in the physical world helps babies to organise their own perception, actions and thoughts. This lesson strongly asserts the embodied perspective, suggesting that human intelligence is reliant upon the structure and organisation of the world in which the child is embedded.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Tangle of cognition: A brain requires a body. A body requires a habitat. A Mind requires their interaction.

There is, in the words of Louise Barrett, a “burgeoning literature on 4-E cognition” (Barrett 2016 p. 14), and this approach may be an enormous help in shifting cognitive science in a direction which embraces a wider, non anthropocentric premise. Cognitive Science would be well served to focus its multi-disciplinary hydra-head on the viewpoint that the body is in relationship with its environment, and (in an archaic but appropriate sense): thence commeth cognition.

A way of connecting some of the various ways of thinking about the Big Questions of cognition (Why? How? Where? What For? and Who?) is through so-called  “4-E Cognition”. Apparently 4-E as a theory has not taken off as a specific label for a project by any one group of scientists (Fred Cummins, pers.com.). Yet it seems to be just the ticket to combine some of the big issues around cognition, taking a philosophical point of view.

The four Es are: Embodied, Embedded, Enactive, Extended. According to Louise Barrett in the article “Why brains are not computers, why behaviorism is not Satanism, and why dolphins are not aquatic apes”, commonalities among these approaches include the idea that cognitive processes emerge from the animal’s physical relationship with its environment. The particular morphology of an animal, including connected sensory and motor capabilities (and a brain), allow specific types of interaction with the world (the world/environment/habitat outside of its body) that induces behaviors that are both adaptive and flexible. (Barrett 2016. p.14)

Monday, 20 February 2017


Iverson and Thelen (1999) highlight the significance of bodily experience in human cognition. They emphasise the importance of the body and how it moves through space, interacting with the world, and affecting how we then process information.

Research within the field of speech and movement focus on three potential theories which may explain the presence of nonverbal gestures during communication. The first is a very linear theory, which essentially purports that the production of speech initiates the production of gestures. The second theory is similar, but in addition to this causal relationship between speech and gestures, this theory claims that gestures can be used to trigger speech if the person is having difficulty recalling a word from memory. Lastly the most embodied theory suggests that speech and gestures are fully interdependent. This would suggest that if one aspect of communication was disrupted the other aspect would be affected too. For example if the ability to move one’s body in order to produce gestures was inhibited, one’s ability to process information would be hindered. This is a potentially controversial statement, suggesting that people who are less mobile, for example due to paralysis or amputation, do not process information as well as they might if they had full range of movement.

One piece of evidence supporting this embodied theory of speech and gesture is research conducted by Hanlon (1990) who studied patients with severe left hemisphere damage and aphasia (reduced ability to name known stimuli). Participants were shown images of known objects and asked to gesture towards the object as they attempted to name it. They were instructed to either point at the object with their finger, or make a fist in the direction of the object. Hanlon found that finger pointing increased the accuracy with which participants were able to name the objects, compared with making a fist, suggesting that more specific and accurate gestures can improve cognition (or at least verbal production). 

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Embodied Identification of Objects

In this article by Smith and Gasser, one of the lessons concerning the development of embodied cognition that we can learn from babies is how language provides us with the opportunity for abstract thought.  Smith and Gasser believe language may be the basis for all symbolic reasoning, including mathematics.  It is argued this happens in four steps.  In the first step, the child learns to associate individual words with specific objects which they identify by shape.  The second step is when the child can recognize similarities between objects within the same category – again, distinguished by shape.  For example, this object is round like that ‘ball’ over there, so this must also be a ‘ball’.  This leads to the third step, or ‘second order generalization’ where the child realizes any novel object may belong to a category which contains similarly-shaped objects.  Finally, in the fourth step, the child learns to attend to the shape of an object in order to learn its name. 

It is interesting that Smith and Gasser’s account of language includes very little about the body.  In fact, despite including a previous section dedicated to multi-modality, Smith and Gasser’s argument seems to be that babies primarily learn language through visually recognizing shapes and associating them with sounds.  However, if we are to take previous sections or ‘lessons’ in the article as true (Be multi-modal, Be incremental, Be physical, Explore, and Be social), then in the first step the baby would not only identify a specific object by its shape.  By the time the child is physically and perceptually developed enough to understand language, he or she is already experiencing the world as an active and engaged, multi-modal subject.  A ball would not be identified through shape alone (which, it could be argued, is already a geometric or mathematic concept rather than the factor in identification which underpins language development which, in turn, is said to underpin mathematic concepts) but also colour, texture, taste, smell, etc.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Where to Place the Efforts?

In his blog post entitled "Embodied cognition is not what you think it is", Andrew Wilson advocates a more authentic understanding of embodied cognition. This effort seems worthwhile, as, with any framework, embodied cognition is not merely a collection of punchlines. Rather, it acts as a lens, providing a new way of seeing and understanding something that was there all along. But these new discoveries can only be explored if one enters completely into the framework. Using the language but maintaining an old vantage point is, as Wilson argues, missing the point and completely useless as regards scientific progress. 

This radical claim seems correct. If one is to make any progress, one must submit entirely to the framework. Spanish words flourish when they are around other Spanish words, as opposed to when they are taken out of context because someone thinks they sound nice. However, at this point, at a point when most of cognitive science is taking the plunge into this embodied cognition paradigm, a question arises: is it scientifically prudent to advocate the study of a single paradigm? A lot of the world speaks English these days, and while this may be communicatively convenient for many people, the result is that other languages are dying out and with them, their capacities for spokenness that English does not, and never will, possess. English is a full system, and it adapts and changes and grows along with its speakers, but there are sounds, attitudes, expressions, sentiments, etc. that other languages communicate that the native English speaker cannot understand because such communications are not available in English. While complete to itself, English is not complete to the world.

This metaphor should need no explanation. The tradition of scientific theory and description is one of fallibility and replaceability. The scientist should be very well aware that a new theory will be able to describe new aspects of life, aspects that were left unchecked by the past theory, but that in exchange they will have to give up on values the prior theory held dear.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

But is the spanner conscious?

Some cognitive scientists and their good friends in the philosophy of mind arena are concerned with working towards a satisfactory definition of “cognition”. There is a long way to go. Here is a short examination of a small part of the Extended Mind Theory Andy Clark and David Chalmers presented in 1998. (Here is the full text.)

There is some kind of connection that happens when you use a tool—the right tool for the job: a well-honed axe will split a chuck of hard maple like a knife through butter. You can feel the task, the job the “thing that needs to happen”, happening as you use it.

People who use tools develop relationships with them: some would go so far as to say they can only do what is needed by using a particular tool. A mechanic has a favorite spanner. When he uses it he can feel the right torque—just the exact turning for the exact bolt which will perform the exact job for which is was designed. He feels it—the rightness-- through his fingers. The spanner is a metal object physically between his fingers and the bolt, yet it becomes (an extension of?) his fingers and so he can feel the bolt, and feel from the bolt what is the correct turn of the spanner.

A driver knows her car. What the tires can, and cannot handle, which way she needs to turn the steering wheel when the tires hit a patch of ice, how fast she can take the curve, exactly how much to push down on the brake pedal. She knows when to slam on the brakes, and when just lifting her foot off the accelerator is enough to slow the car. She “knows her machine.” She feels the road. The tool is superbly designed to its use. And she uses her body—feet, hands, eyes, ears, head—to accomplish the task via the tool. We do this in countless ways every day. We use objects to accomplish tasks. Does this necessitate or even suggest that the tools we use are imbued with consciousness? Are they merely conduits of our mental energy or are they, themselves, a small piece of mind?1 Clark and Chalmers (C & C) side step the question of whether the tool itself exhibits cognition, thus avoiding accusations of panpsychism, and name the relationship between a person and a tool as a system. (Note that Chalmers has gone on record as a panpsychist, and that point of view cannot be ignored, but I beg you to hold that in abeyance for this discussion.)

Distributed Cognition

The traditional view of cognition is highly contentious, and many are moving away from the perspective that humans process information by perceiving stimuli with their senses, interpret it in the brain, and then produce a behaviour in response to it. 

Edwin Hutchins firmly supports a distributed cognitive theory, whereby the individual and the context are so closely entwined they cannot be separated into 'information processor' and 'information to be processed'. Hutchins understands cognition to be distributed over time, space and between individuals and objects. He, like many, propose that when an individual is making a decision, or solving a problem, they are not doing so in isolation, but in continuous communication with the world around them. 

Distributed Cognition builds on the theory of the Extended Mind, but goes further to claim that humans do not merely use tools around them to help them process information, instead we are absolutely reliant upon other people, objects and previous experiences to make sense of any information present. 

Although initially surprising to consider cognition in this way, the more one reflects on how we recall memories, draw inferences and learn new skills, the more one can understand this perspective. Hutchins cites Vygotsky's developmental work to support the Distributed Cognition theory (Society of Mind, 1978). Vygotsky noticed that young children initially process information 'external' to themselves, and are often highly reliant upon other people and objects. For example it is common to hear a young child verbalising thoughts, or see them physically move objects rather than imagine the consequences of their movement. Over time this information processing becomes more 'internalised', but it is still distributed in time, space and between individuals.

One of the greatest challenges to Cognitive Science, including the field of Distributed Cognition, is the current inability to define what is actually meant by 'cognition'. Commonly it is understood to encompass all the things we 'do in our head', such as mental arithmetic, deciding what to eat, recognising a friend. However the theory of Distributed Cognition is just one field of Cognition Science which is increasingly moving away from the idea that we do anything 'in our heads'. Firstly, the head (or brain) is just one organ which is able to process information, so there is now doubt over whether we can claim that processing occurs solely within the brain. Secondly, Hutchins and others question whether the skull really is a barrier within which processing takes place. Distributed Cognition suggests that nothing happens inside ourselves which is not inextricably linked to other people, objects and experiences. 

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Can Embedded Cognition Be Understood Without Affect?

As discussions in cognitive science tend more towards models of embodied cognition and enactivism, it becomes increasingly worrisome that these pictures of cognition, in all their new frontiers, continue to exclude affect. 

The field of philosophy of emotion is rife with disagreement, perhaps, if possible, even more so than other fields in philosophy. The reason, of course, is that emotions are one of the more difficult things for us to understand as they are defined by their very lack of adhering to laws. We contrast them, the alogical, with the logical. It is not that they contradict reason, but rather that they appear to lack it altogether. But even this is not totally agreed upon.

In his 1995 book "Cognition in the Wild", Edwin Hutchins proposes a theory of cognitive science known as distributed cognition. Distributed cognition, roughly summarised, is the idea that cognition is not the traditional psychological model of inside-out representational and computational processing. Rather, cognition is an embedded social interaction, that adapts and changes depending upon the situation. Indeed, according to Hutchins, cognition is socially spread in such a way that a certain layer or skill-set of a task may not emerge unless a specific external situation, be it social or material or both, is at hand. Such a model is revolutionary for cognitive science, as it re-conceives the notion of cognition as inherently embodied, with humans acting as mediators in a cognitive task rather than hoarders of inaccessible cognitive processes.