Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Rebooting the blog

The curse of only occasionally writing a blog is that when other things intrude (like real work) the blog tends to suffer. A bunch of work plus finishing reading Heft lead to this hiatus (once Heft's covered Gibson, he moves onto Roger Barker and while Barker seems like an interesting (and very ecological) researcher his interests fall quite convincingly outwith mine. So blogging about it seemed a little pointless.).

The question is, where next? I plan to re-read Radical Embodied Cognitive Science and blog that, now that I've had time to digest it, think about it, and get more into the 'affordances-are-dispositions' vs '-are relations' argument. We may yet also write a couple of papers on that, so stay tuned.

In the meantime, I'm keen to get back into the discipline of writing a couple of times a week. I may devote one post to reviewing specific papers; I'm developing two grants using coordinated rhythmic movement and I've been reading and developing the arguments for a while now. There's an interesting tension in the literature on this, and I've finally gotten two key papers on this topic in press so I can finally begin to really get moving on this topic. I think one post a week will be on a paper by myself or someone else which I can use to highlight the various theoretical conflicts.

It's not like anyone's reading :v


  1. From scientopia, read through some of your archives. Here's my random question:

    Where do you see (or would like to see) the study of human cognition in 50 years?

  2. Well, I am! Of course, I'm thinking about this from a social/cognitive/dynamic/emotional perspective (with some evolution thrown in), and not very cogently at that.

    (See - I'm supposed to write a proceedings, and it is just that much easier to respond to blogs, it seems. Writing practice. Yeah, that's the ticket).

    I did come across an interesting talk on itunes U, from a social psychologist called steven Neuberg. And, he brought up affordances in social perception, and brought up an earlier paper by Leslie Zebrowitz (and someone else) where they were talking about bringing ecological psychology into social psychology.

    His talk was very relevant to the projects I'm doing now, which has to do with the interaction between race, emotional expression and the perceivers own prejudiced (or not) feelings.

    He was pointing out (and has done research on) that it matters what the "outgroup" individual means for the perceiver. It is not enough to say 'outgroup' because the outgroup consists of a lot of different types of people that may mean differing things. It matters, for example, whether the target person from the outgroup is female or male, young or old, and which expression they have, and it also matters what kind of (believed/perceived) threat (or not) the outgroup makes to the perceiver. Will I get beaten up, will they use up an undue amount of resources, or will they make me sick.

    All very interesting - but kind of higher level, although they are borrowing some perceptual tasks from cognitive science.

    Not sure what to think about this yet...

    On a completely different note, but still relevant, after I had read 'radical embodied cognitive science' my kids were watching Miyazakis "Princess Mononoke" for like the millionth time (Freja started watching it at 18 months - yes, we are neglectful parents). As in just about all animated pix, the characters do a lot of physical movements that would not be possible for real human beings. for example, San - the Princess mononoke - scales a barricade, runs up roof-tops and jumps between roofs in a way that you would not be able to do as a mere mortal.

    And, my kids, especially Freja, started commenting on this, asking how she could actually do this. It was very clear that Freja thought that this did not quite make sense.

    I had just been reading the section on 'climbability', and read some of this blog when this happened, and it struck me as interesting that she was so aware of this physical impossibility.

    She is highly familiar with the film. She used to watch it every morning for months, and has always come back to watch it again (and it is a great movie), so even with this great deal of familiarity, this was a puzzle to her.

  3. From scientopia, read through some of your archives. Here's my random question:

    Where do you see (or would like to see) the study of human cognition in 50 years?

    A complicated question! I've had a couple of goes at answering it and deleted them, but let's see...

    There are two strands: theory and experimentation.

    1. Theory: I want cognitive science to abandon the metaphor of the information processing, representing computer. I think we should instead think about ourselves in the terms that evolutionary developmental biologists do; as complex biological systems with an evolutionary history* that constrains but does not define us. I think we need to properly embrace dynamical systems theory (while never forgetting that it is a methodological tool, not a theory of behaviour). This means not just using the words, which is what most people do - it means thinking about the system in a very different way. Who cares which small part of the brain lights up on average under meaningless experimental conditions? The real question is, what the hell is the brain-in-a-head-on-a-moving-body-with-eyes-and-ears doing?

    2. Experimentally: let's do things in the right order. I complain a lot about cognitive psychology solving problems that don't exist (for example, there are many elegant computational solutions for extracting motion information from a sequence of images, but this is not what vision is about so who the hell cares?) We need to get serious about perception: this is the system that provides us with the information we need in order to organise behaviour to be functional. We need to identify what it is actually doing, not what the latest technology metaphor suggests it's doing. Once we begin to understand this, then (and only then) can you start to explore the gaps: what is left to be explained once you reach the actual limits of perception? Too much of cognitive psychology is too far 'upstream' and it's time to get more disciplined about how we ask questions.

    Right now, however, the trajectory is less inspiring:

    Modern neuroimaging techniques have provided the illusion that we now understand what 'bits of the brain' are doing. The assumption is that all the interesting work happens in the brain; this is not true. The brain is clearly up to something, but computing and representing is not it. In the 'wild', the brain is involved in our complex dynamic interaction with light, sound, surfaces, other organisms. The brain is behaving and changing all the time on a millisecond time scale as it ebbs and flows with the world: there isn't a static architecture, with circuits and dedicated memory stores. There is clearly structure there, of course; but dynamic structure. I really don't think modern neuroscience has the tools to handle what the brain is actually doing, and I think the tools it does have are not fit for the job.

    There's devil in the detail: but if cognitive science is to move forward, rather than just continue to look busy, it needs to look for consilience with a dynamical, developmental evolutionary biological approach. The field is far too fractured and there is no overarching plan, and we're suffering for it. Pick a side people!

    *NB current evolutionary psychology is not what I mean. This is an attempt to explain the existence of things like cognitive modules in terms of evolution, not an attempt to use evolution to ask whether modules are the kind of thing you could possibly ever develop.

  4. Åse: I approve of the idea of trying to get ecological about social psychology. But the trick is always in how disciplined the approach is: for example, Gibson had a very specific definition for affordances, and a lot of people who think they are talking about Gibsonian affordances are not because they are using the term far too imprecisely. It's not impossible to do, but its hard to do right.

    And wrt to noticing the motion looks wrong: there's a literature on folk beliefs about physics. If you ask people what happens to a ball when it comes flying out of a curved pipe, people often say (incorrectly) that it will continue to curve. People get into this, as if this belief reflects the basis of our 'understanding' of physics. Geoff ran a study where they showed people the incorrect motion people often verbally describe, and the physically correct motion: people just stare at the wrong one and go 'wow, that one is entirely wrong: wtf are you doing?'. People are extremely sensitive to these event trajectories, even infants (although they can tell the difference between a possible and impossible, reversed event, they show no particular preference; so they are sensitive to the information but they have yet to learn what it means with respect to the world).

    I hate action films involving wire work, and so do most people who like action films. It sticks out as entirely wrong, and only films where there's a narrative reason for it (like the Matrix, or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) get away with it.

  5. Anon here. I'll answer my own question.

    I think the problem of psychology is that of "stupid human tricks". You may have mentioned this is less colorful words. Too many studies pointing out interesting effects and nothing else. On the one hand this information could be useful, but what we're left with is a pile of effects that don't quite make sense together because we don't really know what's going on.

    I think that in many ways the methodological tools available will drive what sort of theories are put forth. I think changes in measurement of neural activity and the computational modeling there of will be the first domino in a sea change of thought on human cognition.

    If I were placing bets on how current stuff will be seen in the future I think dynamic systems is an odds on favorite. There are an increasing number of behavioral results that hint at it, but don't explicit mention it. The other metaphors/theories seem to have clear limits as to how much they can explain. The computer thing made sense, and was useful to and extent. I think that it's done now.

    I'm not too worried. Perhaps the field has gone down a bit of a garden path, that's how things go.

  6. I basically agree; psychology is enamoured of phenomena ('stupid human tricks') and it allows methods to drive research. But I do worry; I think it's the job of responsible scientists to keep an eye out for garden paths and to avoid them when possible.