The question we then get from people who have become interested in using what we've done is 'How can I apply this approach to my research?'. The paper itself describes four key questions that we think are critical for guiding good experimental practice in psychology and cognitive science:
- What is the task to be solved?
- What are the resources available to solve the task?
- How might these resources be assembled so as to actually solve the task?
- Does the organism actually do what your described in 3?
We give two examples of this method in practice (the outfielder problem and the dynamical systems model of the A-not-B error), but people are still left wondering how to apply this to their niche. We want to help here; obviously we want people to start working this way and also we want people across a variety of topics to start working this way, so we can finally start accumulating some results outside of perception and action type tasks.
I want to do two things with this post
- I want to describe the mindset you'll have to get into to start doing embodied cognition in your field, which I hope might make our steps and our examples make a little more sense.
- I want to open an invitation to people to post questions in the comments. We're busy and so I can't promise an immediate response, but if you have a task and you want to start thinking about it from our embodied perspective, post a comment with some details and we'll see what we can do to help.
Getting yourself in the right starting place
The main thing you will have to acknowledge is that you will almost certainly have to invest some time taking a few steps back to the beginning before setting off again with your data and making progress. Our approach is meant to guide discovery and interpretation from the get-go, and you, the already active researcher, are smack in the middle of a programme of research with established goals, questions, methods and interpretations. So switching to taking embodiment seriously means pausing and re-evaluating what it is that you are doing, and, while I think it's worth the time, it is a cost, and I want to make it explicit so you aren't surprised when you don't simply get immediate results.
Second, when you step back to the start, throw out as many of your assumptions as possible, and start only with what you know for a fact, or, to put it more succinctly, start out as a behaviourist. Most of the assumptions (e.g. that language simply must require mental representations that store word meanings) are derived from the standard cognitive approach and do not necessarily have any place in an embodied analysis (remember, we advocate replacement style embodied cognition (Shapiro, 2011). Focus on the facts at hand: you are trying to explain why you got behaviour X in task Y under conditions Z. That, at the start, is all you can count on; everything else is up for grabs. This is what Esther Thelen and Linda Smith did with the A-not-B task - it took time and a lot of data collection to map out the behaviour to be explained, but throughout they focused on how the task characteristics impacted on behaviour, without ever jumping the gun and assuming that there 'just had to be' something like an object concept driving everything.
This is a problem in cognitive psychology that we're fighting against - the assumption that for a behaviour to unfold in a particular way, there has to be a description of how that unfolding should go living somewhere in the system (in the form of a mental representation). Cognitive science should therefore be in the business of finding these descriptions. But in biological systems it's rarely (if ever) true that behaviour is simply scripted by anything in this way. In genetics, for example, the field has rapidly realised that the idea of 'a gene for X' makes no sense. X is actually always the emergent result of the interaction over developmental time of multiple connected complex systems. In the same way, the form of a behaviour does not require a 'representation for' that behaviour. Instead, the form reflects the ongoing interactions of multiple complex systems, and so whatever the brain is up to, it isn't representing.
In effect, we are trying to avoid the psychologist's fallacy: the error of assuming that your description of the thing is, in fact, the thing itself. Skinner's behaviourism was a method designed to avoid making this error and he was not wrong to do so. This kind of discipline is essential, so in effect we advocate that some careful behaviourist-style experimenting take place before the rampant speculation about mental processes, because (as we lay out in the paper) when you do, a) you end up not needing the rampant speculation because b) it works really really well and you end up with a very powerful explanation of the task at hand.
An open invitation
It's not always easy to identify what assumptions you need to throw out when you're in the middle of a field working on a task. One way we might be able to help is to have a dialogue where you tell us what you are doing and we ask you annoying questions until we identify the core description of the task at hand and strip away the things you don't need right away. We've been doing this via email with a couple of people, but I want to open up the comments on this post so we can help out some more.
A good comment will contain a description of the specifics of the task. We can't help you explain 'consciousness' or 'language comprehension' but we might be able to help you with your specific experiment. We'll ask for clarification if we need it, and so if you comment please keep an eye on the comments for replies so we can have a bit of a conversation. We also can't promise that we can solve your problem, but we will try to ask you questions that will hopefully help you identify where to begin - frankly, you will know way more about what you do than we do so your expertise will be critical here.
If anyone else wants to jump in with ideas about where someone can go with their question, feel free. We only vouch for our answers thought :)
Shapiro, L. (2011) Embodied Cognition. NY: Routledge Press Amazon.co.uk
Wilson, A. D., & Golonka, S. (2013). Embodied Cognition is Not What you Think it is Frontiers in Psychology, 4 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00058