Sunday 6 November 2011

Embodied cognition is not what you think it is

The most exciting thing in cognitive science right now is the theory that cognition is embodied. It is, in fact one of the things interested lay people know about cognitive science, thanks in part to a lot of high profile experiments that claim to show how cognition can be influenced and biased by states of the body, or that cognitive states can affect states of the body in ways that suggest abstract metaphors and concepts are grounded in the behaviour of the body. A recent blog post at Scientific American covers this ground quite nicely (although the large picture of Noam "not an embodied cognitive scientist" Chomsky hints that someone didn't actually read the piece).

The problem, however, is that this is not really what embodied cognition is about. Embodiment is not the weak claim that you can see small effects of the behaviour of the body in our mental representations of the world. Embodiment is the radical hypothesis that the brain is not the sole resource we have available to us to solve problems. Our bodies, and the meaning-filled perception of the world they allow, do much of the work required to achieve our goals, and this simple fact changes utterly what our theories of 'cognition' will look like.

Disembodied cognition
The original computational depiction of cognition in the 1960s treats us as general problem solving devices. Similar tasks (e.g. reaching with your left vs. your right hand) are achieved by applying the same underlying general motor programme to the different effector. The body was simply the output system attached to the cognitive processing system; it was cognition that was responsible for all the characteristics of what the body gets up to. More recently, people have begun to realise that the types of bodies contribute non-trivially to the form of our various behaviours, and the idea of 'embodied cognition' began to emerge.

Then, like everything else in psychology, it immediately fractured into approximately 5 different versions. Most of these are wrong, or, at the very least, nowhere near as new as they like to pretend.

What embodied cognition isn't
The most commonly discussed embodied cognition hypothesis that the contents of our mental representations can be affected by states of the body (this is what that Scientific American article considers embodied cognition). For example, the way we mentally represent abstract concepts seem to be influenced by physical metaphors - we might conceive of importance as weight, and thus the weight of things might affect how important we think they are (Jostmann et al, 2009). Another way to demonstrate this is to find changes in states of the body as a function of changes in our mental states; the suggestion is that if the mental state is grounded in a sensorimotor experience, activating the former might also prime or activate the latter. An example of this is the 'moving through time' paper (Miles et al, 2010), in which people thinking about the future tended to sway forwards (on average) and those thinking about the past tended to sway (on average) backwards. (I've critiqued this paper fairly comprehensively here; funny how these tend to show up in Psychological Science!).

Besides the tendency to over interpret tiny effects and generally ignore what the perception-action system might actually be up to, the core problem with these versions of embodied cognition is this - there's nothing new or interesting here. All these papers assume that the contents of cognition are, roughly, what we've thought it was since the 60s - mental representations containing abstract, generalised and computational programmes that enable us to process impoverished sensory data into a perception of the world good enough to support skilled action. The only difference is that these researchers suggest these programmes can be influenced by some of the things we get up to. The strongest claim you will ever hear is that these programmes can finally be grounded, i.e. there is a reason (embodiment) that they have the contents they have.

Why is this such a problem? The hypotheses about these mental states, and what kind of content they have, came from the specific work they have to do in order to enable behaviour. For example, a representation may contain a prior probability distribution that suggests a given pattern of sensory information is probably caused by a particular state of affairs in the world, or it may contain a mapping between an event in the world and the motor system's reponse. This flavour of embodied cognition simply claims that representations still have to do the same kind of work, but that now some of their content might reflect something about the state of the body. This misses the fact that embodiment is actually a much more radical hypothesis, and that it's first implication is that cognition now has a very different job description.

The radical implications of taking embodiment even a little bit seriously
What I think the real hypothesis of embodied cognition is that the type of perception and action systems we have radically alters what 'cognition' needs to look like. My favourite current example is the outfielder problem (how a baseball outfielder is able to catch a fly ball; McBeath et al, 1995), and the contrast between the straight-forward cognitive, predictive strategy versus the perception-based prospective control solutions. The contents of cognition for the predictive strategy includes a) an estimate of the initial conditions of the ball's flight, derived from perception, b) an internal model of projectile motion which can take those initial conditions as input and c) a mapping from that model to the motor control system to allow you to move in the right direction.

The embodied solutions, for which there is clear evidence, utterly change this content. You no longer require an internal model of projectile motion; you simply need the ability to visually perceive the motion of the ball and the experience to move so as to produce a particular pattern to the optical motion of the ball. So it would make no sense to go looking for effects of the body on your internal model of projectile motion, because, when you take embodiment seriously, you cease to think there will be one.

Other examples abound in the literature; some highlights
Any good book on embodied cognition will include a review of empirical results like this, and many of the more recent ones (e.g. Barrett, 2011; Chemero, 2009) also tackle examples of embodied solutions to more traditional cognitive tasks involving memory, or abstract problem solving, rather than just the perception-action ones I typically talk about. My bias here is partly because it's the literature I know, but also because my discipline is where a lot of this work has been done. There are, however, an increasing number of researcher in other fields beginning to take this approach seriously.

Pick a side, people
But surely there can be more than one approach to embodied cognition, and my version is no more or less right, just different. Right? Wrong. First of all, this (very typical) argument is one of the main weaknesses of modern psychology - it's time to pick a theoretical side, already, because these things aren't just different, they are often directly contradictory. I'll go into that in my next post.

I don't claim I'm right and they're wrong because I think the specific implementations of embodied cognition I talk about are 'true'. I do so because the underlying theory that produced these implementations is more true to the implications of embodiment. All embodied cognitive scientists claim that the type of bodies we have affect what the final form of cognition will be, but only the second group is taking the implications seriously. The first group have simply taken disembodied cognition and allowed the body to quantitatively affect those states (by a main effect, or, if you're feeling snazzy, an interaction!). The second group have noticed that embodiment actually qualitatively changes what cognition will be; the difference is one of kind. And this is why I say the first group are wrong: they claim to take embodiment seriously, but their research remains business as usual, with a couple of embodied bells and whistles.

A note on representations
The hypothesis of embodied cognition is not necessarily anti-representational; much of it, even the good stuff, is not committed to losing representations. Andy Clark famously reserves some room in his theorising for 'representationally hungry' problems, even though he's happy for embodied solutions to show up a long way into cognitive territory. Barrett's book also doesn't deny representations, although she is quite close to realising she doesn't need them and notes she read Chemero's book too late to work it in detail into hers. But I actually agree with Chemero, that trying to do representational embodied cognitive science is a bit of a category error. You simply end up with an utterly different job description for cognition, and also, I think, for the brain.

One reason psychologists persist with representations is that they simply can't see what else cognition could possibly be, if not representational and computational. There's simply no excuse for this any more, though: Chemero's book is an excellent and clear exposition of a viable alternative framework, one which was first crystallised by van Gelder's analogy of the Watts steam governor (laid out in detail by Sabrina here). As I tend to (somewhat rudely) reply to complaints of 'I cannot see how this could possibly explain [insert what this person studies here]', your failure of imagination should not be mistaken for a problem for my theory, and it's past time the field started taking the implications of embodiment seriously.

Embodied cognition is not about letting the body nudge the contents of cognition - it's about treating the body (and the environment, through our embodied perceptual explorations of that environment) as critical elements in a broader cognitive system, and the shape of that system is different from anything we've thought about before in cognitive science. Embracing embodiment is a radical move, but as the evidence continues to roll in now we know what kinds of questions to ask, it's clearly the future of cognitive science.

Barrett, L (2011). Beyond the Brain: How Body and Environment Shape Animal and Human Minds. Princeton University Press; New Jersey.

Jostmann, N., Lakens, D., & Schubert, T. (2009). Weight as an Embodiment of Importance Psychological Science, 20 (9), 1169-1174 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02426.x Download 

McBeath, M.K., Shaffer, D. M., & Kaiser, M.K. (1995). How baseball outfielders determine where to run to catch fly balls. Science, 268, 569-73. Download

Miles, L., Nind, L., Macrae, C. (2010). Moving Through Time Psychological Science, 21 (2), 222-223 DOI: 10.1177/0956797609359333 Download

Pfeifer, R., and Bongard, J. (2007). How the Body Shapes the Way We Think. MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Pfeifer, R., and Scheier, C. 1999. Understanding Intelligence. MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.


  1. In the embodied cognition view that denies representations, why do we have a brain? It is difficult to argue that the brain is not representational, because we can now manipulate brain states to get behavioral outcomes, say using TMS.

    To get over this problem, we need ways of thinking about representations as emerging from dynamic systems, and treating representations as one type of dynamic system. See these two papers:

    Chandrasekharan, S. and Stewart T.C. (2007). The origin of epistemic structures and proto-representations, Adaptive Behavior, 15, 329-353.

    Chandrasekharan, S. and Osbeck, L. (2010). Rethinking Situatedness: Environment Structure in the Time of the Common Code, Theory & Psychology 20 (2), 171-207

  2. The brain clearly plays a critical and interesting role in the behaviour of cognitive systems. But just because it has states, doesn't mean it's representing anything - representations aren't the only way to do business.

    So you're welcome to try to make representations work, and getting dynamics in the mix is a move in the right direction, as far as I'm concerned. They just aren't the only game in town, and embodiment is one viable alternative.

    1. This doesn't answer my "why" question. There are lots of organisms without brains, and they are best understood as dynamic system. So if you can have dynamic systems without brains, why have a brain in the first place?

      In my view, having a system with states that trigger/help_control entire action sequences is very useful, and that is why the brain evolved. You can call brain_states_that_trigger_actions some names other than 'representation', but I don't see how that is helpful.

    2. SC... I like where you are going... but to flip things around, how does it help to call them "representations"?

      A brain_state_that_triggers_actions does not sound like a re-presentation of something. What is it presenting, and to whom?

  3. Andrew and Sabrina, thank you for your thoughtful post. I'm glad to see that the conversation spread beyond Sciam. Here are my thoughts:

    1) I'm confused about the distinction you are making between those who take embodiment seriously and those who do not. Could you clarify what you mean when you say, "The first group have simply taken disembodied cognition and allowed the body to quantitatively affect those states (by a main effect, or, if you're feeling snazzy, an interaction!). The second group have noticed that embodiment actually qualitatively changes what cognition will be; the difference is one of kind. "

    2) I find myself agreeing with most of what you say. I would like to think that the piece in Sciam conveyed the message that embodiment "is not just the innocuous and obvious claim that we need a body to reason; rather, it is the striking claim that the very structure of reason itself comes from the details of our embodiment." Perhaps I didn't do a good job of this, or maybe I am missing the point entirely. Clarifying the above quote will help me determine this.

    3) I disagree that "there's nothing new or interesting here. All these papers assume that the contents of cognition are, roughly, what we've thought it was since the 60." From what I've gathered since studying embodiment in the last year and from speaking with Lakoff and Davis directly embodied is a fairly novel concept. How we thought of the mind in the 60s was much much different that how we think of it today (there are very few labs in the United States conducting embodiment research, not a lot of interest in it because it isn't mainstream. I would say computational theories of mind are much more dominant).

    Thanks again, look forward to your response

  4. Thanks for stopping by, Sam. Let's see if I can clear these things up:

    1. Once you start treating embodiment as a serious contributor to cognition, then what cognition ends up looking like is qualitatively different from what traditional theories currently say. If you claim to be doing embodied cognition, but take as your starting point traditional cognitive content and simply allow our bodies to tweak that content, then you've missed the actual consequences of embodiment; you haven't followed the implications of the hypothesis all the way to the end.

    2. You do indeed cite that definition. But you then hold up various research as examples of doing embodied cognition in a way that reflects that definition, and none of it actually does.

    The distinction comes from reading the methods, rather than the discussion section. In the discussion, they talk a good talk about embodiment; but their methods are nothing new and do not embrace embodiment. Have a look at my post on the 'moving through time' paper; I have more detail there of the kinds of method problems this kind of work suffers from.

    3. Computational theories are, indeed, much more mainstream, and trying to replace them is something Sabrina and I spend a lot of time on. What I'm suggesting, though, is that because most embodied researchers take as their starting point cognitive tasks and effects identified by 'disembodied' cognitive psychology, and then merely allow the body to tweak that effect, they haven't actually done what they claim to have done - there's no actual embodiment here, just disembodied cognitive psychology with a few bells and whistles.

    In essence, there's a disconnect. These researchers use the term embodiment, but don't walk the walk in their actual experiments.

  5. Thank you for clarifying. I understand what you are saying well now.

    Here is my question then: What would a study look like if it did "follow the implications of the hypothesis all the way to the end." I read your critique of the "moving through time" paper (and this post obviously) but I am having trouble pinpointing your overarching theoretical worry. Perhaps you could synthesize your concern with a few more sentences.

  6. "You no longer require an internal model of projectile motion; you simply need the ability to visually perceive the motion of the ball and the experience to move so as to produce a particular pattern to the optical motion of the ball."

    Theorists see it as far easier to produce an internal model of projectile motion than to visually perceive the motion of the ball. I am disagreeing with your use of the word "simply".

    I'm not sure that I understand the part about "produce a particular pattern to the optical motion of the ball." It sounds a bit like the use of an internal model, with an attempt to have a representation fit that model. Some clarification would help.

  7. As a layman, my most basic understanding is that my brain houses my mind, and my mind controls my body. If I have understood your blog, I should amend this understanding so that my brain **and much of the rest of my body** houses my mind. In my simple way, have I got the right idea?

  8. @nwricket:
    Theorists see it as far easier to produce an internal model of projectile motion than to visually perceive the motion of the ball.
    Theorists may; perceiving-acting organisms find the reverse. Mistaking what the former think for what the latter do is William James' 'psychologist's fallacy'.

    I describe the embodied solutions to the outfielder problem in detail here. There are two solutions, but they both work in the same way. Remember, a fly ball is actually decelerating and accelerating along a curved path; the outfielder's job is to run so as to make the ball appear optically to move a particular way (either tracing a straight line, or moving at constant velocity). If you do this, you end up in the right place at the right time to catch the ball; if you are trying and failing to do this, it tells you whether you need to speed up or slow down; if you're running flat out and still not getting it, you can see it's uncatchable. There is no knowledge of projectile physics anywhere in this system.

    You're right, it's not simple: like all these solutions, it requires extensive perceptual learning.

    Does that help?

  9. @Sam:

    The moving through time paper (and ones like it) aren't salvageable. I believe they are too conceptually muddled and there's no actual good experimental design lurking around to help.

    Now, how to do embodied cognition? It is, of course, hard (I thoroughly recommend Louise Barrett's book and her chapter on the experiments on the Portia spider; if I have time I'll blog those in detail sometime). Roughly, it goes something like this:

    1. Identify your task. It's very important to have a clear task specified, and this task must actually be what the organism is up to (see my comment above about the psychologist's fallacy).

    2. Measure how well your organism can do this task. This is the behaviour to be explained. So far, minimal assumptions.

    3. Describe the resources available to the organism to solve the task. A good theory of perception comes in handy here; you need to have a good idea what things people have access to in the world. I suggest Gibson (affordances and information); others may suggest something Bayesian, or what have you. But this is the point where theory gets in, so it's important to have picked a side and been clear which side you picked, in case you were wrong.

    Resources may or may not include the brain, the body, the environment, and relations between them, depending on what your theory is.

    4. Experimentally manipulate those resources to test your theory's hypotheses. Wash, rinse repeat. At this point you might need to go back to (3) and get a new theory that's up to the challenges; this is what Gibson did.

    The outfielder problem is still a good example: one of the potential resources is the geometry of the Linear Optical Trajectory strategy; it turns out this is quite important, so your theory of perception better allow access to it. Then you start getting into ways of characterising not only perception, but action, and their connection, and dynamical systems tends to show up.

    I'll think on a concrete example that exemplifies this; the model I just linked to is pretty good, I think, if a little abstract for some people. Maybe I can re-pitch that post to a more general audience.

  10. @Pattern-chaser:
    I should amend this understanding so that my brain **and much of the rest of my body** houses my mind. In my simple way, have I got the right idea?
    You are heading in the right direction; I would be inclined to say that mind isn't something that is housed, mind is something we do - it's an activity, not a thing. Mind is a tricky word, though, lots of people object to it on the grounds its not very well defined.

    A separate but related issue to embodiment is the idea of the extended mind; that cognition literally occurs outside the head and in the environment. I'm a fan, but not everyone is; if you're interested, start with Andy Clark's 'Being There' and work through his books.

  11. Andrew,

    Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. I understand what you are saying and where you are coming from clearly.

    After reviewing what you've said I now see the problems you had with the studies I used in the article and the article itself. As a writer of psychology and embodied cognition I will surely keep in mind the methodical hiccups you've pointed out in this and other posts. You seem like someone who deeply cares about conducting psychological experiments properly; this is obviously admirable. I will do my best to keep in mind your concerns the next time I write about this stuff.

    Unfortunately, there is not much else I can do being the poor and obscure writer/blogger I am. Your concerns seem to be directed towards the field of psychology much more than those who just write about psychology. I try to report what I know honestly and thoughtfully. This is why I spent nearly an hour on the phone with professor George Lakoff and about 15 minutes on the phone with professor Joshua Davis to write the article for Scientific American. I would encourage you (not that you have not already do so) to direct your worries towards the professors and researchers themselves. I don't mean to deflect any mistakes I made, rather, I would like to see psychological experiments be as accurate as possible just as much as you.

    I look forward to keeping up with your blog.

  12. Andrew,
    Good post! Some nit picky thoughts.

    I thought the Scientific American article represented the opinions of the professors you mention pretty well, at least what I know of their work. You are correct that this is a problem in the field, not a problem in your writing. This is a long running problem, and though I am pleased that the field as a whole is becoming more accepting of embodiment issues, there is much more work to be done to wrap it all up into a coherent whole.

    One key, which Andrew hits home in his answer to your question, is that you need to start with a behavioral task. As simple as this sounds, most of psychology does not. If you think the behavioral task is "just" a proxy for some mental function, and that the mental function is what you are "really" interested in, then your philosophical commitments have already ruled out any real consideration of embodiment. The behavior, described at a properly complex level of analysis, must be the thing of interest. This still allows "mental things" to be part of the explanation, but it also creates a space in which other types of explanations can be developed.

  13. Sam, one thing you can do as a blogger is cover other kinds of embodied research, and place it all in this larger context. What I mostly wanted to achieve with this post is point out to people I know are interested in embodiment that there's a lot more to it than is typically covered.

    For what it's worth, if we can ever help, let us know - Sabrina and I are active researchers and we keep current with the literature, and so maybe we can be a resource people like yourself can use (Eric, who posted above, too :)

  14. a fly ball is actually decelerating and accelerating along a curved path; the outfielder's job is to run so as to make the ball appear optically to move a particular way (either tracing a straight line, or moving at constant velocity). If you do this, you end up in the right place at the right time to catch the ball; if you are trying and failing to do this, it tells you whether you need to speed up or slow down; if you're running flat out and still not getting it, you can see it's uncatchable. There is no knowledge of projectile physics anywhere in this system.

    Hang on though. There's no knowledge of projectile physics in that system - but there is one in the first part of your description!

    Isn't it possible that some cognition is embodied - what we'd call "implicit" or "performance" or "skill learning" or whatever, associated (let's say) with the cerebellum or wherever - and some "declarative" or "explicit" cognition or whatever is not (in the cortex let's say).

    Indeed the lay term "muscle memory" for the former suggests that people may be folk embodied cognition theorists... but only with regards to some things.

    Because there does seem to be a dissociation between being able to catch a ball, and being able to describe how balls fly. Being able to crunch the differential equations for ball flight might be not be how we actually catch balls - maybe it's too slow to be able to provide useful results before the ball hits the ground. I mean, clearly it is.

    But we can do it. And it seems as though we are mentally manipulating representations of balls when we do that.

    Embodied cognition may have solved the outfielder problem but isn't there a "solving-about-the-outfielder-problem" problem for embodied cognition? ;-)

  15. Embodied cognition may have solved the outfielder problem but isn't there a "solving-about-the-outfielder-problem" problem for embodied cognition? ;-)
    This is a nice way to phrase what I'm happy to admit is still a real problem. My only issue with your rush to mental representation is to say 'hang on, you haven't spent enough time trying to explain that behaviour before you proposed complicated theoretical entities to solve all your problems for you'. My theory post is about why a good theory allows you to not abandon ship at the first sign of trouble; it gives you permission to spend some time trying to solve the problem.

    So, for me: given that representations are deeply problematic and not good explanatory tools (they can do anything, therefore they explain nothing), and given that the embodied approach, done properly, has had numerous powerful successes, my response to you question is 'I don't know. Yet.' and then to go off and run some experiments. Well, maybe not me, this isn't really a topic I'm that interested in. But somebody could, and that's the point.

  16. Fair enough. I completely agree that when you have a good theory, you have a right to stick with while you try to work out what to make of new facts.

    However, I'm not sure that embodied accounts will be able to deal with "higher cognition" as well as representational ones.

    Let's say I'm sitting in my armchair. I could be thinking about anything. Yet my body is just sitting in a chair.

    Now a representational account of this is easy - I've got representations in my head and I can manipulate them at will. Now it's hard to explain how my brain stores those representations, perhaps, but that's a biological problem, not a cognitive one.

    You say that representations can explain anything - isn't that the point? We can think about anything. Well, an infinite variety of things - there may be another infinite variety of things we can't think about, but we don't know what they are... anyway, given that we have to explain an infinite number of possible behaviours, surely we need a theory that's very flexible?

  17. We cannot think of an infinite number of things; there are many many limits to what we can conceive. Maths and language are so useful because they do an awful lot of the work for us; we offload a lot of cognition onto them, I think.

    And while you're sitting in that chair, two things are true. One, you are never entirely still, so it's not like you have suddenly flipped into disembodied mode. And two, there are many things you literally cannot do while sitting in a chair (catching a fly ball, for example). This seems trivial, but I don't think it is.

    But the real point is this: It looks like you don't need embodiment now for these things because what people think of as cognition is a description based on a disembodied approach. What you call 'higher order cognition' will, I think, look very different from an embodied perspective, and my bet is it will look a lot more like what we actually get up to.

  18. Well, don't forget that brain-people are embodied theorists in an important sense. However, even if you rule that out, Andrew is quite right that the body is never really still, until you are dead. It is quite likely that sitting in a chair thinking about different things is to have bodily systems activating at below-visible-movement levels.

    It is also possible that the embodied cognition people will have to resort to something like Skinner's hypothesis for covert verbal behavior (thinking in words). Andrew, would you be sad if it turned out that people who knew how to catch a fly ball could learn to "imagine catching a fly ball" through a process that involved ever-less movement until they were for all practical purposes sitting still?

    The "imagining" would still be developmentally connected to the whole body behavior. For example, as one might build off of step 5, here.

  19. People can imagine catching a fly ball. But catching a fly ball is not 'what you do when imagining catching a fly ball + actual presence of fly ball'; the two are entirely different systems. When imagining it, there is literally no ball to catch and therefore no information about the ball to learn or perceive.

    I'm happy that imagining doing a task recruits resources involved in the actual performance of that task; but these things are not additive components of a single system.

  20. Thanks for a truely insightful post. I'm currently revising embodied cognition for my psych exam and your blog is very well articulated and explained.

    Please could you expand on how embodied cognition could account for higher order cognition i.e what is sometimes called offline cognition. e.g. @neuroskeptic's example (I have been following the comments but got lost at your final reply)

    Margaret Wilson proposes we use the priming of motorsensory programs but with no overt movement. Whereby we run simulations of some aspect of the physical world. e.g. imagining counting on fingers but not actually physically doing it. She calls them 'sensory motor simulations of external simulations'

    To me however this just refers to the weaker form of embodied cognition that you speak of at the begninning of your blog.

    Her paper is here. See claim/view 6.



  21. @Chris,
    I'm not sure how Andrew would answer your query, but one important lesson that I think comes out of embodied cognition is that the "offline cognition", if it exists in anything like the form implied by "offline", is lower, not higher. That is, there is something degenerate and incomplete about it.

    With that in mind, I think you first need an idea about how we do embodied, "online" activities. Then you need to look at how the same system would function if you broke it slightly.

    However, one weakness with that strategy of argumentation is that a fundamental principle of the extreme embodied-cognition position asserts that you are never, never, never offline. If that is true, then the research challenge is to determine what aspects of the world the individual is behaviorally connected to when they are "imagining" counting their fingers. Even when engaged in these types of activities, they are still a person, in a place, interacting with some things and not others - they are still embodied, embedded actors.

    I want to say more, but am afraid I would just start rambling. Did any of that seem helpful?

  22. @Eric Charles

    Thanks. Yes this is helpful. I think part of the problem is understanding offline and online cognition and its implications from an embodied cognitive perspective, as you point out.

    Can you recommend any papers that address the issue Neuroskeptic raises. I.e. how EC could explain offline cognition?



    PS Warren frwd your email RE PCT, glad my blog found some use! (I assume this is the same Eric Charles!?)

    PPS I had a go at a blog on embodied cognition, if you find the time please crit - I'm sure there's plenty to contest!

  23. To answer my own question a bit...

    I wonder if you could argue that all 'offline' cognition is derived from online cognition where we have learned to somehow apply our cognitive tools, not to perception directly, but to remembered perceptions.

    e.g. if I am sitting in my armchair "thinking about the beach", what I'm actually doing is using embodied cognition (of whatever kinds) on some memory-traces that ultimately derive from my experience of beaches. Much as I would if were actually on the beach.

    Just a thought.

  24. That's actually a fairly standard move. You take the traditional cognitive abilities and ground them in sensori-motor processes. It's an approach that's had mixed success, in my opinion, and the reason is, I think, that the approach starts with the assumption that the cognitive abilities described by a disembodied cognitive psychology are still the abilities to be explained. I still believe our descriptions of cognition will be radically different if we start off embodied; but what you suggest has a strong pedigree in cognitive science (people like Linda Smith is in the camp).

  25. Another potential direction for embodied cognition, which Neuroskeptic's post reminded me of, is to better develop our understanding of responses extended in time. Psychologists have become very comfortable talking about people responding to things that are distant in space (e.g., the clock on the far wall), which used to be a major philosophical stumbling block, but we remain very uncomfortable talking about people responding to things that are distant in time.

    It is possible to treat my remembering last year's vacation as an extended form of response to those events. This is a nice route to go, because there are many different systems of extended response that organisms have. The brain certainly plays a crucial role in many extended responses made by people, but it is unclear whether the old vocabulary, such as 'memory trace', is a good way to describe the brain's role in that process. Francois Tonneau suggests this strategy, in the context of fixing theoretical problems faced by behavior analysts in chapter 3, here ;- )


    P.S. @Manchester - yup, same guy :- )

  26. Chris: on higher order cognition. I quite like Eric's approach, and we are also thinking about how to apply the ecological approach to some of these issues. People tend to stop at 'I can't see how that will work' and I've never seen a rigorous attempt at an ecological analysis of language, etc. It's next on the list for us :)

  27. I think a lot of people miss the central point with embodied cognition's critique of the symbol manipulation paradigm.

    In it's strong form good EC research and theory isn't so interested in dismissing the symbol manipulation aspects of cognition but rather it lays a hefty weight on the importance of signal processing.

    That distinction between meaningless arbitrary symbol, and meaningful indicative signal is of primary importance to understanding embodied cognition

  28. Andrew Wilson, WIth you (I think) on our system's computation being mainly embodied/morphological and not just symbolic. But not a chance of the system not using representation. Here's mainly why. Every living system from a worm up has to navigate/ plan ahead long journeys through, the world. (And everything we do involves some form of journeying). Tell me how any system can do that without representation. Simple example: a master pointing to a dog to fetch a ball. Tell me what that pointing is if it's not embodied representation - or how that function could be achieved without such a representation. Dog and master understand that he has to move along the line of action/movement represented by the master's arm pointing. Representations of lines of action/ movement/thought are fundamental for any living navigational system - and permeate our culture, including every sign system. As you say, you're still looking for a theory - non-representation will never be it.

  29. I enjoyed the post and will subscibe. However, you use the term 'embodiment' very vaguely, often implying that it's equivalent to 'embodied cognition'.