Tuesday 25 December 2012

Our first paper based on the blog is out in time for Christmas!

Last year we were invited to contribute to a special issue of Avant, an interdisciplinary open access journal that publishes in English and Polish. The issue is on affordances, and we were asked to contribute a piece detailing the contribution ecological psychology is making to modern cognitive science. Our paper is here; the complete issue is open access and available here (as separate files, a single issue pdf, and an ongoing Polish translation).

We had a lot of fun with this paper. The core of the paper comes from our posts about how psychology lacks a central theory and how Gibson serves as a good model for why theory matters, as well as being a key part of any more complete theory. We take a quick swipe at Daryl Bem and JPSP and then use the contrast between dynamic pattern vs. perception-action approaches in explaining coordinated rhythmic movement. In particular, we highlight Geoff's model as an exemplar of what psychologists should be up to - not just models, but theoretically motivated models.

We'd like to thank Tony Chemero for mentioning us to the people at Avant, and to the Avant team who do interesting work and gave us space to write what we hope will be a fun and useful paper. 

By the by, Avant are hosting a very interesting looking conference next year:

THINKING WITH HANDS, EYES AND THINGS. The 1st edition of the International Avant-Conference “Trends in Interdisciplinary Studies”, 8-10 November 2013, Torun, Poland

Monday 17 December 2012

Radical Embodied Cognitive Neuroscience - A Frontiers Research Topic

UPDATE: This topic is now live! We welcome all and any submissions that fit the remit. Please email Andrew if you are interested and I will add you to the contributors list, or you can also simply contribute via the Frontiers page

A couple of years ago, Sabrina and I were chatting about the brain and running into the problem that we just don't know enough about how it works. We realised that what we needed to do was host a conference, invite some useful people, and pick their brains for a few days. 

We've had two goes at funding such a conference; we've had a lot of interest from the academics we've contacted but no luck convincing anyone to give us any money. Over the process, however, we got Tony Chemero (author of Radical Embodied Cognitive Science) involved, and he recommended Louise Barrett to us (that's how we came across her excellent book). The four of us have been scheming for a while to try and make this a reality, and two things have developed.

First, we are going to host a workshop on Radical Embodied Cognitive Neuroscience, hopefully at the Lorentz Centre in the Netherlands. Before that can really be worth doing, however, we've realised we need a little more momentum, so we've advanced our plans and are about to announce a Research Topic at Frontiers in Psychology. We'd like to invite all interested parties to play.

The goal is simple: we want this to be a virtual conference, in effect, where people pose problems and offer solutions to the problem of developing a radical (non-representational) embodied cognitive neuroscience. We want real collaborations to come out of this, so we want people coming looking for ways to help and be helped. And we want to create a resource that we can point to to shape discussions at future workshops. 

What we need from you
I've pasted the text of the call we will run below. If you are interested in submitting something to  this, send us your name, affiliation and email address (either in the comments below or email us, psychscientists@gmail.com). At this point, this commits you to nothing; we just need a decent length list of people to initially invite to submit, to indicate that there is going to be enough interest. If you change your mind later there's no problem.

Any thoughts on the call, let us know. We all like that this call is short, direct and to the point; too many of these research topic calls are inflated by too much detail. But if there's any flags, let us and know.

If you can help us by promoting  this post on social media, that would also be excellent. We are looking to cast a wide net.

Thursday 6 December 2012

The Task Dynamics of Throwing to a Maximum Distance

In my last post I went over the formal concept of task dynamics as a way of analysing a task to identify the affordances in that task. This post will examine the task dynamics of projectile motion and relate these to throwing to a maximum distance.This version of the task has been studied in detail over the last few years. There is another version of the task, namely throwing to hit a target (same dynamic, different parameters, therefore same task) and we will get to that later; we're working now on data from this task.

Part of my goal here is to lay out the research programme you should be following, if you want to study anything to do with perception and action. If you are interested in movement, and you aren't doing this kind of analysis as part of your work, then, I will suggest, you are doing it wrong. As we will see in future posts, this level of detail isn't just playing with numbers; a formal understanding of the underlying dynamics governing the task we are studying is utterly crucial if we want to be able to understand what people are doing, rather than simply describe their behaviour. 

Also it's fun :)

Friday 30 November 2012

Task Dynamics And The Information They Create

Over the next weeks I want to turn my attention to a detailed account of the process by which you go about studying affordances (formalised as task dynamics) and the perception of affordances (via the kinematic consequences of those task dynamics) using throwing for maximum distances and for accuracy as the task. This post will introduce the basic research programme. Future posts will work through papers from my colleagues Qin Zhu & Geoff Bingham in order (I've done a couple already), as well as work from the animal literature because I want to find ways to use the analyses we're developing to answer questions about throwing and weight perception there.

These posts will do a few things. First, it's important to be as clear as possible about what affordances are, how we might possibly perceive them and how we can do the relevant science within the ecological approach to answer those two questions. Sabrina is developing ways to apply these methodological principles to the study of language, and we have both been working on the issue of information and how it comes to have meaning for us. Being clear about how this all unfolds in the perception-action literature is vital, because this is the foundation for what comes next. Second, I'm working on some throwing data right now and I need to work through the key papers in detail anyway. Third, I'm going to be developing an undergraduate perception-action class for 2014, and this will help me develop course material by laying out the form of the analysis and getting feedback on how well it's coming across. One of my goals is to look at all my collated and edited notes and realise I've accidentally written a text book :)

I'm going to talk about throwing because it's utterly fascinating. It's a complex task but it's one centred around a core dynamic (that of
projectile motion) that physics has a pretty good handle on. This is letting us run detailed simulations of the task to identify the affordance structure of the task and see how throwers are operating with respect to those. Throwing entails perception of object and target affordances and the coordination of multiple body segments into precisely timed actions controlled by that perception. It also connects to all kinds of things in our evolutionary history (including, possibly, the origins of spoken language in the form we know) and our psychology (including the size-weight illusion and issues of the psychologist's fallacy). It's close to being that grail of psychology, something only humans do (other animals throw but rarely if ever for the kinds of distances and accuracy we can manage with ease). And most of all, it is endlessly interesting. The deeper I get into this, the cooler it gets. 

Thursday 15 November 2012

Psychological Science...meet me at camera 3

Psychological Science, I think we need to talk. I was reading this farewell from your outgoing editor, and it would all be nice enough if I hadn't also just read your latest offering to the altar of 'embodied' cognition. Frankly, it made me wonder whether you actually read all the things you publish.

Robert Kail, the outgoing editor, had this to say about the ideal Psychological Science paper:
...the ideal Psychological Science manuscript is difficult to define, but easily recognized — the topic is fundamental to the field, the design is elegant, and the findings are breathtaking.
There are a few problems here; 'breathtaking' results have the tendency to be wrong, for example, and while I'm all for elegant design, sometimes, to make a breath taking claim, you need to run those 4 control conditions. But my main problem is less with these criteria and more with the papers that apparently meet them.

Friday 9 November 2012

How do we perceive which objects afford throwing the farthest?

Previous work has established that people with throwing experience can perceive the affordance of 'throwability'. If you let these people heft objects with a range of sizes and weights, they will confidently select the one they think they can throw the farthest, and they tend to be correct. It's a very natural task, one you have probably done yourself on a beach or lakeside looking for stones to throw into the water. 

This is only the first, and relatively easy step in any ecological task analysis. Once you've identified an affordance property and established that people are sensitive to it, you need to identify the information supporting this perception. For throwing, this has not been done, and while the paper I'm reviewing here doesn't solve the problem, it does rule out a highly likely contender for the source of the information that has implications for a lot of other research.

Wednesday 24 October 2012

Giving children with movement problems a leg up with robots

Developmental coordination disorder (DCD) is a surprisingly common problem; it's thought that 6-8% of school aged children are diagnosable. DCD is a motor disorder, where children have great difficulty in producing skilled actions, especially anything requiring fine motor control. Handwriting, tying your shoelaces, sports of any kind are all huge problems for these children. 

One key question about DCD is why does it occur. Part of the problem in answering this is that it is a behavioural diagnosis; you get diagnosed if you have severe motor impairments that aren't a known side effect of something else. Regardless, there are two basic ways in which children might end up with such problems; crudely, they might have difficulties in
producing movements, or they might have difficulty learning movements. My colleague and author on this paper, Mark Mon-Williams, uses the analogy that children with DCD may be bad drivers of perfectly working cars or good drivers of malfunctioning cars. It's obviously a little messier than that, but this is the essential idea, and the answer has implications for the kind of interventions you'll try and design.

Tuesday 16 October 2012

Why does linguistic information mean what it does?

Sabrina has been working on a series of posts on an ecological analysis of language (here, here and here, plus more on the way). Her focus has been on the nature of the information for language, and the similarities and differences this information has with the information for perception. We're working some of this analysis into a paper, and writing that got me thinking about this in a little more detail.

Our main move on language is to reject the assumption that language is a qualitatively different kind of task than perception & action. The goal is to find ways to talk about these behaviours using the same basic analysis tools. Part of that is to draw the analogy to how perceptual information gets its meaning and use that to describe how linguistic information gets its meaning.

What I want to do here is just map this analogy out a little, because I ended up in an interesting place and I want feedback from people who know more than us on this about whether this is just plain crazy. In particular, if you know anything about the relationship between neural dynamics and the dynamics of speech, we think this is going to be relevant!

Sunday 7 October 2012

Breaking the (ecological) law: why illusory sounds don't make for safer cars

Electric cars are great for the environment, but they come with a problem - they're too quiet, and this makes them dangerous to pedestrians used to the loud noises of the internal combustion engine. One idea is to add noise to the cars, and Mark Changizi recently wondered whether perceptual psychologists could help design a better sound, using an illusion. I don't think it would work, and the reason is a nice example of why it's important to understand the relationship between the world and perceptual information about the world.

Events in the world create information. When a car moves towards you, for example, there are sounds coming from the engine, and the way these sounds change over time is information about the heading of the car. If it's getting louder over time, it's coming towards you; but if the pitch is decreasing at the same time, then the car is going to pass you, not hit you. Increasing volume and constant pitch, however, specifies a collision and the particular rate of change of these variables tells you about the time-to-contact. These patterns of change over time in the acoustic array are related to the way the car is moving via the laws of physics and are therefore informative about the details of the car's motion. Importantly, the relationship between these patterns is also governed by the laws of physics; increasing volume and constant pitch only go together when the car is really heading towards you, for example.

Every perceptual system has limits, though, and those limits are called thresholds. When a stimulus is outside a threshold (e.g. too quiet, or too high pitched) the perceptual system won't respond to it.  The problem with electric cars is that they are quiet at low speeds, and so the variation in pitch you need to detect a collision is small and possibly below threshold. You could make the cars louder, but this goes against one of the selling points of the cars - reduced noise pollution. Mark suggested creating an artificial sound, an illusion, in which the range of the variation in pitch created by the slowly moving car is amplified without just making the car louder. This is in principle possible, but it's a problem because it's breaking the law, and you end up with less information about the car than when you started.

Friday 5 October 2012

A Way Forward on Specification

It's been a while since we've blogged; it's been a crazy summer and we've been insanely busy, but things are settling back down. We have a lot planned for the blog, there's much work to be done on a variety of topics in perception, action, embodied cognition and language. First I want to get back on track with my specification project, so that maybe this can start to move forward.

I've been reviewing work that has been undermining the concept of specification in perception. Specification is the idea that the information we detect and use to control our behaviour maps 1:1 with some action-relevant property in the world, and the idea that this is even possible is one of Gibson's key contributions to psychology. Rob Withagen, along with Tony Chemero (hence W&C) have reason to believe that specification is actually too high a bar, and that individual variation in perceptual ability makes it likely that different people will use different, often non-specifying information to solve the same task. This variation is highly likely to be present, because that's kind of how evolution works, and they cite various studies (in collision judgements and dynamic touch) that seem to empirically confirm that this variation exists and the fact that it doesn't go away with fairly extensive practice.

Ecological psychologists insist on specification for a reason: the idea of direct perception seems to require it. Direct perception is Gibson's hypothesis that we perceive the world directly in terms of our ability to act on it, without needing internal mental gymnastics to figure out what is going on. Turvey, Shaw, Reed and Mace (1981) proposed that, in order for this to work, perceptual information had to be generated by lawful processes that produced one and only one information variable per property of the world, and that perception required the organism to detect that one variable. Anything less, and it's not clear how the organism can count on having detected the right property in the world without some internal states tracking probabilities and correlations. 

Withagen and Chemero think that a) evolution demands a less strict policy for perception to work, b) that there is individual variation, that c) this all shows that specification, while possible, is not required for perception (no 1:1 between world and optics or between the optics and perceiver) but that d) perception can still be direct, just on a continuum - the organism has varying degrees of successful contact with properties in the world, rather than the all-or-none contact implied by the Turvey et al analysis. In one respect, they are throwing out the baby and the bathwater but claiming this still lets them have their cake and eat it too. It's exciting if true, but while I think the fact of individual variation needs to be addressed, I'm not yet convinced by the data or the theory and I think there's more to do. Here are some initial thoughts in that direction.

These thoughts  are designed to lead to real science, and if you want in, let us know. Sabrina and I are very interested in the basic question of how information gets it's meaning - Sabrina's language analyses, for example, depend critically on being able to find a way to have ecological style information in a domain where specification can't possibly work. I've been chatting to Tony and Rob about this work and I'm keen to collaborate: but Sabrina and I are interested in developing broad collaborations to go after this stuff from as many angles as possible, including neuroscientifically. The goal here is to develop and propose grants and experiments - we'll worry about access to equipment later, let's first figure out what we need.

We also want this to bring ecological researchers together, not be yet another schism. Rob suggested in an email that I simply put all this in a paper and we could argue back and forth in the literature. I may yet write that paper, just for the record, but I think we can cut through the "talking past each other" bit much faster here on this blog. I would much rather just crack on with a research programme that involves multiple labs all pulling in the same direction for a change.

Friday 17 August 2012

The Small Effect Size Effect - Why Do We Put Up With Small Effects?

Small effects sometimes matter - but psychology can do better
One of the things that bugs me about 'embodied' cognition research is that the effects, while statistically significant, tend to be small. What this means is that the groups were indeed different in the direction the authors claim, but only slightly, and that the authors had enough people showing the effect to make it come out on average. 

The problem with small effect sizes is that they mean all you've done is nudge the system. The embodied nervous system is exquisitely sensitive to variations in the flow of information it is interacting with, and it's not clear to me that merely nudging such a system is all that great an achievement. What's really impressive is when you properly break it - If you can alter the information in a task and simply make it so that the task becomes impossible for an organism, then you have found something that the system considers really important. The reverse is also true, of course - if you find the right way to present the information the system needs, then performance should become trivially easy. 

Psychology has become enthralled by statistical significance (to the point that we're possibly gaming the system in order to cross this magical marker). If your effect comes with a p value of less than .05, it is interesting, regardless of how small the effect is in terms of function. This is a problem, and we don't have to put up with it. If you ask a question about the right thing, you should get an unambiguous answer. If your answer is ambiguous, you may not be asking about the right thing. 

I want to remind readers of a couple of examples of nuisance small effects I've covered here before, then talk a little about some work which either broke or fixed the right thing, to highlight that we don't actually have to suffer from the tyranny of the small effect effect.

Friday 27 July 2012

'Embodied Cognition', by Lawrence Shapiro

'Embodied Cognition', by philosopher Lawrence Shapiro, is not a book advocating for any particular brand of embodiment. Instead, Shapiro has performed an invaluable service and written an overview of the current state-of-the-art in embodied cognition. The book is thorough, even-handed, and not afraid to highlight key successes and failures of embodied cognition's attempts to take over the world of cognitive science.

Shapiro was recently featured on a Brain Science Podcast which is well worth a listen. He can be found online at his website.

Friday 20 July 2012

Cracking the Tough Nut of Chimp Tool Use

A paper just out in PLoSOne reports that chimpanzees, given some experience and enough of a weight difference, prefer to use heavier hammer stones when cracking hard nuts. This is apparently quite exciting: this is the first study to isolate weight as a property relevant to the task of cracking open a nut.

This caught my attention because weight is not actually the only key property that determines nut cracking success. A heavy hammer is great, but it will eventually become too heavy to lift, and for a given size stone there may very well be an optimum weight (similar to how people choose very specific combinations of size and weight when asked to throw objects to a maximum distance; Zhu & Bingham, 2011). In the current experiment, when the only difference between the objects was weight, the chimpanzees often went to the heaviest stone because it took the fewest strikes and least time to crack the nut. But is this just an artefact of the current experiment? And if so, can an ecological approach find ways to find out just how chimps choose their tools?

Friday 6 July 2012

Evolution vs.Specification (Specification V)

One of Gibson's key contributions was to reveal that it was possible for the optic array to specify a meaningful property of the world. Gibson insisted that specification existed between the world and optics (each property produced one unambiguous pattern, and thus the mapping is 1:1). Specification, said Gibson, meant direct perception was possible, because picking up that one variable meant perceiving the one property that caused it. 

Turvey, Shaw, Reed & Mace (1981) formalised this idea by describing how ecological laws governed which properties of the world could be specified and identifying that these laws allowed affordances into this set. Turvey et al (hence TSM, because Reed changed his mind later on) then insisted that, in order for perception to be direct, specification also had to exist between the optics and the perceiver; an organism should only use one variable per property, and thus the mapping from world to perceiver is 1:1:1. This is a very high bar, and was put in place to defend ecological psychology from the Establishment attack (Fodor & Pylyshyn, 1981).

Withagen & Chemero (2009) think that the 1:1:1 account is incompatible with evolutionary thinking, and they aren't hot on the 1:1 account either. Specifically, they think that any given species will show individual variation in it's members ability to use information, and that in many cases species will end up using sub-optimal solutions (two important elements of evolutionary thinking). The1:1:1 bar, they say, is implausibly high and a naturalised theory of perception (one that is compatible with evolution) will instead predict the common use of non-specifying information. They also claim that this does not stop perception from being direct, so long as you allow 'directness' to live along a continuum.

I think there are some important issues here, but I think this paper's presentation is problematic. It contains no analysis of any particular information or task, and instead is full of sentences such as 'it seems more plausible to us that' and 'it is possible that'. This comes off as the kind of woolly evolutionary thinking psychology is rightly scolded for. Gibson and TSM spent a lot of time trying to make us pay less attention to what might be and more to what is.My concerns are mostly along these lines, and once I get them off my chest I want to turn in future posts to some ideas for a research programme to pursue this all in more detail.

Wednesday 4 July 2012

Sabrina & I were interviewed for 'The Psych Files Podcast'

Michael Britt (@mbritt on Twitter) runs the popular Psych Files podcast, which is downloaded by thousands of students and interested people. A while back he invited us for an interview on embodied cognition, and we Skyped with him a few weeks ago. Our interview is now live, and available from his website and from iTunes.

We had a great time chatting to Michael and he's done a great job! Let us know what you thought in the comments :)

Saturday 23 June 2012

Individual Variation in the Use of Perceptual Information (Specification IV)

If it is the case that perception requires the use of specifying variables, then there should be no individual variation in what information variables people use. However, as we've already seen, such variation exists: the dynamics of a collision event produces multiple kinematic patterns in the optic array, and people judging the mass ratio of colliding balls use all of these, only one of which actually specifies which ball is heavier. Even with training, people do not always find the specifying variable. 

This is an example of how the mapping between a property in the world (mass ratio) and the optic array can be one-to-many, with consequences for perception. Figure 1 on this post shows us that there is another mapping to investigate, namely the one from a perceptual array to the organism. Can this mapping also be one-to-many?  Withagen & van Wermeskerken (2009) suggest that it can, and that again training does not necessarily help.

Friday 15 June 2012

Non-Specifying Variables in the Perception of Collisions (Specification III)

Part of Withagen's critique of specification and whether it's necessary to underpin direct perception is a brief review of some empirical literature that shows people using non-specifying variables. I want to spend a few posts reviewing these, because all good potentially sensible ideas need data to confirm whether they're right or not.

First up, the perception of relative mass after a collision. Events in the world are dynamic, that is, they involve motion caused by a pattern of underlying forces. Perceptual systems want access to the underlying dynamics of events, because this is the level at which the event is defined (Wilson & Bingham, 2001). However, perceptual systems can only detect kinematics, that is, motion - this is the perceptual bottleneck  (Bingham, 1988 and this note on dynamics and kinematics). We can only perceive the underlying dynamics of an event, according to the ecological approach, if we can detect motion that is specific to that dynamic. Runeson coined the phrase kinematic specification of dynamics (Runeson & Frykholm, 1983) and investigated whether there were such kinematic patterns and whether we can detect them. Working with Claire Michaels and David Jacobs, he has also investigated the use of non-specifying variables.

Thursday 14 June 2012

4 PhD Studentships in Psychology

We are advertising four, fully-funded studentships in Psychology over here at Leeds Metropolitan University. I've got two projects listed on embodied cognition, one on language and one on categorisation, and I'd love to talk to any and all who are interested in applying.

There are also a number of other projects on offer from other members of the department:

  •  Impulsivity, cognitive bias and drug addiction
  •  Categorisation, social cognition and embodied cognition
  • Dreaming and memory
  • Emotions, including collective emotions, mixed emotions and cross-cultural perspectives
  • Men’s sexual thoughts and offending
  • Femininity, aggression and violence in and out of the workplace
  • Gender, work and mothering, and infertility
  • Sex and sexualities in the digital age
  • Augmented reality to improve learning
  • Children’s activity choices
  • Music and academic performance 

Here's a link to the project summaries

And here's a link to the application form

Finally, a link to the main research bursary page

Deadline for applications is 8th July

Sunday 10 June 2012

How Information Gets Its Meaning (Specification II)

Gibson proposed that specification was required in order for perceptual information to have meaning that was tied to the world in a manner an organism could use. The concept of specification has been placed back under the microscope by recent theoretical and empirical work. Here I want to briefly summarise the theoretical argument put forth by Withagen & van der Kamp (2010), who worry that specification places too strong a constraint on what a perceiving-acting organism might find informative. They suggest that (visual) perception can still be direct with non-specifying patterns, if you stop thinking information is in the relation between the environment and the optic array but rather, in the relation between the optic array and the organism. They propose this because recent empirical work suggests that organisms can happily get around using non-specifying variables; they want to keep directness, however and they don't think Chemero's solution to the problem does the trick. I'll review the studies they cite over the next few posts; first, let's lay out the solutions they propose.

Again, I want to emphasise that this is very much a work in progress for me. I'm using these posts to come to grips with the arguments, and I don't yet endorse any of these various critiques. My goal is simply to have a clear understanding of what everyone says, so that we can evaluate those claims later on when I review some data.

Thursday 7 June 2012

Specification: What It Is, and Why We Need It (Specification I)

The first thing I need to do in a discussion of specification is explain what it is and why it's important to ecological psychology. I've tried to maintain a clear logical progression in this post, building towards the need for specification. In my next post, I'll take a first swing at explaining what specification gives us, namely a reason why information means one thing and not another.

The issue of specification comes from Gibson's (1966, 1979) analysis of visual perception, so that's where I'll start too. Most descriptions of visual perception begin with the anatomy of the eye; people note that the eye resembles a camera, and that the lens seems to focus a messy, upside down image onto the retina. The retina then pixelates that image into neural activity, and this pixelated structure then shows up in primary visual cortex (this is topographic mapping). If vision does indeed begin this way, then a huge amount of work seems to be required to take this impoverished stimulus and use it as the basis for the rich, 3D visual world we experience.

Gibson's ecological theory begins with a re-evaluation of the stimulus for vision. The first three chapters of the 1979 book are about the world and what it contains, while chapter 4 is about how this world can interact with light to produce information. Only once he lays out the information available to the organism does he begin to talk about the act of perception itself; this re-evaluation of the 'job description' for a visual system is one of his most important contributions to psychology. Gibson's reanalysis leads him to conclude that action relevant properties of the world (specifically, affordances) can be specified in the optic array, and this concept underpins the directness of his theory of perception.

The issue of specification is assumed to be critical for the success of a direct theory of perception. The traditional views propose a 'many-to-one' mapping; a given pattern of stimulation on the retina is ambiguous because it could be caused by many possible states in the world. Specification is the hypothesis that there is a 'one-to-one' mapping - a given pattern in the optic array comes from one and only one state of the world. This can happen, according to Turvey, Shaw, Reed & Mace (1981) if (and only if) the creation of information about the world is a lawful process. If the projection of world into optics is underwritten by a law and thus one-to-one, then detecting the optical pattern is equivalent to detecting the property of the world: detecting the information is perceiving the world, with no additional processing work required. Perception can be direct.

A theory of direct perception will require several elements: there must be invariant structure within the endless flow across the retina that relates 1:1 to some property of the world. To be invariant, this structure must be relational, and therefore higher order. If perception is to be direct, these higher-order invariants must be detectable as a piece, and not built out of their elements in some post-perceptual process. Only if you have all this do you have the possibility of a one-to-one mapping between the world and vision, i.e. the possibility of specification.This post lays out what this all means, and  how these pieces come together in ecological psychology.

Wednesday 6 June 2012

Specification & Its Discontents

A topic that has been flying under the radar a little in Sabrina's language posts is the issue of specification. Sabrina's ecological analysis of language discusses information and what it means, but is not committed to the kind of law based account that is typically invoked in the perception-action literature. It can't - language can be used to talk about things in their absence, and it's not clear what kind of ecological laws might govern the connection between the speech event and it's meaning. Breaking specification has consequences, however, and has been a topic of some debate lately; the next few posts from me will be an in-depth look at the theoretical and empirical contributions to the debate as I try to come to terms with the idea and whether it can still support a direct theory of perception.

Monday 4 June 2012

The Inaugural 'Name Our New Blog' Competition

We have recently accepted an offer to blog on Psychology Today, where we will have an opportunity to talk to a wider popular science audience about the various crazy things we think psychology should be up to. We're very excited by the opportunity; this blog will continue to be home for all our more serious theorising and occasional whacky experiment idea but we're looking forward to trying out some of these ideas with a broader audience in mind. 

The new blog will feature some posts from here reworked for a more general audience, especially some of our embodied cognition stuff, as well as new material as we try out ideas for another project currently under development. The broad focus will be less on developing new theory, and more on introducing the core ideas to an interested audience, and to promote the existence of alternative ways to do cognitive science.

However, we need a name for the blog! The editor who contacted us suggested something like 'Against the Grain', seeing as how we spend most of our time pushing back against a lot of modern psychology. We quite like this broad idea, but we thought we might need something pithy and eye catching that also conveys a little more information. Some ideas we thought might not quite work are 'Psychology: You're All Doing It Wrong' and 'Please Allow Me To Explain My Theory To You In Excruciating Detail'*; but if you follow the blog or the Twitter feed you should get the general ball park.

We thought a Twitter/blog reader competition seemed only fair, seeing as how your support and interest is what made this opportunity available to us, so please, post your suggestions in the comments below or tweet us @PsychScientists. If you see one you like, reply to it with a vote!

*(Ed Yong has referred to my writing as 'dense but interesting' at least twice, which I like to think is a compliment but a hint :)

Friday 25 May 2012

Language: A task analysis (kind of)

In the last post, I discussed the similarities and differences between language and other types of information. From the first person perspective, spoken language is just another type of auditory event. The main distinction between the word "dog" and the sound of a dog barking is that the auditory event of barking is about the thing that caused the sound - a barking dog - while the auditory event of the word "dog" is not about the thing that caused the sound - a human speaker. The word "dog" is (usually) about an animal that is related to the auditory event by convention. Thus, the sound of a barking dog conveys auditory information and the sound of the word "dog" conveys linguistic information.

In this post I want to lay out classes of tasks in which linguistic information is useful. As a starting point, I will identify situations where language appears to fill a gap, although at this point these are no more than general descriptions. In any specific task analyses that might eventually follow, the basic strategy will be to begin by asking what perceptual resources exist to carry out the task. If perceptual resources are unable to explain task performance and if linguistic resources are available, then these will be considered for their potential contribution. It might be helpful to think of linguistic and perceptual information as occupying different niches in a task space. Perceptual information helps me to walk and catch a fly ball and linguistic information helps me do the types of things described below.

Saturday 19 May 2012

Language isn't magical (but it is special)

One of the most common comments about ecological psychology is that it's hard to imagine how it could apply to things like language. The sense is that language is a completely different kind of beast than perception-action and that it requires a completely different theoretical account (cognitive psychology). Andrew and I disagree. In this post I outline the similarities and differences between language and other types of perceptual information. The main idea is that language is indeed the same type of thing as perception-action, but there are key differences between them in the relationship between the information and what it means. These differences permit language to be flexible according to context, culture, and goals; to be expandable according to changing needs; and to be portable, allowing us to access information about things that are not currently in the environment. These properties make language special, but not magical.

Friday 18 May 2012

An Ecological Approach to Language

Language is often held up as an example against the possibility of the radical (non-representational) psychology we advocate for. You might be able to explain perception-action without representations, people say, but we can't see how you'll ever be able to explain 'real cognition, like language' without them. It's finally time for us to begin chipping away at this criticism. In the next few posts I'll lay out a first draft of an embodied, ecological analysis of language use.

Psychologists usually assume that catching a fly ball and talking about catching fly balls are two different kinds of thing. I reject this assumption (it is just an assumption) and I am going to treat language use as the same kind of thing as other examples of embodied cognition. Treating language as just another instance of embodied cognition allows me to import the lessons learned from perception-action type tasks and apply these to language tasks. This will lead to very different questions about language use than are typical in the literature. The next post will describe what I mean by this in some detail.

Sunday 15 April 2012

Shared neural resources for throwing and language: a whacky idea for an experiment

For some time now, there has been an hypothesis floating around in evolutionary biology that the human capacity for language emerged, in part, from the development of our ability to throw long distances with high speed and accuracy. There are a few reasons to think this, mostly correlational, inferential kinds of reasons, but they are accumulating.

We were chatting one day about how to test this hypothesis a bit more directly, and we came up with a whacky experiment. We'd like advice from neuroscientists with experience in brain stimulation techniques about whether this sort of thing is feasible. We'd also like to brainstorm the logic of this experiment and see if we can come up with a practical design that stands a chance of finding something. We then need collaborators; I can handle the throwing side (analysis, measurement, etc) but we don't know anything about TMS and would need an expert on board.

There are many other reasons why this might fail, though - I still need to do a detailed lit review on the throwing/language references I have. Our main problem is that we don't know the kind of obvious difficulties in doing TMS in this kind of context. We'd like to assemble a) an experiment and b) a research team to do the experiment if we can get it to make sense, and if it works we will submit the hell out of this to Nature :)

Friday 13 April 2012

Patient DF uses haptics, not intact visual perception-for-action to reach for objects

Before functional neuroimaging techniques like PET and fMRI became common, what we knew about which parts of the brain did what came from neuropsychology. This is the study of patients with specific injuries to the brain, and the basic logic of the field is that if you have a patient with a lesion in area A who can't do task 1, then area A is involved in performing task 1. It gets a little more complicated than this, as you search for double dissociations, etc, but this is essentially it.

A surprising amount of what we think we know about the brain comes from neuropsychology; famous case studies such as HM have informed theories of memory so that they include short and long term storage, which are separable, and so on. These case studies can have a profound effect on research; my favourite story, though, was about a memory researcher who had a skiing accident and temporarily developed retrograde amnesia - he couldn't remember anything except that there was this guy in Connecticut (HM) who couldn't remember things either!

I always enjoyed classes in neuropsychology; the case studies are always fascinating. But they are deeply limited in what they can actually tell us about the brain. First, they are typically single patient case studies, which restricts how general the conclusions are. Second, they are data from damaged brains; the fairly linear assumption that some localised function has been subtracted out is simply not true, and the damage will have had complex effects on distributed functional networks.Third, the damage is never straight-forward, because these almost all come from accidents or strokes (HM's surgery being a rare example of more detail being known). This has not stopped the field being very excited by these cases, though, and from basing a lot of theory on these patterns of deficits.

In movement research, the most famous neuropsychology case study is Patient DF She suffered bilateral damage along the ventral stream of visual processing (James et al, 2003). The effect was visual form agnosia: she is able to control her actions with respect to objects, but cannot describe or recognise these objects verbally. Crucially, her accident did not damage her parietal lobe; specifically, the dorsal stream of visual processing was left intact. These two streams are well defined anatomical pathways leading out of primary visual cortex, and were first described by Ungerleider & Mishkin, 1982). DF's pattern of deficits led Mel Goodale and David Milner (Goodale & Milner, 1992) to suggest functional roles for these streams. The ventral stream, they suggested, was for perception - things like object and scene recognition. The dorsal stream, in contrast, was for perception-for-action, and used visual information for the online control of action. This perception-action hypothesis has been hugely dominant in the field, and the theory rests heavily on DF's shoulders.

Recently, Thomas Schenk (2012a) published some data which claims to show that DF's visually guided reaching is not normal if she doesn't have access to haptic feedback about the object. His data suggests that the only reason she succeeds at reaching while failing judgment tasks is that haptic information is only normally available in the former case. If correct, this is actually quite a shot across the bow of the perception vs perception-for-action work; naturally Goodale and Milner don't buy it, and have published a reply to which Schenk has then replied.

An invitation
I like seeing these arguments happen in the literature; but to be honest, the time scale is too slow. Schenk publishes, then Milner et al get to reply and Schenk gets right of reply to that. They may or may not iterate again and it's always left as 'we agree to disagree'. But these critiques have answers, and I think a blog comment feed might be the right place to work through the various cycles of suggestions and rebuttals until the obviously wrong things have been weeded out. It would also provide a place for other interested parties to weigh in. So if Schenk, Milner and Goodale (and anyone else!) feel like using the comments for this post or another made to purpose to bang around ideas until an obvious experiment or analysis pops out, please feel free!

Sunday 1 April 2012

Did language emerge from the neural systems supporting aimed throwing?

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgAimed throwing is surprisingly uncommon in the animal kingdom. Humans do it par excellence, and otherwise it only shows up occasionally, even in our closest relatives. Chimpanzees will throw things (often faeces) but unlike humans don't throw things when hunting or trying to get food; when non-human animals throw things, it's usually part of a social encounter.

Throwing is a fascinating task for many reasons; I hope to blog some about the perception-action aspects of this task in the future as I prepare a couple of papers on the topic with my colleagues Qin Zhu and Geoff Bingham (who have previously done some excellent work on throwing to a maximum distance and the size-weight illusion; various papers available here). There are many fascinating questions about the perception of the affordances of throwing and distances to targets which we're starting to tackle empirically.
Biomechanically, throwing an object accurately over any distance requires the precise transmission of force from the large trunk muscles along a kinetic chain formed by the segments of the arm. The large trunk muscles generate forces the arm cannot, and this force is then transmitted by the motion of the arm; each segment weighs progressively less and so the force accelerates each one faster than the last. The end result is a hand moving at high speed. This requires careful timing; if the motion of the segments aren't coordinated carefully you will waste energy moving the limbs in ways that aren't helping the throw.

There has been some speculation for a while now that the neural mechanisms that help support this fine tuned coordination and control for throwing might also be just the kind of resources that could support the development of spoken language. Speech is a complex action that requires exquisite control over the coordination and timing of numerous elements, just like throwing. One hypothesis is that our ancestors began to develop the ability to throw long distances (this being favoured by natural selection processes because it enabled us to hunt and kill huge prey with much less physical risk to ourselves; e.g. Calvin, 1983). Evolution selected for neural resources that supported this activity, and this then opened the door to the possibility of complex spoken language. So do we speak the way we do because we throw the way we do?

Sunday 18 March 2012

A field spotter's guide to embodied cognition

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgI've spent quite a bit of time lately on the blog and Twitter talking about what embodied cognition is not. For example, it's not about moving through time (Miles et al, 2010), and it's not about leaning to the left (Eerland, Guadalupe & Zwaan, 2011). It is about finding new solutions to old problems by expanding the resources available to a perceiving-acting organism; for instance, allowing it to move so as to produce useful information, as in the outfielder problem (e.g. McBeath et al, 1995). Embodiment produces radically different solutions - for instance, instead of Asimo, you get Big Dog.

We still get asked about various new studies coming through; what about 'enclothed cognition' (Adam & Galinsky, 2012), is it embodied? (No). It occurred to me that it might be useful to lay out how I know when something isn't embodied cognition (the easy thing to spot) and when it is (a little harder).

Saturday 25 February 2012

Are babies super? Performance, competence and infant habituation

Are babies really more competent than we give them credit? (No.)
Developmental psychology is filled with studies that claim to show the hidden abilities of babies. The claim is that babies come pre-packaged with all kinds of knowledge and skills that provides them with the foot in the door they need to learn about the world. Babies are limited in their ability to demonstrate this knowledge, however, because of their immature bodies and inability to control these well. In the language of the field, there is hidden competence concealed by problems with performance, and researchers (such as Liz Spelke and Renee Baillargeon) are interested in finding ways to reveal this hidden competence.

At IU we referred to such studies as 'super baby' studies, because they purported to show that infants were remarkably competent and knowledgeable about the world. Besides the rampant dualism of 'mind' being concealed by 'body', these studies are good examples of a common problem (the psychologist's fallacy) in psychological research, one that a rigorous application of embodied cognition helps fix.

Wednesday 1 February 2012

Newton International Fellowships

If you are looking for a post-doc opportunity in the UK, and are trained in perception, action or embodied cognition type research, then this is an excellent funding stream and we are both very interested in hearing from you to come and work in our labs. Please feel free to contact us if interested, and please spread the word to other interested parties!

A new round of Newton International Fellowships - an initiative to fund research collaborations and improve links between UK and overseas researchers - has now opened.

The Newton International Fellowships are funded by the British Academy and the Royal Society and aim to attract the most promising early-career post-doctoral researchers from overseas in the fields of the humanities, the natural, physical and social sciences. The Fellowships enable researchers to work for two years at a UK research institution with the aim of fostering long-term international collaborations.

Newton Fellows will receive an allowance of £24,000 to cover subsistence and up to £8,000 to cover research expenses in each year of the Fellowship. A one-off relocation allowance of up to £2,000 is also available.

In addition, Newton Fellows may be eligible for follow-up funding of up to £6,000 per annum for up to 10 years following completion of the Fellowship to support activities which will help build long term links with the UK.

The scheme is open to post-doctoral (and equivalent) early-career researchers working outside the UK who do not hold UK citizenship.

Applications are to be made via the Royal Society’s online application system which is available at https://e-gap.royalsociety.org/ The closing date for applications is Monday 16 April 2012.

Further details are available from the Newton International Fellowships website: www.newtonfellowships.org