Thursday 5 December 2013

Help with a lay summary of my throwing research

I am applying for a research fellowship and part of the application is a 2500 character lay summary; see below. I would love all and any feedback from you about how well it scans for you.

I have also put a public copy of this and the scientific abstract on Google Drive that can take comments, if you are so inclined:

Lay summary
Scientific abstract

The remit of the section is
Provide a lay summary of your proposed project. This should be understandable by an A-level science student. Explain why you have chosen to work in this subject area and what it is about your proposed research that you find particularly exciting, interesting or important. Also explain the potential impact or wider benefits to society of your research. 

Imagine you are standing on the rocky shore of a lake with a friend, who challenges you to a competition: who will be first to hit that floating branch with a rock? You and your friend hunt for suitable rocks to throw, hefting them in your hand until you find some that feel just right. You then take turns throwing those rocks to try and hit the branch, getting closer on each throw until finally one of you scores a direct hit.

The simplicity of this commonplace game is deceptive. Throwing is actually so difficult that humans are the only species who have specialised in it. We have hands that can grasp objects; bodies that help make the precisely timed throwing action possible; and the ability to perceive which objects are most suitable for throwing. Evolutionary biologists believe that throwing provided our relatively small and weak ancestors with the ability to hunt large animals such as mammoths. But throwing still plays a large role in modern life, even if it is more likely to show up these days in the sports arena than on the plains of North America.

Thanks to sports science, we know a lot about what throwing looks like when it happens. What we don’t know is how a skilled thrower produces that throw in the first place. What makes an object ideal for throwing, and how do we perceive this when we heft that object? How do we perceive where our target is? And, most importantly, how do we use this information to select a throw that will move this object in just the right way so as to hit that target? This project is all about answering those questions. We will measure expert and novice throwers aiming to hit distant targets and track their movements with high speed cameras. We will then analyse this data using cutting edge techniques to identify how people produce the throws they do.

I find throwing fascinating because there are so many unanswered questions from many different disciplines. Psychologists want to know how we perceive the environment and produce the throw; neuroscientists want to know how our brain works to support this behaviour; evolutionary biologists want to know how all these skills came together in our species and how this might have supported the evolution of language. My colleagues and I have the tools we need to actually answer these questions, and we believe that the answers will be of interest to many people, including scientists but also coaches and athletes interested in improving their techniques and accelerating their learning.
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Imagine you are standing on the rocky shore of a lake with a friend, who challenges you to a competition: who will be first to hit that floating branch with a rock? You and your friend hunt for suitable rocks to throw, hefting them in your hand until you find some that feel just right. Then you take turns throwing those rocks to try and hit the branch, getting closer on each throw until finally one of you scores a direct hit.

This game might seem an odd thing to want to study scientifically – it all seems so straight forward. But this simplicity is deceptive. Throwing to hit a target like this is actually a surprisingly difficult action that requires you to produce a precisely timed movement that suits the task at hand (how far is the target? How big?). Throwing is in fact so difficult that humans are the only species who have specialised in it. We have hands that can grasp objects, bodies that help make the precisely timed throw possible, and the ability to perceive which objects are most suitable for throwing. Evolutionary biologists believe that throwing provided our relatively small and weak ancestors with the ability to hunt large animals such as mammoths. But even today, throwing still plays a large role in modern life, even if it’s more likely to show up in the sports arena than on the plains of North America.

Thanks to research in sports, we know a lot about what throwing looks like when it happens. What we don’t know is how a skilled thrower produces that throw in the first place. What makes an object ideal for throwing, and how do we perceive this when we heft that object? How do we perceive where our target is? And, most importantly, how do we use this information to select a throw that will move this object in just the right way so as to hit that target? This project is all about answering those questions, using modern motion-capture and data analysis techniques.

I find throwing fascinating because there are so many unanswered questions from so many different disciplines (e.g. psychology, neuroscience, evolutionary biology). But even better, my colleagues and I have the tools we need to actually answer these questions! We believe that the answers will be of interest to many people, including scientists but also coaches and athletes interested in improving their techniques and accelerating their learning. It’s rare to find a research question with such wide appeal, and this makes it a very exciting topic for me to work on as a scientist.

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Wednesday 20 November 2013

What are the units that perception measures the world in? Firestone vs Proffitt

Perception is an act of measurement, and, like all acts of measurement, it needs a scale in order to be useful. Think about placing something on your kitchen scales; all that actually happens is that the object presses on the scale and the scale registers that something has changed by some amount in response (the location of a tray, for example). In order to know what that change means, the change is presented to us on a calibrated scale (by moving a needle around to point at some number, for example). The needle always moves the same amount for a given weight but the resulting number can vary (you might have an imperial rather than metric kitchen scale, for example). Without the scale, you can say that one thing is heavier than another by noting that it moves the scale more (this is an ordinal evaluation) but you need the scale in order to say what the weight difference is (the metric evaluation).

Visual perception measures the world in terms of angles; objects subtend a certain number of visual angles that depends on their size, distance, etc. Your thumbnail held at arm's length is about 1° of visual angle. You can get ordinal information directly from angles (the fact that one thing is closer/bigger/etc) but you need a scale to get the metric information required to use vision to control action. For example, you need to perceive how big something actually is in useful units in order to scale your hand size appropriately when grasping it; relative size doesn't help. One of the fundamental questions in (visual) perception research is, therefore, what are the metric units that the perceptual systems use to scale their measurements?

Dennis Proffitt has been studying this question for a long time and is in favour of task-specific, body-scaled units. His evidence comes from studies in which people perceive their environments differently as a function of their ability to act on that environment. Probably the most well-known example is the study that showed people judge hills to be steeper when they are wearing a heavy backpack (Bhalla & Proffitt, 1999). The idea is that the backpack will make traversing that hill more difficult, and when the visual system measures the slope, it scales its measurement in line with this perceived effort. The hypothesis is that this is functional; it's a feature of the visual system that helps us plan appropriate actions. 

Perspectives on Psychological Science recently hosted a point-counterpoint debate on this topic. Firestone (2013) reviewed the literature on this type of action-scaling in perception and concluded that not only do the data not really support Proffitt's account, but that this account couldn't work even in principle. Proffitt (2013) rebutted Firestone's arguments and defended his view. I'm interested in this because Proffitt is at least a little ecological, and the basic idea he defends is one I would defend as well (although not in the form that he proposes). So who won?

Thursday 7 November 2013

Replication will not save psychology

"Replication is our only hope." "No. There is another"
Psychology is big into replication these days. A lot of people think that a major problem with the field is that many important results have not been replicated, and that this is in part because journals don't like to publish replications (not original or sexy enough). 

I'm all for replication; it's part of good science. But I've never been that into the whole 'replication movement' that's kicking around, and the reason crystallised for me during a 4am baby feed: 

Being able to replicate a study is an effect, not a cause of good scientific practice. So the emphasis on replication as a goal has the whole thing backwards. We should actually be focusing on improving the experiments we run in the first place. If we run better experiments, the replicability will take care of itself. 

Friday 11 October 2013

Embodiment and design; the affordances of pedestrian crossings

I'm a sucker for good design. I'm interested in things that work well because they are designed with the right task in mind. Take the greatest potato masher of all time, the Spudnik. It works well because it mashes as the result of a very natural action with the arm, easier and less effortful than the more traditional device. Good design works with the user and the task (rather than trying to impose a behavior) because behaviours that are supported by the task and the environment will be stable, reliable and easy to maintain. 

Design is interesting for embodied cognition because it's an attempt to artificially manipulate the environment to create affordances for some but not other behaviours. Sometimes it's just a matter of getting the physical layout right (see the Spudnik). Some of these required behaviours, however, are quite complex and not the sort of thing that would typically create information if left to their own devices. A great example is the design of streets to promote safe driving and pedestrian behaviour; a lot of the rules being designed for are human conventions, not physical necessities, and so without someone intervening and building something there couldn't be perceptual information anywhere about that rule. In addition, the designed element often creates information about something other than itself (see the Aboutness dimension in Sabrina's information taxonomy). This in turn creates the possibility for there to be more than one way to create an environment that produces relevant information and can therefore shape behaviour, and in turn, this allows the possibility that some designs will be better than others.

With this in mind, let me introduce you to two examples of design that I would like to change; the staggered pedestrian crossing, and puffin crossings. Both of these artificially restrict access to useful information in ways that mean well but that I think fight too much against human behaviour. I actually started preparing a grant to empirically investigate these designs from a more embodied perspective, and the EPSRC thought it was in their ballpark. More pressing concerns intervened, but I would love to actually do these studies and would like to hear from anyone who might be interested in collaborating ("Dear Pamela lab..."). I think our embodied cognition approach (Wilson & Golonka, 2013), with it's focus on task analyses and information, could really have an impact on an interesting part of our day to day life.

Friday 20 September 2013

Social priming: Of course it only kind of works

Social priming is the field of research about how thinking about or interacting with something (like warm coffee, or old age) can affect later, vaguely related behaviour. (Rolf Zwaan has a useful summary of the theoretical background here and here, and a recipe for how to whip one of these up for yourself here.) It has been a top target for replication efforts in psychology. Although social priming effects in general have been widely demonstrated, many specific results (e.g. priming people to think about old age makes you walk slower; Bargh, Chen & Burrows, 1996) have failed to reliably replicate (even thought the effect sizes for individual studies are often surprisingly large). Most of the attention has been on the work of John Bargh because he basically invented the field (all discussed in this profile from January 2013).  Last year Bargh exploded all over the internet with a bit of a tantrum about these failures on his Psychology Today blog (now deleted, but archived for posterity here and here and discussed in detail by Ed Yong here). This made him something of a punching bag on Twitter, etc and so people are a bit excited that another Bargh social priming result has failed to replicate (oh and hey, here's another, non-Bargh one). Cue panic, gnashing of teeth and reflexive defensive moves by social psychologists (plus coverage of the topic in the NYT).

I'm a bit bemused by it all, really. I am not at all surprised that while social priming works in general, there is wide variation in how well specific social priming tasks work out. Of course priming works - it couldn't not work. But the lack of control over the information contained in social priming experiments guarantees unreliable outcomes for specific examples. Let me see if I can explain what I mean.

Friday 6 September 2013

Perceiving causes; why knowledge doesn't trump perception

You're an organism, wandering round the world. Some stuff happens; then, other stuff happens. How do we know whether the first stuff caused the second stuff to happen, or whether it's all just one damn thing after another? A new study in Psychological Science (Bechlivanidis & Lagnado, 2013) investigates whether what we know can affect what we perceive, and claims to show that perception can get overridden. This caught my eye because it sounds like the kind of result that will be a problem for our embodied cognition (Wilson & Golonka, 2013), but thinking through the experiment using the tools of dynamics and event perception shows that this result is not going to cause us much concern - it just isn't studying what it says it's studying.

Friday 9 August 2013

Why don't giraffes fall over more often?

One of the major reasons psychologists think we have mental representations is to overcome delays in the nervous system. Information has to come from sensors such as the retina and travel the distance to the visual cortex. This takes time. That information must then be processed and combined with other information to generate adaptive responses. This takes time. Delays in a control system that relies on feedback are a big problem for stability. The more time it takes for feedback about how well you are doing to reach the brain, the less relevant that feedback information is - it's no longer about what you're doing right now. This makes it difficult to make sensible error corrections and it ups the chances that something will go badly wrong. A lot of people therefore claim that the only solution is prediction, and there's a strong research industry investigating how the nervous system predicts so well.

Friday 2 August 2013

Is embodied cognition a "no brainer"?

Brains, HUH, yeah, what are they good for?
When we say "there are no mental representations", people often hear 'the brain doesn't do anything'. Because this is obviously not true, people sometimes just assume we simply cannot be talking sense about cognition and stop listening. 

Of course, we aren't saying this at all. Of course the brain is up to something. I've sketched out a few ideas here and here (some of which is finding it's way into a book chapter we're writing with Eric Charles), and we're working on a Research Topic at Frontiers in Human Neuroscience about how to do radical embodied cognitive science (to which any interested parties are warmly invited to contribute!).

So we aren't denying that the brain is interesting and important. We just think it's doing something very different from what mainstream cognitive neuroscience thinks it is doing. Our embodied cognition (Wilson & Golonka, 2013) redefines the job description for the brain. Whatever it is that the brain is doing, it doesn't have to be representing anything (this is what the 'radical' part means). Instead, the brain is a key player in the system that interacts with information to produce behaviour, and that is a very different thing. 

This basic fact motivates Sabrina's proposed 'new direction for psychology' (which obviously I endorse too). Her argument is that psychologists are interested in explaining behaviour, and that the primary external cause of behaviour is the various kinds of information we are able to interact with. There are interesting contributions to behaviour made by internal factors, including the brain, but these, she argues, have their effects by modifying how and when we interact with different sources of information. Given this, psychology should get very interested in information as quickly as possible in order to really start explaining behaviour; it's paid off in spades in perception and action and there's no reason why it won't pay off everywhere else too (see Sabrina's post on language here and here, plus our handy dandy Frontiers paper).

Of course the brain is a major player in cognitive systems, but in order to really know what it's up to, we have to be sure to ask it the right questions, and this means doing things in the right order. So the argument that 'the behaviour I study clearly requires internal support, and that therefore there are representations doing that work and the brain is important' is not actually an argument against doing your work from an embodied perspective. Throw away your assumptions about representations (see the section of links 'Representations & Why We Should Abandon Them' on the Rough Guide for more reasons), get serious about the information present in your task to support behaviour and only then start speculating about the form of the internal support that is required. We think you'll be surprised where you end up when representations are not the default. 

And please tell us what you're up to - we'd love to help if we can!

Wilson A.D. & Golonka S. (2013). Embodied Cognition is Not What you Think It Is, Frontiers in Psychology, 4 DOI:

Thursday 18 July 2013

Ecological indirect perception

I want to follow on from Sabrina's important posts about information, and why psychology should be about information for the forseeable future. Sabrina's taxonomy includes information beyond what ecological psychologists talk about, information that needs to be investigated to find out exactly what kind of behaviour it can support. (This is what Gibson did for perception, and it paid off in spades.) 

I'm particularly interested in the information in pictures and mirrors; surfaces that present information about being surfaces and about being something else. This post is me thinking out loud about the implications; these are by no means my final thoughts on the matter, it's me taking the taxonomy for a spin and seeing where I end up. Feedback welcome!

Tuesday 9 July 2013

A new direction for psychology

I have my doubts about psychology. 

Anyone who's read this blog before knows that Andrew and I are fairly opinionated about what we think is right and wrong with psychology research. This isn't about small effect sizes or falsified data, which are currently popular (and valid) concerns. It's about the the types of questions psychologists usually ask and whether they are useful and likely to move the discipline forward. These questions are dominated by constructs - self esteem, prejudice, working memory capacity, intelligence, motivation - to the point where an alien reading a psychology journal would be forgiven for assuming that the point of psychology was to understand constructs, not people. 

Psychologists ask questions about constructs because the dominant theoretical paradigm (cognitive psychology) says that mental states play a causal role in behaviour and that, to understand how people work, you have to understand the content of these states and the nature of the cognitive processes that operate on them. This doesn't sound crazy. Even though I think cognitive psychology is a fatally flawed paradigm (see here, here, and here), I am enculterated enough in mainstream psychology that this doesn't automatically sound like a bad way of doing things. And anyway, I'm done doing active battle against cognitive psychology, so this post isn't to re-hash what I've written about elsewhere. Instead, I want to lay out what I think psychology should be doing. The idea is simple, but it's radically different from the mainstream. 

Here's the claim:

Information is the primary external cause of behaviour. If psychology is going to make any real progress, it must be grounded in a thorough analysis of the types of information available and the mechanisms by which information is used to control or precipitate behaviour. 

Here's the argument:

Monday 1 July 2013

Grounded vs. embodied cognition: a (hopefully uncontentious) note on terminology

Our Frontiers paper made the case that embodied cognition is, by definition, a fairly radical affair. We argue 
...if perception-action couplings and resources distributed over brain, body, and environment are substantial participants in cognition, then the need for the specific objects and processes of standard cognitive psychology (concepts, internally represented competence, and knowledge) goes away...
We argue that this is compulsory; as soon as you allow the perceived environment to play any kind of critical role in cognition, it's game on for what Shapiro calls 'replacement style' embodied cognition. This is why we don't think that we're just at one extreme end of a continuum of embodiment research; we think the rest of the field is making a category mistake. Chapter 2 of Chemero (2009) does an excellent job of laying out the history here; representations come from the structuralist school of thought, embodiment from the functionalist school. They are, quite literally, two different kinds of approach and mixing them is just an error.

I need to talk about this other stuff, though, and I'm tired of calling it 'not embodied cognition'. For one thing, the critical tone gets in the way of the argument. Shapiro calls it 'the conceptualisation hypothesis' and while this is basically accurate, it's a slightly non-intuitive technical term I'd have to explain all the time. So I want to be slightly cheeky and rename that other work, while picking a name they will hopefully not mind. This work, I think, is really grounded cognition (as per Barsalou, 2008) and that's how I'll talk about it from here on in.

Thursday 6 June 2013

Misperceiving the affordances in anorexia nervosa

Alice had a few problems with doors too
It's always hard to evaluate the impact of your research, although funding bodies are increasingly asking that we do so. I always struggle a bit, because the connection between studying, say, the perception of affordances and impact on policy or clinical practice is rarely a straight forward story. My problem is that I think that, if you ask a question the right way the answer will always come in handy to someone at some point, and that this is a big part of how science has its impact. 

Case in point: in 1987 Bill Warren was investigating the perception of affordances for passing through an aperture, such as a door. Apertures can vary in width, but the question facing the observer isn't 'how wide is it?' but 'can I fit through it?'. Bill was describing affordances using pi numbers, ratios of widths in the world divided by widths of some relevant body scale. An aperture wider than your shoulders, say, would yield a ratio larger than 1. For a given person's shoulder width, different apertures would produce different ratios. Across people, apertures of different sizes will produce the same ratio as shoulder width changes. It's a way of factoring out the effect of the size of the observer, and it's based on the idea that we percieve the world in terms of our own ability to act on it.

Friday 17 May 2013

The embodied cognition of Tesco's gendered toys


Tesco got in trouble on the internet last week for having toy chemistry sets labelled as being for boys, not girls in their online store. There's a lot of noise about how inappropriate all this gender labelling is (and rightly so - it's everywhere and it's awful). Lots of potential customers are being very annoyed all over Twitter: so why does Tesco do this? Why is this sort of thing so very common? Oddly, I think an embodied task analysis (using our 4 questions which we describe in our Frontiers paper) might shed some light on this question, while also perhaps serving as an accessible example of what it is we're up to with our work.

The thing that got me thinking was this: a Tesco spokesperson said on Twitter that “Toy signage is currently based on research and how our customers tell us they like to shop in our stores”. No one believed them, with replies ranging from 'what kind of research' to the less useful but more common 'I would never tell you to do this so what the hell?'. I think they are telling the truth, and I think their behaviour can be readily explained using our four key questions. More importantly, I think it reveals how we can change Tesco's behaviour, and the answer means knowing about the extended system from which that behaviour emerges.

Friday 26 April 2013

The Information Available in Pictures

I've become fascinated with the problem of pictures and how they relate to the things they are pictures of. One reason is the regular use of pictures of objects to study how the affordances of those objects might ground cognition; this, I think, is a major problem

A more positive reason is that, like language, pictures contain information about something they themselves are not (see Sabrina's information taxonomy). I have a hunch that an ecological study of picture perception might help guide an ecological study of language, because the former can take more direct advantage of the work already done about how we perceive meaning in events via ecological laws but then act as a bridge, a point along the way to the conventional world of language meaning.

Finally, the topic seems to be woefully understudied in the ecological approach. There is some, however. In the comments section on my rant about using pictures to study affordances, I was pointed to the work of John Kennedy (a Gibson student, now emeritus at the University of Toronto). I have downloaded his 1974 book, 'A Psychology of Picture Perception' and am working my way through it. Matthieu de Wit then linked me to an archive of a discussion, in papers, between Gibson and Ernst Gombrich about picture perception. I thought I'd start with Gibson (1971), The Information Available in Pictures, to begin to sketch out what we know and what we don't.

The current question at hand is, can pictures provide the same information about the things they depict?

Thursday 18 April 2013

Embodied cognition in practice - some thoughts and an open invitation

Since our Frontiers paper on embodied cognition came out, Sabrina and I have been giving talks and fielding questions in emails about what we're trying to achieve. People first ask us 'why should we do this?' and the answer, from the paper, is because it works really really well. Research in this field has produced extremely powerful explanations of behaviours with extraordinary predictive power; no more small effect sizes plus a successful research programme for as long as you want to run it! What more reason could you need?

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:
  1. What is the task to be solved?
  2. What are the resources available to solve the task?
  3. How might these resources be assembled so as to actually solve the task?
  4. Does the organism actually do what your described in 3?
We think this is really just good practice. The basic question in psychology is 'why did a person behave like this rather than like that?' and answering this means figuring out what the task is, from the point of view of the person doing the behaviour. We think these questions will help keep psychologists on the right track, and not get distracted by hypothetical mental entities like theory of mind and object concepts until the evidence demands them. 

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
  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Wednesday 20 March 2013

Bojana Danilovic, the woman who sees the world upside down

I came across an utterly fascinating case study on Twitter the other day (via Mo Costandi; see this video too):
Rare brain condition leaves woman seeing world upside down
Bojana Danilovic has what you might call a unique worldview. Due to a rare condition, she sees everything upside down, all the time.

The 28-year-old Serbian council employee uses an upside down monitor at work and relaxes at home in front of an upside down television stacked on top of the normal one that the rest of her family watches.

"It may look incredible to other people but to me it's completely normal," Danilovic told local newspaper Blic.

"I was born that way. It's just the way I see the world."

Experts from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have been consulted after local doctors were flummoxed by the extremely unusual condition.

They say she is suffering from a neurological syndrome called "spatial orientation phenomenon," Blic reports.

"They say my eyes see the images the right way up but my brain changes them," Danilovic said.

"But they don't really seem to know exactly how it happens, just that it does and where it happens in my brain.

"They told me they've seen the case histories of some people who write the way I see, but never someone quite like me."

Tuesday 12 March 2013

A taxonomy of information

Over the past several months I've been thinking about how perception falls within a hierarchy of types of information use. This was spurred by my ideas about an ecological approach to language, in which perceptual information and linguistic information are distinguished on the basis of the relationship between event structure and meaning. As part of this work, I defined perception as the apprehension of structure in an energy array where 1) the structure is specific to an event or property in the world, 2) where the meaning of the structure (for that organism in that task) is about that event or property (i.e., a dog's bark is about the event of a barking dog), and 3) where the meaning of the structure must be learned (or, more correctly, where an organism must learn how to coordinate action with respect to this structure). I arrived at this definition because it seemed to capture the ecological approach to perception and because it makes it obvious how perceptual information and linguistic information differ (also because I am crazy-obsessive about definitions).

Thursday 28 February 2013

The affordances of objects and pictures of those objects

People interested in how perception and action affect cognition have begun talking about affordances. This should be great news; the ecological approach suggests that affordances are the properties of the world that we perceive that enable us to control our actions, so if you are interested in how action can ground, say, memory or language, then discussing affordances should enable real progress.

The term 'affordance', however, is a technical term, and it refers to very particular properties of an organism's environment. There are methods for experimentally identifying exactly how these properties are composed, and there are methods for testing our perception of them. If you aren't using these methods, and if you aren't using the term correctly, then you aren't studying affordances.

Tuesday 12 February 2013

'Embodied Cognition Is Not What You Think It Is' - the paper!

Whoops, we did it again - a paper based on the blog! This time we are in press at Frontiers in Psychology, in a Research Topic on embodied cognition, with a paper we somehow got away with calling 'Embodied Cognition is Not What You Think It Is'. 

This paper
draws from a lot of posts on the blog on embodied cognition, perception-action and language. We have used this opportunity to tackle some key issues head on, and we like this paper a lot :) We cover all the important issues and we set up what we think is the way forwards for embodied cognitive science. In addition, it sets up the ground work that we want to build on with our own Research Topic on Radical Embodied Cognitive Neuroscience. We've laid out what we think is the task facing the brain; this is what the brain is engaging with, and so this is what we think neuroscience needs to work with in order to understand what the brain is doing.

It's the kind of paper that will either land with a splash or vanish without trace. We want it to make some serious waves, and we're hoping that we can encourage people to publish free Commentaries on it at Frontiers, to challenge us or pick up our challenges, and, most fun for all, to come work with us to take all this forwards! We want this to be the basis of an empirical research programme and we want you all to work with us on it :) At the very least, feel free to pepper us with questions; this paper is the start of something for us, not the end and we're interested in the response to this paper to frame the next step.

Friday 8 February 2013

Learning the affordances for maximum distance throwing

Over the last couple of posts, I have reviewed data that shows people can perceive which object they can, in fact, throw the farthest ahead of time by hefting the object. Both the size and the weight of the object affect people's judgements and the distance thrown; however, only weight affects the dynamics of throwing (release angle and velocity are unaffected by changes in size). This rules out the smart perceptual mechanism proposed by Bingham et al (1989), which proposed that both size and weight changes affect hefting and throwing the same way. So how are people perceiving this affordance?

Friday 1 February 2013

Newton International Fellowships 2013

If you from anywhere other than the UK and are looking for a post-doc opportunity in the UK, and are trained in perception, action, language 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!  

We are primarily interested in supporting a post-doc who is interested in helping us advance our work on an ecological approach to language and issues relating to how information gets its meaning, within our embodied cognition framework. These fellowships are highly competitive so you need to be good at what you do, and you need to work with us to develop an independent project so we can be sure we can support it.

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. Early career means having held no more than one or two brief post doc positions.

Applications are to be made via the Royal Society’s online application system which is available at The closing date for applications is Wednesday 10th April 2013 but you should aim to get it to the host organisation at least a week in advance.

Further details are available from the Newton International Fellowships website:

Thursday 24 January 2013

Is hefting to perceive the affordance for throwing a smart perceptual mechanism?

In the last post, I reviewed Geoff's first paper looking at whether people can perceive the affordance for throwing an object to a maximum distance and a first swing at identifying the information specifying the affordance. People can perceive the affordance. Bingham et al then identified an invariant relation between the timing of the motions of the wrist and elbow when people hefted the balls they chose as optimal for throwing, and showed that this kinematic pattern specified a peak in the function which determined how much kinetic energy was transferred to the ball. They suggested that this relation in the joint movements served as information for the dynamic property which led to a maximum distance throw, and that this is how hefting was able to provide information about throwing. They suggested that this was a smart perceptual mechanism for perceiving the affordance property.

That was where things stood until Zhu & Bingham (2008) ran an extensive replication and extension of the original study, to test the specific smart perceptual mechanism proposed by Bingham et al (1989). 

Thursday 17 January 2013

Hefting for a Maximum Distance Throw

From the task dynamic analysis of throwing for maximum distance, we've identified the fact that for a given release angle and maximum release velocity, there is an object whose size and weight optimises the distance it will travel when thrown. Can people perceive this combination ahead of time? More specifically, can people identify the object which affords throwing to a maximum distance, and if so, how?

Bingham, Schmidt & Rosenblum (1989) is the first paper investigating this question. It is a bear of a paper; I've stripped a lot of the methodological detail out in my summary so I can focus on the bigger picture. That bigger picture is this; Bingham et al first check whether people can identify objects that afford throwing to a maximum distance by hefting them ahead of time (they can). They then investigate the kinematics of hefting to identify an invariant relation in the timing of the wrist and elbow velocities and relate that invariant to the dynamics of throwing (specifically how it maximises the transfer of kinetic energy from the torso muscles to the projectile). They propose that using this invariant reflects a smart perceptual solution (Runeson, 1977) to the problem of selecting objects to throw to a maximum distance - future work (Zhu & Bingham, 2008) will actually show that this specific smart mechanism doesn't hold up, although the replacement is smart too.

Friday 11 January 2013

Do our fingers wrinkle in the wet to improve our grip?

If you sit in the bath for more than 10 minutes or so, you'll notice that your fingers get wrinkled like a prune. People thought for a while that this was a local response to the wet conditions, but it turns out the wrinkling is an active, neurally controlled process. In 1936 two scientists observed a boy who had suffered some temporary damage to the median nerve; he lost feeling in his thumb, index and middle finger and, surprisingly, those fingers didn't wrinkle in the wet. There's a great post on this case and some more recent work here.

Things that are under active control are usually functional; that is, they're usually doing something useful. In 2011, Mark Changizi and colleagues published a speculative piece in which they suggested that our fingers do not wrinkle randomly. Instead, they noted that the form of the wrinkles match efficient drainage networks, and suggested that perhaps the wrinkles act like rain tread to help water drain away from our fingertips when we grip things.

Thursday 3 January 2013

Using coordination to study learning across the lifespan

What happens to our ability to learn new movement skills as we age? There is surprisingly little research on this topic; a relatively recent review (Voelcker-Rehage, 2008) found only 25 articles about learning in old age, and no systematic programme of work. The answer to this question matters a lot; rehabilitation after events such as a stroke pretty much always entail (re)learning movement skills, and if our ability to learn gets worse with age, rehabilitation faces an uphill struggle. 

I have been studying coordinated rhythmic movement for some time now, and now we have a good handle on the task dynamic my colleagues at Indiana and I have begun using it to study the process of learning more generally. We decided to use it to look at learning in old age, to see what we could see.

This project grew out of a grant I had from Remedi when I was a post-doc in Aberdeen. I wanted to use coordination to look at learning post-stroke. One of the problems with studying this is finding useful novel tasks to learn - you need to give the stroke patients something they've never done before so you can be sure that any improvement is about learning, and not simply recovery of function. My thought at the time was that I could use any changes at 180° to assess recovery and changes at 90° to assess learning. We tested a huge number of patients and age matched controls, but the project didn't pan out because neither group (all aged around 65) couldn't learn to move at 90°. The question remained, what was going on? We now have the first of three papers on this question out in press.