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.