Monday 14 December 2015

The ecological approach to sporting performance

Last week I took part in a Google Hangout with Mark Upton and Al Smith, who run the sports coaching blog 'My Fastest Mile' and who are generally all about getting sports coaching and training to be more ecological and dynamical. The recorded hangout is here - I assume it's good, I can't watch myself on video without cringing :) I've fleshed out some of these ideas below; please comment below or on Twitter if there's anything you want more on.

We talked perception, affordances and a little about what makes the ecological approach different from more cognitive approaches. There's a lot of detail sitting under the discussion; see, well, the rest of the blog to get a sense of where I'm coming from! I'm not a sports scientist, and so my particular research programme isn't specifically about applying the ecological approach to sports. However, I do study some sports related activity (specifically throwing; see my latest paper, blogged here). 

The main thing that gets applied to sports from the ecological approach is the concept of affordances (which is the topic of that paper). Affordances are cool, obviously, but the thing that makes an approach 'ecological' is a focus on information; how things like affordances are perceived. I wanted to briefly sketch how I see ecological psychology feeding into sports, which I think it's a great idea for everyone involved.

A disclaimer: I am also not a coach. I'm just a scientist. I like to let people know that I know this, because I've found that whenever I interact with practictioners of any kind (coaches, but also occupational therapists, physios etc) there's a real resistance to listening to people like me. I mean, what do we know? We aren't in the trenches, working with the athletes or patients, and our wonderful ideas might simply not apply to the messy real world. I've also chatted to people who felt worried I would be judging their messy actual practice, the one they've put together over years of experiencing the actual needs of the people they help. 

I understand this concern entirely. Let me say, for whatever it's worth, that I am not trying to waltz in, figure out what you're doing wrong and save you with my wonderful theory. I always see my role as just 'the scientist in the conversation'. I'm going to listen to what you actually want to know, and I'm going to see if there's anything I know from what I do that can feed into that process. It will either work or it won't, and that's ok. I get to think about ways to make my science work in an interesting applied high stakes context; I hope you might get some insights into how learning works that help you make sense of what you see in the people you work with. 

Wednesday 9 December 2015

Thoughts on Ding et al (2015) "Cortical tracking of hierarchical linguistic structures in connected speech"

I happened to be reading Cummins (2000) paper “’How does it work?’ vs. ‘What are the laws?’ Two conceptions of psychological explanation”, when my Twitter feed announced that Chomsky was right and we do have grammar in our heads after all. The Twitter buzz concerned a new Nature Neuroscience paper by Ding and colleagues called “Cortical tracking of hierarchical linguistic structures in connected speech.” You can find it online here. Curious whether I needed to completely overhaul my understanding of language, I tracked down the paper and read it this morning. The method employed is sensible, the results are fairly clear, the analyses seem legit (though I’m not a neuroscientist). So, why am I not worried that everything I thought I knew about language is wrong?

Quantifying the Affordances for Throwing for Distance and Accuracy

I have a new paper in press at JEP:HPP (Wilson, Weightman, Bingham & Zhu, in presssupplemental material). It is the end result of five years work across two jobs, and it has involved kinematic data collection from expert throwers in Leeds and Wyoming, analysis of that data, then interpretation of that data in the context of detailed simulations we ran in order to identify the affordance property of the target structuring behaviour. This is my first paper on affordances, my first about my current favourite topic of throwing, and probably the heftiest empirical piece I have ever done, so getting it published in my journal of choice is pretty exciting!

I'm going to just lay out the basic framework of the paper here. I will leave the (very many) details to the paper. The paper consists of two experiments, a series of simulations, and a discussion of affordances as dispositional properties of tasks best described at the level of task dynamics. This last bit feeds into the argument in the (mostly philosophical) literature on the nature of affordances; bad news, people who think they are relations - they aren't, and I've got two experiments that back that up!

Friday 4 December 2015

Oh crap. Re-thinking van Gelder (A purple peril)

I have this problem where I like pretty much everything William Bechtel writes except when it pertains to cognitive science. It's annoying because, even when I disagree with him, I think he's worth taking seriously. This was on my mind when I started reading is 1998 paper, "Representations and cognitive explanations: Assessing the dynamicist's challenge in cognitive science."

In this paper, Bechtel critiques van Gelder's construal of the Watt's governor as an exemplar of how cognition could function without representations. I have always liked van Gelder's argument and wrote about it years ago in very favorable terms. I wouldn't say that I don't like it anymore, but Bechtel may have convinced me that one of van Gelder's central claims - that representations don't feature in explanations of the Watt governor - is incorrect. Does this mean that I now think that cognition requires internal representations? No! But, the language Bechtel uses to assess van Gelder's arguments sounded eerily familiar and I realized that the criteria used to label something as a representation are met by...ecological information.

Wednesday 2 December 2015

Thinking about representations in relation to mechanisms

As Chemero (2011) observed, there are two ways to think about debates in science. We can either debate about the actual facts of the matter in the world or we can debate about the best way to explain the world. Some debates aren't amenable to the first type of debate, because there is no evidence that can definitively rule out one of the options. The only debate we can really have about representations is in terms of their role in explanations of behaviour. This is different than how I thought about representations a few years back when I wanted to argue that invoking representations was inherently a bad idea. Now I think we need to consider the utility or representations as part of explanations for psychological phenomena. In this post, I will argue that the concept of representations is not helpful in developing a particular class of explanation - ontic mechanistic explanations (described below). This is the first of two posts on this idea. In the next post I will attempt to explicitly compare cognitive and ecological approaches to behaviour in terms of how well they set us up to identify real parts and operations.

Sunday 18 October 2015

Dynamic Mechanistic Explanations in Radical Embodied Cognitive Science

I'm on my way back from an enactivist/embodiment conference in Warsaw. I gave a talk (slides) in which I argued that in order to make theories of distributed/embodied cognition work, you have to have something like a theory of ecological information as the glue to hold it all together. All the talks I saw that discussed any kind of plan for distributing cognition were missing this piece and desperately needed it, so I'm hoping the talk will make people realise this tool exists and can help. Drop me a line if you would like any help!

I argued specifically that information lets us propose mechanistic explanations for distributed cognitive systems. We recently came across the philosophical literature on what mechanisms are and how to make them, and it seemed immediately clear that we should be doing this (and that we already are; see below). 

It turns out, though, that some of the radical camp (specifically Chemero and Silberstein) don't think we can have distributed cognition mechanisms, but that this is ok because we still get explanations out of our dynamical models. 

This post will briefly review what dynamic mechanistic explanation is and why they are so useful (Bechtel & Abrahamsen, 2010). I'll briefly summarise the radical opposition to mechanisms, point out their answer doesn't work, then talk an example that shows we can have radical dynamic mechanistic explanatory models without giving anything up. The trick, as ever, will be to rely heavily on information as the component part that allows cognitive mechanisms to extend out over body and environment. 

Monday 28 September 2015

The Interface Theory of Perception - The View from Ecological Psychology

Psychonomic Bulletin & Review has released, with much fanfare and a hashtag, an article called 'The Interface Theory of Perception' (Hoffman, Singh & Prakash, 2015). From the website description:
In a nutshell, interface theory postulates that our perception operates like a species-specific desktop: We perceive the world in representations that do not represent the “truth” about the world as it actually is, but that are useful “icons” which represent fitness-relevant information about the world. To illustrate, imagine a world in which red and green berries are nutritious but blue and yellow berries make you sick. Will your perceptual system differentiate red from green and blue from yellow? According to interface theory, the answer is no—the organism will have evolved to differentiate between only two colors, namely gred and byellue.
The meat of the paper is a series of evolutionary simulations that pit various perceptual strategies against one another. These strategies vary in how veridical they are, and the key result is that interface strategies, in which perception codes things in a way that bears no resemblance to the world, wins every time. We do not perceive the world as it really is. 

This seems to go against people like Gibson, who argue that perception is of a real world and real properties of things, like affordances. These simulations seem to show that 'realist' perceptual strategies are evolutionarily unsustainable. 

The devil, as always, is in the details, and having read the paper I am now pretty sure that Gibson is quite safe, and that information offers a path out of the weirdness Hoffman conjures.

Friday 21 August 2015

From Specification to Convention (A Purple Peril)

I previously laid out how specification works and why it's important to the ecological approach. Read that first, because I build on it a lot here. I also laid out the corollary of specification, that it allows that information to come to be something an organism can actually use to coordinate and control functional behaviour. Here, I think out loud about how convention might be able to do similar work, because of Sabrina's work (here, and published now here; read that paper for the extended detail on this) expanding ecological information to handle tasks such as language where specification is not always an option.

This is in part an attempt for me to get my head around some implications of Sabrina's analysis. My plan here is to develop an analogy to specification. This analogy will detail the work specification does to make information informative, then try to lay out how conventions fills this role. The goal is to see if conventions can support behaviour without needing representational help. The answer will be yes, because all the differences between law based and convention-based information are 'behind the curtain', only visible from the third-person perspective. From the first person perspective of the organism, all it gets is structures in energy arrays it can try to use to organise behaviours. Conventions place no special learning burden on the organism (Golonka, 2015) and this means that convention can support behaviour with any representational enrichment the same way specification can. (The hidden differences do have consequences, however, so I will map that out a bit.)

There are many things I have not attempted to explain and as usual this reflects my current thinking, not necessarily my final thinking. I look forward to hearing what questions this leaves unanswered for the reader as a way to move this discussion forwards.

Tuesday 7 July 2015

Brains Don't Have to be Computers (A Purple Peril)

A common response to the claim that we are not information processors is that this simply cannot be true, because it is self-evidently the case that brains are transforming and processing information - they are performing computations. Greg Hickok throws this ball a lot, and his idea is clear in this quote from his book 'The Myth of Mirror Neurons':
Once you start looking inside the brain you can’t escape the fact that it processes information. You don’t even have to look beyond a single neuron. A neuron receives input signals from thousands of other neurons, some excitatory, some inhibitory, some more vigorous than others. The output of the neuron is not a copy of its inputs. Instead its output reflects a weighted integration of its inputs. It is performing a transformation of the neural signals it receives. Neurons compute. This is information processing and it is happening in every single neuron and in every neural process whether sensory, motor, or “cognitive.”
Hickok, pg 256.
There are two claims here. First, neurons are processing information because their input is not the same as their output; they are transforming the former into the latter. Second, this process is computational; 'neurons compute'.

This is a widely held view; psychologist Gary Marcus even wrote about this in the NYT saying 'Face it, your brain is a computer'. In response, Vaughn Bell at Mindhacks posted about this op-ed and this issue in a nicely balanced piece called 'Computation is a lens'. He sums up the issue nicely by asking 'Is the brain a computer or is computation just a convenient way of describing its function?'. The answer, I propose here, is that computation is a fantastically powerful description of the activity of the brain that may or may not be (and probably isn't) the actual mechanism by which the brain does whatever it does. This is ok, because, contra Hickok,  not every process that sits in between an input and a different output has to be a computational, information processing one

Tuesday 30 June 2015

What Would It Take to Refute Radical Embodied Cognition?

People often send us papers and data via Twitter that they believe rule out a radical, non-representational theory of cognition. Because I have yet to agree about any of these studies, these people then often ask in exasperated tones 'well, what would you accept as evidence?'. 

My current best answer is "about 20 years of hard work". 

Friday 26 June 2015

The Perturbation Experiment as a Way to Study Perception

When you study perception, your goal is to control the flow of information going into the system so that you can measure the resulting behaviour and evaluate how that information is being used. There are two ways to do this, one (sometimes) used by me, one used by, well, everyone else. In this post I'm going to compare and contrast the methods and describe why the perturbation method is what we should all be doing.

The standard method is to present experimentally isolated cues and test whether people can detect those cues. The perturbation experiment presents a 'full cue' environment but selectively interferes with the link between a single variable and the property it might be information about. These two different methods lead to very different ways of thinking and talking about perceptual abilities. 

Monday 4 May 2015

Is Autism a Deficit in Invariance Detection?

If ASD is a problem detecting invariants, the world would remain a 'blooming buzzing confusion' and lead to the behaviours we see in children with ASD, claims a new paper. 
A new paper in Frontiers in Psychology (Hellendoorn, Wijnroks & Leseman, 2015) has proposed that autistic spectrum disorders might be the developmental consequence of a low level, domain general perceptual deficit, specifically the detection of invariants. They explicitly ground this hypothesis in Gibson's ecological approach and theories of embodied cognition that emphasise the key role perception plays in behaviour. This seemed like something I should evaluate, so thanks to Jon Brock for sending this my way on Twitter.

While I am very sympathetic to the basic idea, this particular implementation is too flawed to get off the ground. The authors make a critical conceptual confusion. They mix up invariant features of the world with invariant features of perceptual arrays that might serve as information for the world, and this stops the paper in it's tracks. I think an interesting exercise might be to fix this problem and then simply repeat the paper with the more careful grounding to see where you end up. 

In this post I've briefly reviewed the claims in the order in which they came up in the paper. I've focused my attention on the central hypothesis about invariant detection because that underpins everything else. I've also briefly summarised some of the cited evidence and implications as laid out by the authors, and commented on any issues I saw. This bit is briefer, because my knowledge of the specifics of ASD are limited. I am also considering a comment to Frontiers on this paper, so feedback on this welcome. If you want in on a comment or reworking of the paper, let me know!

Wednesday 22 April 2015

Function vs Structure (A Purple Peril)

One of the apparently controversial things that I say is that psychology, as a science, needs to address function before it gets worried about structure; what is the brain trying to do, vs how is it doing it? This Peril lays out the argument in a little more detail. As always, this is my current thinking not my final thinking and I am happy as ever to hear arguments for and against this proposal.

Structure (the details of how a function is implemented) is important, there is no doubt. But I see two related arguments about putting function first, or at least giving it the driver's seat in our science.

Monday 13 April 2015

Specification and Some of Its Consequences (A Purple Peril)

Perception is how we maintain psychological contact with functionally relevant objects and events in our environments. Explaining how we do this means describing that environment in appropriate terms and investigating what information might possibly exist for that environment, given that description. The ecological hypothesis is that the correct level is dynamics, and that describing the environment this way allows there to be information that can specify those dynamics. This information can support the kind of behaviour we need to exhibit. 

This Purple Peril describes what is meant by specification, and what that implies for how information comes to mean something to an organism. There is more detail in the various links, so check those for information too.

Friday 10 April 2015

(Re)Introducing "The Purple Perils"

'Note for a tentative redefinition of behaviour', 1975. 
James J Gibson ran an afternoon seminar for many years at Cornell. This seminar was widely attended by a variety of students, professors and visiting scholars, and Gibson used them as a place to try out new ideas, new ways of describing those ideas and generally hammer his theory as hard as he could to see where the weak and strong points were.

Before many of these seminars, he would write and distribute a note, often fairly detailed, detailing the topic of that week's meeting. These were copied as he typed by 'ditto' sheets which transferred the text onto multiple sheets of paper. The ink on these sheets was purple, and the notes became known as the Purple Perils. (There is a nearly complete archive of these online hosted by Bill Mace.) 

These Perils were never the final word on anything. They reflected Gibson's current thinking and were always up for debate. That debate often found it's way into the next week's seminar and Peril, so these were always works in progress.

I've just finished reading Ed Reed's Gibson biography (there's a couple of taster chapters here) and I've been inspired by his description of the kind of scientist Gibson was; the Perils and his seminar were good examples of the kind of rigour and openness he embraced in his science. So, in this spirit, we are going to start posting some shorter, more focused posts on specific topics and ideas from the ecological embodied cognitive science we are developing. They will reflect our current thinking on the topic, but not necessarily our final thinking, and they will not aim to solve everything, just move it forward. They will typically include some 'facts of the matter' as seen from the ecological view, and some analysis to reach some conclusions and hypotheses based on those facts. The goal is to stimulate debate and discussion and come away with a better, clearer theory. 

We would like to invite you all to come get into it with us; ask questions, challenge us, agree with us (we like this too!), talk to each other in the comments and argue/agree with each other. Keep it friendly, keep it a little focused on the topic and try to be specific, detailed and clear in your arguments. If specific parts of topics become sticking points they will likely show up in future Perils for a more focused discussion; otherwise they will be what we're trying to clarify for ourselves. If there are particular topics that are bugging you about radical embodied cognitive science, post about it here and they may show up as future Perils. "What about language then, huh? Huh?" is not something we can work with, though, sorry - be specific :)

We cannot promise to have time to do one every week (Gibson didn't have to teach anything else!) but we will post them as frequently as we have things to post. Feel free to steal the idea and host something similar on your own blogs; we will link to them here. Gibson valued a good argument above all other things in science, and I entirely agree, so please take any opportunity you see to make this a dialogue people can all take part in. 

Thursday 2 April 2015

What Kind of Thing is an Information Variable? The (Annoying) Case of Tau

The central contribution of the ecological approach is the idea of ecological information. Information variables are higher order relations that remain invariant over time as the elements of the pattern change. These relations are the kind of thing that can specify a dynamical property of the environment and support direct perception of that environment. 

This is all a little abstract. One nice, simple example is the variable tau which specifies time-to-contact (TTC). TTC is an important property of objects approaching you that, if perceived, would support you intercepting or avoiding the object. Tau is one variable that specifies TTC and therefore might get used by organisms to perceive TTC.

This post will use tau as an example of information because it's straight forward and has lots of the relevant key features. However, tau is a pain in the ass because organisms typically don't actually use it - it's too limited in its scope to be the best information. People discussing this fact sometimes says it reveals a weakness in the ecological approach. It doesn't; it just reveals a weakness in tau (and the error ecological psychologists made getting as excited as they did about it as an exemplar). It highlights a lot of useful issues, though, so I thought it was still worth the post.

Friday 27 February 2015

Are we Infomation Processers? (A brief note)

I thought about it a lot and I kept thinking: OK, he’s right, I guess, the information is in the light, it has to be there, because where else are you going to get it. It has got to be there and if it’s there, there’s a sense in which you don’t have to process it at least not in the way that I used to say “process.” But if he’s right, what am I going to do about cognitive psychology? How can I reconcile cognitive psychology, as I knew it, with this theory of Jimmy Gibson’s?
Ulric Neisser, from Szolkolszky, 2013

Are we information processors? No. At least, not if Gibson was right.
Information is clearly important, though, because we talk about it a LOT according to this Wordle.
For James Gibson, information is external to the observer. Information is structure in energy arrays (e.g. the optic array for light) that is specific to the object or event in the world that caused the structure. This structures becomes information when we use it to coordinate and control our behaviour.

This information is not transmitted. At any given possible point of observation, there is a uniquely structured optic array that an observer can interact with by going to (or more likely through) that point of observation. That structure is there as soon as the lights have come on and the light is done filling up the space.

This information is also not processed, because it does not 'get into the system'. The nervous system doesn't take information onboard, it resonates to that information; it's dynamical behaviour is altered by detecting that information

What about all the steps that have to happen once the information is detected? Doesn't the information have to be transformed into a behaviour? No. Behaviour simply is the activity of the kind of embodied system that we are in the presence of that particular information. We can alter the kind of embodied system we are via learning, but all the way through learning, the behaviour you exhibit at any given moment simply is that activity.

Therefore, in the radical embodied, ecological approach, it makes no sense to say that cognition involves information processing. This is due to 'information' in REC referring to Gibson-information, not Shannon-information. Shannon-information is not something that exists. It is an abstract description of how to reduce uncertainty between a sender and a receiver. It's an amazing idea; it's the heart of the digital revolution we live in and it's a powerful analysis tool (read James Gleick's great book, The Information for the history). It's just not describing what biological organisms are interacting with. 

Is this merely a semantic issue? Are we cheating by just defining away the problem? No. It's about precision in terms. Information means something very specific in the REC framework, that meaning is not the same as it is in the information processing framework and this difference has consequences. Following up on those consequences is what radical embodied cognitive (neuro)science is up to. We will either be right or wrong, and the data will tell us which, but only if we stop making this basic confusion.

Thanks to Greg Hickok (Twitter, blog) for arguing with me a lot on Twitter about this which helped me clarify a few things, and to everyone else who got into it too. You guys are a big help with your obstinacy and your refusal to take what I say at face value :) I think this post might be the first of a series of 'Brief Notes' where I just try to lay out one thing as clearly as I can. In true Gibson style, I reserve the right to keep critiquing and modifying the details as new evidence comes in!

Szokolszky, A. (2013). Interview with Ulric Neisser. Ecological Psychology, 25, 182–199. Download

Tuesday 20 January 2015

It's Time to Relabel the Brain

Another day, another study finds that 'visual' cortex is activated by something other than information from the eyes:
A research team from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem recently demonstrated that the same part of the visual cortex activated in sighted individuals when reading is also activated in blind patients who use sounds to “read”. The specific area of the brain in question is a patch of left ventral visual cortex located lateral to the mid-portion of the left fusiform gyrus, referred to as the “visual word form area” (VWFA). Significant prior research has shown the VWFA to be specialized for the visual representation of letters, in addition to demonstrating a selective preference for letters over other visual stimuli. The Israeli-based research team showed that eight subjects, blind from birth, specifically and selectively activated the VWFA during the processing of letter “soundscapes” using a visual-to-auditory sensory substitution device (SSD) (see for description of device).
There's lots of research like this. People are excited by mirror neurons because they are cells in motor cortex that are activated by both motor activity and perception of that motor activity. It's incredible, people cry - cells in a part of the brain that we said 30 years ago does one thing seem to also do another thing. How could this be??

I would like to propose a simple hypothesis to explain these incredible results and that is that we have been labeling the brain incorrectly for a long time. The data telling us this has been around for a long time too and continues to roll in, but for some reason we still think the old labels are important enough to hold onto. It's time to let go.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say it's a bit more complicated than this

Thursday 15 January 2015

The Size-Weight Illusion Induced Through Human Echolocation

Echolocation is the ability to use sound to perceive the spatial layout of your surroundings (the size and shape and distance to objects, etc). Lots of animals use it, but humans can too, with training. Some blind people have taught themselves to echolocate using self-generated sounds (e.g. clicks of the tongue or fingers) and the result can be amazing (I show this video of Daniel Kish in class sometimes; see the website for the World Access for the Blind group too).

In humans, this is considered an example of sensory substitution; using one modality to do what you would normally do with another. This ability is interesting to people because the world is full of people with damaged sensory systems (blind people, deaf people, etc) and being able to replace, say, vision with sound is one way to deal with the loss. Kish in particular is a strong advocate of echolocation over white canes for blind people because canes have a limited range. Unlike vision and sound, they can only tell you about what they are in physical contact with, and not what's 'over there'. 'Over there' is a very important place for an organism because it's where almost all of the world is, and if you can perceive it you give yourself more opportunities for activity and more time to make that activity work out. This is why Kish can ride a bike.

A recent paper (Buckingham, Milne, Byrne & Goodale, 2014; Gavin is on Twitter too) looked at whether information about object size gained via echolocation can create a size-weight illusion (SWI). I thought this was kind of a fun thing to do and so we read and critiqued this paper for lab meeting.