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.