Tuesday 22 October 2019

The Perceptual Life of Cells

Over the summer, at ICPA 2019, I met a computational biologist called Katie Bentley. She is interested in angiogenesis, the cellular level process of new blood vessel growth. She was at ICPA because she has been developing a more dynamical systems approach to understanding how angiogenesis works. More specifically, her work suggests that the cells involved behave in very active, exploratory ways that are very analogous to the kinds of perception-action systems ecological psychologists study, and she was looking for people to help bring our insights to her work. We've been chatting, and the project of connecting our work is now on the go. 

The basic idea is simple. Mainstream cell biology is currently very gene-centric, in almost exactly the same way as mainstream cognitive science is very brain-centric. Like cognitive science, this has been methods driven - it's been hard to study cells in action, and imaging techniques have been static and structural. In general, when biologists see a cell doing something, the research goes looking for the genes that are making it do that thing. Bentley's work has instead started asking questions about time - how long does something take to happen? How are the component processes organised in time? What happens if that timing is perturbed? She's now in a good position to say that one of the key regulators of the dynamics of angiogenesis is timing, that this timing is not centrally controlled by a genetic clock, and that a temporal perspective should therefore move front and centre of the research on the process.

The analogy between the debates between information processing and ecological accounts of cognition and behaviour are uncanny, and her move is a very ecological one. The question we are now discussing is whether it makes sense to start considering this process as not just a dynamical process, but a perception-action process, which has become an option given her temporal perspective on things. 

In this post I'm going to discuss some of the specific empirical findings reviewed in her paper The Temporal Basis of Angiogenesis, which is a good read even if you aren't a cell biologist. I'm getting ready to go hang out in her lab this week and I'm working on figuring out the best questions to be asking to move this project forward in the best way. Remember, Gibson's theory is about what happens at the ecological scale of organisms like us, and there's no guarantee that it will have much to say about the perceptual life of cells. However, there is definitely enough evidence to make it worth checking out, and that's what I'll be up to for the next little while. 

Monday 7 October 2019

Show Me the TALoN! (Thoughts on Raja & Anderson, 2019)

There is a special issue of Ecological Psychology out with contributions from lots of people (including us) on what a Gibsonian neuroscience might look like. I'll work my way through the papers over the next few weeks - today, we read Raja & Anderson's contribution for our lab meeting, and I wanted to write about where we ended up with this paper. The upshot is that the paper is clear and the basic ideas of neural reuse and Transiently Assembled Local Neural Subsystems (TALoNs) really do match up nicely to the perception-action scale explanations in the ecological approach. However, it's just not yet clear how much value is added to the ecological approach by these concepts; neural reuse is perhaps not that radical a notion, and there isn't yet any good evidence that TALoNs are a good account of actual neural architecture. As a functional level description of an ecological approach to brains, it seems quite nice, but there isn't anything convincing in here that this is actually how brains work. Show me that, then let's see what happens.