Turing instabilities in biology, culture, and consciousness?

One of the last pieces of work I started during my time at Ikegami Lab in Tokyo has finally been published. It is part of my efforts to try to understand the qualitative transition toward human symbolic cognition.

Turing instabilities in biology, culture, and consciousness? On the enactive origins of symbolic material culture

Tom Froese, Alexander Woodward, and Takashi Ikegami

It has been argued that the worldwide prevalence of certain types of geometric visual patterns found in prehistoric art can be best explained by the common experience of these patterns as geometric hallucinations during altered states of consciousness induced by shamanic ritual practices. And in turn the worldwide prevalence of these types of hallucinations has been explained by appealing to humanity’s shared neurobiological embodiment. Moreover, it has been proposed that neural network activity can exhibit similar types of spatiotemporal patterns, especially those caused by Turing instabilities under disinhibited, non-ordinary conditions. Altered states of consciousness thus provide a suitable pivot point from which to investigate the complex relationships between symbolic material culture, first-person experience, and neurobiology. We critique prominent theories of these relationships. Drawing inspiration from neurophenomenology, we sketch the beginnings of an alternative, enactive approach centered on the concepts of sense-making, value, and sensorimotor decoupling.

To download the paper, click on the paper’s title above.

Commentary on introspection

In the latest issue of Consciousness and Cognition there is a nice article by Petitmengin and colleagues, which tries to experimentally demonstrate the efficacy of interview-based introspection. Since I have done some work with this method, I wrote a commentary on this experiment.

Interactively guided introspection is getting science closer to an effective consciousness meter

Tom Froese

The ever-increasing precision of brain measurement brings with it a demand for more reliable and fine-grained measures of conscious experience. However, introspection has long been assumed to be too limited and fallible. This skepticism is primarily based on a series of classic psychological experiments, which suggested that more is seen than can be retrospectively reported (Sperling, 1960), and that we can be easily fooled into retrospectively describing intentional choices that we have never made (Johansson, Hall, Silkström, & Olsson, 2005; Nisbett & Wilson, 1977). However, the work by Petitmengin, Remillieux, Cahour, and Carter-Thomas (2013) could resolve this dilemma. They showed that subjects can be interactively guided to become better aware of their past experience, thereby overturning the “choice blindness” results of Johansson et al. (2005). Although some more fine-tuning of the experimental protocol is needed, interactively guided introspection may well become the most reliable and exhaustive measure of consciousness.

BBS commentary on predictive coding

The latest issue of Behavioral and Brain Sciences is dedicated to Clark’s “hierarchical prediction machine” approach.

In our commentary Takashi Ikegami and I tried to highlight that this approach only makes sense if we accept Clark’s theoretical commitments to internalism and representationalism, and that even on its own terms its generalization to a unified theory of mind entails bizarre consequences.

The brain is not an isolated “black box,” nor is its goal to become one

Tom Froese and Takashi Ikegami

In important ways, Clark’s “hierarchical prediction machine” (HPM) approach parallels the research agenda we have been pursuing. Nevertheless, we remain unconvinced that the HPM offers the best clue yet to the shape of a unified science of mind and action. The apparent convergence of research interests is offset by a profound divergence of theoretical starting points and ideal goals.

Clark’s target article and his response to this and many other commentaries can be found here:

Clark, A. (2013). Whatever next? Predictive brains, situated agents, and the future of cognitive science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 36(3): 1-73

More commentaries and another response by Clark can be found in Frontiers in Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, which hosted a Research Topic on Forethought as an evolutionary doorway to emotions and consciousness.

The Dynamically Extended Mind: A Minimal Modeling Case Study

I will be presenting a talk at the 2013 IEEE Congress on Evolutionary Computation, which will be held June 20-23 in Cancun, Mexico. The paper is a contribution to the Special Session on Evolutionary Robotics.

Click on the title below to download a copy of the paper.

The Dynamically Extended Mind: A Minimal Modeling Case Study

Tom Froese, Carlos Gershenson, and David A. Rosenblueth

The extended mind hypothesis has stimulated much interest in cognitive science. However, its core claim, i.e. that the process of cognition can extend beyond the brain via the body and into the environment, has been heavily criticized. A prominent critique of this claim holds that when some part of the world is coupled to a cognitive system this does not necessarily entail that the part is also constitutive of that cognitive system. This critique is known as the “coupling-constitution fallacy”. In this paper we respond to this reductionist challenge by using an evolutionary robotics approach to create a minimal model of two acoustically coupled agents. We demonstrate how the interaction process as a whole has properties that cannot be reduced to the contributions of the isolated agents. We also show that the neural dynamics of the coupled agents has formal properties that are inherently impossible for those neural networks in isolation. By keeping the complexity of the model to an absolute minimum, we are able to illustrate how the coupling-constitution fallacy is in fact based on an inadequate understanding of the constitutive role of nonlinear interactions in dynamical systems theory.

Paper: Is it normal to be a principal mindreader?

After collaborating with experts in psychiatry for several years, we have launched a critique of cognitivist theory of mind on the basis of phenomenological psychopathology. Our first paper has just been published in Research in Developmental Disabilities.

The title and abstract are as follows:

Is it normal to be a principal mindreader? Revising theories of social cognition on the basis of schizophrenia and high functioning autism-spectrum disorders

Tom Froese, Giovanni Stanghellini, Marco O. Bertelli

Schizophrenia and high functioning autism-spectrum disorders (ASD) are neurodevelopmental conditions that mainly impair social competence, while general intelligence (IQ) is spared. Both disorders have a strong ancillary role in theoretical research on social cognition. Recently the debate has started to be inflected by embodied and phenomenological approaches, which claim that the standard portrayal of all social understanding as so-called ‘mindreading’, i.e. the attribution of mental states to others in the service of explaining and predicting their behavior, is misguided. Instead it is emphasized that we normally perceive others directly as conscious and goal-directed persons, without requiring any theorizing and/or simulation. This paper evaluates some of the implications of abnormal experiences reported by people with schizophrenia and ASD for the current debate in cognitive science. For these people the practice of explicit mindreading seems to be a compensatory strategy that ultimately fails to compensate for – and may even exacerbate – their impairment of intuitive and interactive social understanding. Phenomenological psychopathology thereby supports the emerging view that ‘mindreading’ is not the principal form of normal social understanding.

The Positive Role of Parasites in the Origins of Life

My colleagues at the University of Tokyo, Nathaniel Virgo and Takashi Ikegami, are going to give a talk on some of our work at the 2013 IEEE Symposium Series on Computational Intelligence in Singapore. The talk will be given as part of the IEEE ALIFE 2013 symposium. Title and abstract are as follows:

The Positive Role of Parasites in the Origins of Life

Nathaniel Virgo, Tom Froese and Takashi Ikegami

One problem in the origins of life is how parasitic side-reactions can be mitigated. It is known that spatial self-organisation can help with this, making autocatalytic chemical systems more robust to invasion by parasitic species. In previous work we have shown that in such scenarios parasitic reactions can actually be beneficial. Here we demonstrate for the first time a system in which the presence of a parasitic autocatalytic cycle is not only beneficial but actually necessary for the persistence of its host. This occurs due to the effect the parasite has on the spatial organisation of the system; the host-parasite system is more stable than the host alone, despite the fact that the parasite’s direct effect on its host is purely negative. We briefly discuss the implications for the origins of life.

Enaction and biology of cognition

Back in 2010 John Stewart and I published a paper on Life after Ashby, in which we argued that the concept of autopoiesis is experiencing some growing pains within the paradigm of enaction, because the concept was originally conceived and expressed within an abstract systems framework that was already familiar from Ashby’s work.

This was followed in 2011 by a commentary by Maturana, in which he distances himself from what we had called the Ashbyan interpretation of autopoiesis and offers some additional clarifications about his work.

John and I wrote a response to Maturana’s commentary, Enactive Cognitive Science and Biology of Cognition, in which we clarify our position and offer some further reflections on the similarities and differences between Maturana’s biology of cognition and the enactive approach to cognitive science. We agree that Maturana’s work is an improvement over Ashby’s approach to biological function, but we also suggest that the enactive approach is in important respects an improvement over the biology of cognition.

Our response will be published in the next issue of Cybernetics & Human Knowing, which will also include another commentary on our original 2010 article by Bich and Arnellos. Like us and Maturana, these authors also reject the Ashbyan interpretation of autopoiesis, and they draw on the work of a number of other theoretical biologists in order to suggest that it is nevertheless possible to devise a notion of autopoiesis that can better deal with our initial criticisms.

IEEE Haptics Podcast on the Enactive Torch

Our paper on the Enactive Torch, entitled The Enactive Torch: A New Tool for the Science of Perception, which was published in IEEE Transactions on Haptics, is discussed in that journal’s latest podcast. The coverage starts at 11:00.

Sense-making with a little help from my friends

I was asked by the editors of Avant to write an introduction to an interview they had conducted with Ezequiel Di Paolo and Hanne De Jaegher. It was an interesting challenge to write something that had both personal and academic relevance. Here it is:

Sense-making with a little help from my friends: Introducing Ezequiel Di Paolo and Hanne De Jaegher

Tom Froese

The work of Ezequiel Di Paolo and Hanne De Jaegher has helped to transform the enactive approach from relative obscurity into a hotly debated contender for the future science of social cognition and cognitive science more generally. In this short introduction I situate their contributions in what I see as important aspects of the bigger picture that is motivating and inspiring them as well as the rest of this young community. In particular, I sketch some of the social issues that go beyond mere academic debate, including how the methods and assumptions that inform orthodox cognitive science are intrinsically related to the critical state of affairs in our world today. I conclude with some personal recollections in order to give an idea of the context in which their ideas, and mine as well, came to fruition.

Keywords: enactive approach; cognitive science; social cognition; theory of mind.

Getting interaction theory (IT) together

Together with Shaun Gallagher I have published a position paper, which tries to draw together various strands of evidence in support of an enactive approach to social cognition:

Getting interaction theory (IT) together: Integrating developmental, phenomenological, enactive, and dynamical approaches to social interaction

Tom Froese and Shaun Gallagher

We argue that progress in our scientific understanding of the ‘social mind’ is hampered by a number of unfounded assumptions. We single out the widely shared assumption that social behavior depends solely on the capacities of an individual agent. In contrast, both developmental and phenomenological studies suggest that the personal-level capacity for detached ‘social cognition’ (conceived as a process of theorizing about and/or simulating another mind) is a secondary achievement that is dependent on more immediate processes of embodied social interaction. We draw on the enactive approach to cognitive science to further clarify this strong notion of ‘social interaction’ in theoretical terms. In addition, we indicate how this interaction theory (IT) could eventually be formalized with the help of a dynamical systems perspective on the interaction process, especially by making use of evolutionary robotics modeling. We conclude that bringing together the methods and insights of developmental, phenomenological, enactive and dynamical approaches to social interaction can provide a promising framework for future research.

You can download the paper by clicking on the title above.

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