Comments and epilogue for John Stewart’s book

A couple of years ago John Stewart kindly invited me to be a glossator for his latest book, Questioning Life and Cognition: Some Foundational Issues in the Paradigm of Enaction, published online by Enaction Series: Online Collaborative Publishing.

My comments are interspersed as hyperlinks throughout the book’s text, and in addition I provided an extended epilogue in which I describe John’s influence on my research outlook.

The direct perception hypothesis in comparative psychology

After 4 years of effort, my take on comparative psychology has finally been published. Many thanks to my colleague Dave for his expert guidance and endless patience.

The direct perception hypothesis: perceiving the intention of another’s action hinders its precise imitation

Tom Froese and David A. Leavens

We argue that imitation is a learning response to unintelligible actions, especially to social conventions. Various strands of evidence are converging on this conclusion, but further progress has been hampered by an outdated theory of perceptual experience. Comparative psychology continues to be premised on the doctrine that humans and non-human primates only perceive others’ physical “surface behavior,” while mental states are perceptually inaccessible. However, a growing consensus in social cognition research accepts the direct perception hypothesis: primarily we see what others aim to do; we do not infer it from their motions. Indeed, physical details are overlooked – unless the action is unintelligible. On this basis we hypothesize that apes’ propensity to copy the goal of an action, rather than its precise means, is largely dependent on its perceived intelligibility. Conversely, children copy means more often than adults and apes because, uniquely, much adult human behavior is completely unintelligible to unenculturated observers due to the pervasiveness of arbitrary social conventions, as exemplified by customs, rituals, and languages. We expect the propensity to imitate to be inversely correlated with the familiarity of cultural practices, as indexed by age and/or socio-cultural competence. The direct perception hypothesis thereby helps to parsimoniously explain the most important findings of imitation research, including children’s over-imitation and other species-typical and age-related variations.

Embodied social interaction constitutes social cognition in pairs of humans

It’s been many years since first I started working on agent-based models to demonstrate that social interaction dynamics can constitute individual behavior. I’m very happy and excited to announce that we finally managed to verify some of the predictions that we generated on the basis of the models, as well as of enactive theory more generally, in an actual psychological experiment. I think this is perhaps the strongest empirical evidence we have yet for the interactive constitution of individual cognition, including of intersubjective experience!

Embodied social interaction constitutes social cognition in pairs of humans: A minimalist virtual reality experiment

Tom Froese, Hiroyuki Iizuka & Takashi Ikegami

Scientists have traditionally limited the mechanisms of social cognition to one brain, but recent approaches claim that interaction also realizes cognitive work. Experiments under constrained virtual settings revealed that interaction dynamics implicitly guide social cognition. Here we show that embodied social interaction can be constitutive of agency detection and of experiencing another’s presence. Pairs of participants moved their “avatars” along an invisible virtual line and could make haptic contact with three identical objects, two of which embodied the other’s motions, but only one, the other’s avatar, also embodied the other’s contact sensor and thereby enabled responsive interaction. Co-regulated interactions were significantly correlated with identifications of the other’s avatar and reports of the clearest awareness of the other’s presence. These results challenge folk psychological notions about the boundaries of mind, but make sense from evolutionary and developmental perspectives: an extendible mind can offload cognitive work into its environment.

The article is also available for open access here:

Two commentaries on ultrastability, robotics and HCI

I have been invited to become a member of the editorial board of the open-access journal Constructivist Foundations. The latest issue is a collection of papers on the theme of Computational Approaches to Constructivism. I contributed two commentaries:

Ashby’s Passive Contingent Machines Are not Alive: Living Beings Are Actively Goal-directed

Tom Froese

Franchi argues that Ashby’s homeostat can be usefully understood as a thought experiment to explore the theory that life is fundamentally heteronomous. While I share Franchi’s interpretation, I disagree that this theory of life is a promising alternative that is at odds with most of the Western philosophical tradition. On the contrary, heteronomy lies at the very core of computationalism, and this is precisely what explains its persistent failure to construct life-like agents.

Tool-use Leads to Bodily Extension, but not Bodily Incorporation: The Limits of Mind-as-it-could-be?

Tom Froese

Sato and colleagues make use of an innovative method that combines robotics modeling and psychological experimentation to investigate how tool use affects our living and lived embodiment. I situate their approach in a general shift from robotics to human-computer interface studies in enactive cognitive science, and speculate about the necessary conditions for the bodily incorporation of tools.

Motility at the Origin of Life: Its Characterization and a Model

The conference paper I presented with Nathaniel Virgo and Takashi Ikegami at the 2011 European Conference on Artificial Life was selected for a special issue of the journal Artificial Life dedicated to showcasing the best work of that conference. Our expanded paper has finally become available.

Motility at the Origin of Life: Its Characterization and a Model

Tom Froese, Nathaniel Virgo and Takashi Ikegami

Due to recent advances in synthetic biology and artificial life, the origin of life is currently a hot topic of research. We review the literature and argue that the two traditionally competing replicator-first and metabolism-first approaches are merging into one integrated theory of individuation and evolution. We contribute to the maturation of this more inclusive approach by highlighting some problematic assumptions that still lead to an impoverished conception of the phenomenon of life. In particular, we argue that the new consensus has so far failed to consider the relevance of intermediate time scales. We propose that an adequate theory of life must account for the fact that all living beings are situated in at least four distinct time scales, which are typically associated with metabolism, motility, development, and evolution. In this view, self-movement, adaptive behavior, and morphological changes could have already been present at the origin of life. In order to illustrate this possibility, we analyze a minimal model of lifelike phenomena, namely, of precarious, individuated, dissipative structures that can be found in simple reaction-diffusion systems. Based on our analysis, we suggest that processes on intermediate time scales could have already been operative in prebiotic systems. They may have facilitated and constrained changes occurring in the faster- and slower-paced time scales of chemical self-individuation and evolution by natural selection, respectively.

New paper on Bio-machine Hybrid Technology

This paper examines the consequences of recent developments in the cognitive sciences, such as a focus on biological autonomy, agency and embodied consciousness, for our understanding of the nature and future of technology.

Bio-machine Hybrid Technology: A Theoretical Assessment and Some Suggestions for Improved Future Design

Tom Froese
Philosophy & Technology

In sociology, there has been a controversy about whether there is any essential difference between a human being and a tool, or if the tool–user relationship can be defined by co-actor symmetry. This issue becomes more complex when we consider examples of AI and robots, and even more so following progress in the development of various bio-machine hybrid technologies, such as robots that include organic parts, human brain implants, and adaptive prosthetics. It is argued that a concept of autonomous agency based on organismic embodiment helps to clarify the situation. On this view, agency consists of an asymmetrical relationship between an organism and its environment, because the continuous metabolic and regulatory activity of the organism gives rise to its own existence, and hence its specific behavioral domain. Accordingly, most (if not all) of current technologies are excluded from the class of autonomous agents. Instead, they are better conceptualized as interfaces that mediate our interactions with the world. This has important implications for design: Rather than trying to help humans to achieve their goals by duplicating their agency in artificial systems, it would be better to empower humans directly by enhancing their existing agency and lived experience with technological interfaces that can be incorporated into their embodiment. This incorporation might be especially facilitated by bio-machine hybrid technology that is designed according the principles of biological autonomy and multi-agent coordination dynamics.

New BBS commentary on second-person neuroscience

The next issue of Behavioral and Brain Sciences includes a target article on second-person neuroscience by Schilbach et al.

I contributed a commentary with my collaborators in Japan based on our extensive research with agent-based models of social interaction. The title and abstract are as follows:

From synthetic modeling of social interaction to dynamic theories of brain-body-environment-body-brain systems

Tom Froese, Hiroyuki Iizuka and Takashi Ikegami

Synthetic approaches to social interaction support the development of a second-person neuroscience. Agent-based models and psychological experiments can be related in a mutually informing manner. Models have the advantage of making the nonlinear brain–body–environment–body–brain system as a whole accessible to analysis by dynamical systems theory. We highlight some general principles of how social interaction can partially constitute an individual’s behavior.

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.

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