Steps toward an enactive account of synesthesia

I was invited to provide a commentary on Anil Seth’s Cognitive Neuroscience target article “A predictive processing theory of sensorimotor contingencies: Explaining the puzzle of perceptual presence and its absence in synesthesia“. Here it is:

Steps toward an enactive account of synesthesia

Tom Froese

Seth extends predictive processing with counterfactuals: Encoded probabilities of what would occur given a repertoire of possible (but unexecuted) actions. He thereby provides a neat mathematical formulation of the sensorimotor account of perceptual presence, i.e., of the fact that we perceive a whole object while being limited to seeing it from a perspective. Synesthetic concurrents are explained in terms of impoverished counterfactuals. I argue that this explanation misses its target, because it only accounts for a lack of objecthood. Enactive theory is better suited to explain concurrents’ lack of subjectivity veridicality. The world itself shapes experience only during veridical perception.

DOI: 10.1080/17588928.2014.905521

Review of Radicalizing Enactivism: Basic Minds without Content

I was invited to write a review of Hutto and Myin’s Radicalizing Enactivism: Basic Minds without Content for The Journal of Mind and Behavior. You can read my largely positive verdict here:

Radicalizing Enactivism: Basic Minds without Content. Daniel D. Hutto and Erik Myin. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2013, 206 pages, $35.00 hardcover

Tom Froese

Increasing numbers of philosophers of mind and cognitive scientists are jumping on the embodied cognition bandwagon. Accordingly, mind is no longer viewed as locked away in some Platonic realm of pure logic, as the computational theory of mind has traditionally proposed. Instead, mind has become identified with purposeful activity in the world, an activity that is realized by the body, extended by usage of tools, and scaffolded by a sociocultural environment.

Response to commentaries by Hodgson and Lewis-Williams

More discussion of the role of neural Turing instabilities enabled by unusual disinhibitions of the primary sensory cortex. My colleagues and I respond to commentaries by two cognitive archaeologists, Hodgson and Lewis-Williams, in the latest issue of Adaptive Behavior.

Are altered states of consciousness detrimental, neutral or helpful for the origins of symbolic cognition? A response to Hodgson and Lewis-Williams

Tom Froese, Alexander Woodward and Takashi Ikegami

We respond to the commentaries by Hodgson and Lewis-Williams by clarifying the novelty of our theory. We argue that whenever Turing instabilities of neural activity play a role in generating visual hallucinations, they do more than shape the geometric patterns. Their relatively autonomous self-organization is a source of intrinsic value related to their self-maintenance as a pattern of activity, and they would also thereby decouple “higher-level” stages of neural processing from external stimulation, thus facilitating a more abstract mode of cognition. These additional features of our proposal support Hodgson and Lewis-Williams in their respective theories about the very first origins of human artistic activity. We also evaluate the critical literature regarding the possibility of ritualized enaction of altered states of consciousness (ASC) in early prehistory. We conclude that ASC were indeed possible, and suggest that they were likely involved in facilitating the social development of more symbolic forms of life and mind.

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.

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