Research

I am a cognitive scientist interested in understanding the complexities of the human mind on the basis of embodied, embedded, extended, and enactive approaches to cognition (so called “4E cognition”). For me this means systematically investigating how our minds are shaped by being alive, by being sensorimotor animals, and by us leading socially, technologically, and culturally constituted ways of life (Froese and Di Paolo 2011; Torrance and Froese 2011). One of the most promising approaches to better appreciate the role these different facets can play is to try to understand their origins and the qualitative changes their appearance implies.

To begin with, one of the most important outstanding challenges for science is to explain the origins of life. I believe that the significance of this event lies outside the chemical realm. I adopt the enactive position that the origin of life is also at the same time the origin of (basic) mind, because many of the key features that we attribute to more evolved agents are already present or at least prefigured, in particular adaptive behavior (Froese et al. 2014c).

If this mind-life continuity thesis is correct, it confronts the development of better artificial intelligence with considerable challenges (Froese and Ziemke 2009). And although this thesis provides us with a way of addressing the mind-body problem, it leaves us with a “cognitive gap”: we need to explain how we go from such a basic mind to the specifically human mind. I argue that an essential part of this story consists in taking into account the different forms of additional complexity generated by interactions between agents (Froese and Di Paolo 2009).

Adaptive behavior only truly comes into its own with the emergence of animals with a nervous system able to control their sensorimotor loop. Importantly, the dynamics of this loop shape how the world shows up for the animal, including for us as well of course. One of the most promising approaches to study the dynamics and phenomenology of this process is by modulating participants’ coupling with the environment by asking them to learn to perceive via some kind of human-computer interface, such as a sensory substitution device (Froese et al. 2012). In line with the sensorimotor approach, we find that a meaningful world shows up for the participants when they master and actively manipulate their new form of coupling.

An important source of complexity in the world is the presence of other subjects. Like in the case of human-computer interfaces, our coupling with others has the effect of modulating our affordances for interaction. In general, multi-agent interaction allows for a pooling of individual complexity leading to a dynamically extended form of embodiment with new capabilities (Froese and Fuchs 2012). More specifically, there is a special class of actions, namely joint actions, which are impossible to realize by oneself but instead require co-regulation by two or more participants. Successful co-regulation leads to a qualitative transformation of experience which now appears as shared to the participants (Froese et al. 2014b).

So far the principles we have been describing are not specific to the human mind but can be applied to other species in varying degrees. It is an interesting open question exactly what sets us apart. A good starting point is to note that our way of life is much more thoroughly technologically constituted (Froese 2014). Nevertheless, I believe that even more important for the origin of the specifically human mind was the origin of arbitrary symbolic practices, especially community ritual (Froese 2013).

One way of thinking about this monumental transition is to ask how it became possible to break out of ecologically relevant ways of sense-making so as to be able to create and manipulate non-sense (Cappuccio and Froese 2014). I think that a particularly promising approach is to consider the role that the induction of altered states of consciousness may have played in this process at the level of the nervous system (Froese et al. 2013; Woodward et al. 2015), and how such practices might have promoted large-scale coordination at the level of the social system (Froese et al. 2014a).

References

I wrote another overview of my research back in 2012.