The Enactive Approach to Habits: New Concepts for the Cognitive Science of Bad Habits and Addiction

Following on from our opinion piece with Christian Schütz, here is the next installment in our development of a better understanding of addiction.

The Enactive Approach to Habits: New Concepts for the Cognitive Science of Bad Habits and Addiction

Susana Ramírez-Vizcaya and Tom Froese

Habits are the topic of a venerable history of research that extends back to antiquity, yet they were originally disregarded by the cognitive sciences. They started to become the focus of interdisciplinary research in the 1990s, but since then there has been a stalemate between those who approach habits as a kind of bodily automatism or as a kind of mindful action. This implicit mind-body dualism is ready to be overcome with the rise of interest in embodied, embedded, extended, and enactive (4E) cognition. We review the enactive approach and highlight how it moves beyond the traditional stalemate by integrating both autonomy and sense-making into its theory of agency. It defines a habit as an adaptive, precarious, and self-sustaining network of neural, bodily, and interactive processes that generate dynamical sensorimotor patterns. Habits constitute a central source of normativity for the agent. We identify a potential shortcoming of this enactive account with respect to bad habits, since self-maintenance of a habit would always be intrinsically good. Nevertheless, this is only a problem if, following the mainstream perspective on habits, we treat habits as isolated modules. The enactive approach replaces this atomism with a view of habits as constituting an interdependent whole on whose overall viability the individual habits depend. Accordingly, we propose to define a bad habit as one whose expression, while positive for itself, significantly impairs a person’s well-being by overruling the expression of other situationally relevant habits. We conclude by considering implications of this concept of bad habit for psychological and psychiatric research, particularly with respect to addiction research.


Invited talk: The problem of meaning in AI and robotics

I was invited to give a talk at the conference cycle of the Cognitive Robotics Laboratory. The conference will celebrate the lab’s 10th anniversary, and will take place Feb. 21-22 at UAEM in Cuernavaca. Here is my title and abstract:

The problem of meaning in AI and robotics

Tom Froese

In recent years there has been a lot of renewed excitement about the possibilities of creating advanced artificial intelligence (AI) that could rival the human mind. I cast doubt on this prospect by reviewing past revolutions in cognitive robotics, specifically the shift toward embodied cognition in the 90s and the recent emphasis on the enactive approach. I argue that despite claims to the contrary, these revolutions did not manage to overcome the fundamental problem of meaning, which was first identified following the various theoretical and practical problems faced by Good Old-Fashioned AI. Similarly, even after billions of dollars of investment, today’s commercial computational systems simply do not understand anything in the way that humans or, so I argue, even the simplest living creatures do. I therefore propose a paradigm shift in how to conceptualize the overall vision and goals of the synthetic method: we should stop aiming to replicate human understanding with AI, and instead focus on helping humans better realize their potential via human-computer interfaces, including robotic systems.

Seminar at Hokkaido University

Next week I will be visiting Hokkaido University, Sapporo, in order to continue my collaborations with Prof. Shigeru Taguchi on enactive and phenomenological approaches to cognitive science.

As part of my visit, I will give a seminar on “schizophrenia as a disorder of affectivity” on Thursday evening, January 17. Details below:

Book review of Fuchs’ Ecology of the Brain

In our group’s seminars we read Thomas Fuchs’ (2018) Ecology of the Brain: The Phenomenology and Biology of the Embodied Mind by Oxford University Press. Here is the review that I wrote based on our discussions.

Book Review: Ecology of the Brain: The Phenomenology and Biology of the Embodied Mind

Tom Froese

Fuchs (2018) book starts with a wake-up call. We are facing social and ecological crises that threaten the flourishing of future generations. Ideally, therefore, the sciences of the mind should help us to better understand on what basis a person can take responsible action, and thereby contribute to empowering people in their capacity to make a difference. Yet mainstream human neuroscience confronts us with the hypothesis that our self, free will, consciousness, and hence also our conscience, are nothing but internal fictions fabricated by patterns of nervous activity.

Fuchs’ book is a valuable reminder of the high price of this sort of reductionism, which realizes the ideal of naturalizing the mind at the cost of leaving no theoretical room for people to genuinely make a difference for others in the world. It is a scientific worldview that implicitly legitimizes todays widespread sense of isolation and apathy. A key motivation for Fuchs is to shore up resistance against this encroachment upon our personal lifeworld, but he wisely refrains from overplaying this appeal to our conscience. The book’s main contribution lies in demonstrating that doing justice to the complexities and ambiguities of human existence actually leads to a more mature cognitive science and a more coherent philosophy of mind.

Perspective piece on the concept of opioid addiction

This perspective piece on opioid addiction resulted from a workshop on enactive approaches to psychopathology our group organized last year. The science of addiction is in desperate need of a better theoretical framework, and we hope to be able to contribute to its development in the coming years.

The Clinical Concept of Opioid Addiction Since 1877: Still Wanting After All These Years

Christian G. Schütz, Susana Ramírez-Vizcaya, and Tom Froese

In 1877, the psychiatrist Edward Levinstein authored the first monograph on opioid addiction. The prevalence of opioid addiction prior to his publication had risen in several countries including England, France and Germany. He was the first to call it an illness, but doubted that it was a mental illness because the impairment of volition appeared to be restricted to opioid use: it was not pervasive, since it did not extend to other aspects of the individuals’ life. While there has been huge progress in understanding the underlying neurobiological mechanisms, there has been little progress in the clinical psychopathology of addiction and in understanding how it relates to these neurobiological mechanisms. A focus on cravings has limited the exploration of other important aspects such as anosognosia and addiction-related behaviors like smuggling opioids into treatment and supporting the continued provision of co-patients. These behaviors are usually considered secondary reactions, but in clinical practice they appear to be central to addiction, indicating that an improved understanding of the complexity of the disorder is needed. We propose to consider an approach that takes into account the embodied, situated, dynamic, and phenomenological aspects of mental processes. Addiction in this context can be conceptualized as a habit, understood as a distributed network of mental, behavioral, and social processes, which not only shapes the addict’s perceptions and actions, but also has a tendency to self-maintain. Such an approach may help to develop and integrate psychopathological and neurobiological research and practice of addictions.

Is there room for normativity in a dynamical world?

Tomorrow at 2pm I will be giving an online talk for the ENactive Seminars Online (ENSO) Series. Here are the title and abstract:

Is there room for normativity in a dynamical world?

Enactivism rejects the standard working hypothesis of cognitive science, according to which all cognition involves the unconscious manipulation of mental representations, and replaces it with a dynamical systems account. And yet enactivism resists other, purely dynamical approaches that see no role for any kind of subjectivity, because it appeals to the role of our lived phenomenology and claims that living beings behave with respect to norms directed at maintaining their viability.

So far, this middle way seems to be philosophically unsatisfactory: at best it allows us to claim that acting in accordance with experience or norms just is a certain kind of dynamic pattern. But this turns subjectivity into a mysterious difference that makes no difference as such with respect to the unfolding of those patterns, which is completely determined by the dynamics alone.

This calls for deeper philosophical reflection about how it is possible for subjectivity to play a role in an objective world while avoiding a regression to the untenable positions of either representationalism or eliminativism.

Watch the seminar live:

Symposium on Hallucinations and Perceptual Experience

I’ve been invited to give a talk at a Symposium on Hallucinations and Perceptual Experience, which Prof. Juan Gonzalez has organized in the context of the Second International Conference of Transdisciplinary Research in the Social Sciences and Humanities.

The event will start tomorrow at 10:00 in Cuernavaca, Mexico.

The line-up is as follows:

Prof. Juan Gonzalez (speaker)
Prof. Jose Luis Diaz (speaker)
Dr. Tom Froese (speaker)
Dr. Glenda Satne (discussant)

The title of my contribution is: “Hallucinations: internal fictions, external realities, or something in-between?” (Alucinaciones: ¿ficciones internas, realidades externas o algo intermedio?).

Video: Introduction to enactive cognitive science

A video of my talk for the Society for Cognitive Science and Philosophy (SCSP) has been made available online with accompanying slides. The recording was made on Feb. 26, 2016, at Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic.

The tile is “Introduction to enactive cognitive science”.


Special issue has been released!

It’s been a long time in the making, but finally it has come out: a special issue of Constructivist Foundations dedicated to a comprehensive reflection on the relationships between enaction and other alternative approaches to cognitive science! It is the biggest issue of the journal yet.

For a small donation you can get a print version of the special issue delivered to you! Please help to support this free online journal. Click the link for details:


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