Chapter for OUP Handbook of 4E Cognition

Here is a pre-print version of my contribution to The Oxford Handbook of 4E Cognition, edited by Newen, de Bruin, and Gallagher.

Searching for the conditions of genuine intersubjectivity: From agent-based models to perceptual crossing experiments

Tom Froese

Enactivists are searching for the conditions of genuine intersubjectivity. Theory of mind approaches to social cognition have come a long way from folk psychological theorizing by paying more attention to neuroscientific evidence and phenomenological insights. This has led to hybrid accounts that incorporate automatic processing and allow an instrumental role for perception and interaction. However, two foundational assumptions remain unquestioned. First, the cognitive unconscious: explanations assume there is a privileged domain of subpersonal mechanisms that operate in terms of representational personal-level concepts (belief, desire, inference, pretense, etc.), albeit unconsciously. Second, methodological individualism: explanations of social capacities are limited to mechanisms contained within the individual. The enactive approach breaks free from these representationalist-internalist constraints by integrating personal-level phenomenology with multi-scale dynamics occurring within and between subjects. This formal and empirical research on social interaction supports the possibility of genuine intersubjectivity: we can directly participate in the unfolding of each other’s experience.

Talk on genuine intersubjectivity at UOW, Australia

I was awarded a Vice-Chancellor’s International Scholar Award to come to the University of Wollongong in Australia from Oct 3 to Dec 3 this year. The aim of my visit is to integrate Dan Hutto and his group’s work on radical enactive philosophy of mind at the School of Humanities and Social Inquiry with the empirical work on the earliest symbolic expressions conducted by members of the university’s Center for Archaeological Science.

As part of my stay here I am scheduled to give a public seminar on my research into social interaction. Here is the announcement:

Title/Topic: When me and you are more than two: Searching for the conditions of genuine intersubjectivity
Speaker: Dr. Tom Froese (National Autonomous University of Mexico; UOW VISA Fellow)
Time: 3.30 to 5.00pm
Place: 19.2072 (Research Hub)
Contact: Michael Kirchhoff (

Abstract: The most meaningful experiences in our lives derive much of their significance from being shared with other people. However, is it actually possible to share a moment such that there are two subjects of one experience? Mainstream cognitive science is forced to reject this possibility of genuine intersubjectivity because another person can only play an instrumental role in the generation of one’s experience. Essentially, our experiences with family, friends, and loved ones do not involve them at all; these experiences are ultimately constituted by mental representations in one’s mind for which they can, at best, serve as an external cause or trigger. In this talk I question the validity of this solipsistic approach. Drawing on insights from dynamical systems modeling, I consider the basic conditions that would allow interacting individuals to become transformed into one integrated system with collective properties. I then present the latest evidence from psychological experiments that investigate the role that social interaction plays in shaping our awareness of other minds. I conclude that there is nothing mysterious about the possibility of genuine intersubjectivity.

The attentive brain, the deluded brain – what is reality?

AFFICHE_Reality_11_2015_V7_Oct_3Next week there will be a conference entitled “The attentive brain, the deluded brain – what is reality?” taking place from Nov. 4-7 in Mittelwihr, France.

The organizers encourage attendants to think out of the box and discover new horizons at the cross-roads of science and meditation.

I have been invited as a keynote speaker and workshop contributor. The title and abstract of my main contribution are as follows:

How isolated are we really? Toward a science of being-with others

Tom Froese

Traditional cognitive science has approached the phenomenon of understanding others in terms of a Theory of Mind framework. This framework was originally proposed to overcome the problems raised by a pair of seemingly self-evident assumptions: 1) mind is a property of an isolated brain, 2) a person’s mind, like their brain, is therefore completely hidden from the perceptual perspective of others. If so, then any scientific theory of social understanding must explain how one individual’s internal mechanism can infer meaning from another individual’s meaningless external physical movements. I will try to demonstrate that this is a misguided explanatory project for several reasons. When we interact with others we normally do not perceive them as mindless zombies, nor is our mind isolated from them. Therefore, what is needed is a scientific theory that can do justice to the perceptual presence of others and our mental interconnectedness.

Keynote at “The sensorimotor foundations of social cognition”

I have been invited as a keynote speaker to an autumn school on “The sensorimotor foundations of social cognition” organized by the Horizon 2020 project Socializing sensorimotor contingencies (socSMCs).

The event will take place in Boltenhagen by the Baltic Sea, Germany, October 11-17, 2015. My title and abstract are as follows:

Enactive and phenomenological approaches to social cognition

Tom Froese

One of the most central and also controversial claims of the enactive approach is that embodied social interaction is constitutive of social cognition. Evolutionary robotics modeling and dynamical systems theory demonstrate that at least in principle there is nothing mysterious about this claim. But can it also be verified experimentally? The most promising results so far are based on the “perceptual crossing” paradigm, in which pairs of participants interact haptically in real-time via a minimalist human-computer interface. They try to locate each other in the virtual space while avoiding distractor objects. It has repeatedly been shown that individuals’ actions become interactively self-organized in a way that collectively enhances task success. However, until recently there was no evidence that this sensorimotor self-organization was also experienced from the point of view of the participants, thereby calling into question whether it constitutively affected their social cognition. I will present the latest studies in which an accompanying phenomenology of intersubjectivity was clearly reported and quantified, thereby enabling us to identify the specific pattern of sensorimotor coupling underlying the emergence of a consciously shared moment of experience. This is some of the first evidence supporting the concept of a genuine and irreducible second-person perspective that is mutually enacted via joint actions. Intriguingly, the process of its emergence shares similarities with the first stages that are hypothesized to occur during the development of social awareness in pre-verbal infants.

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:

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.