Thursday, 23 March 2017

A bereaved dog owner's attempt at embodied empathy

In some strange way, although very sad, it seems somewhat apt that my dog Dusty was ‘put to sleep’ on the same morning I was scheduled to attend our discussion session on Jacob von Uexküll’s (1937) Umwelt Theory.  Dusty was my dear and close companion for over 11 years and I miss him terribly.  Relaying Dusty’s passing to Gary, another of my best (human) friends who also experienced the recent loss of his dog (Shadow), I recalled Louise Barrett’s (2016) assertion that ‘animals in different ecological niches, with different bodies, and different nervous systems solve the problems they face in unique ways’ (p.11).  I also remembered my colleague Mary Joan’s response, who asked: if this assertion is correct, how can we follow Barrett’s argument to account for our feelings of empathy towards other animals?  

Bringing these things together, with Dusty and Shadow’s passing providing concrete grounds for the cultivation of empathy between my friend Gary and I, I’d like to briefly explore the possibilities for an embodied account of empathy.  I’m hopeful my approach illustrates something about the radical ambitions of Embodiment and the challenges it faces.  Perhaps my doing so may also ease our shared burden of grief a little.  

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

An uncertain view of Cartesian dualism: from a beginning researcher sitting on a fence

Some contributions from my student colleagues, and readings, posted to this blog reflect aspects of our in-class discussions by problematizing the persistent influences of Cartesian dualism on the study of cognitive science.  These and similar criticisms may be recognisable to those of you who are familiar with accounts from radical/ critical sociology and history that describe the epistemological leanings of ‘Enlightenment’ philosophy.  I found a worthwhile example of such criticism in the work of the philosopher and historian Michel Foucault.  I’d like to share Foucault’s ideas with you and then reflect on how they relate to my experience as a beginning student of cognitive science and novice researcher.

Foucault (2000) attributes an orientation in his work towards explorations of power to his analyses of ‘modes of objectification that transform human beings into subjects’ (p.326).  Through these analyses Foucault (1984) traces the development of particular forms of inquiry, that were increasingly adopted by the human and social sciences in the early 20th century, to a ‘classical age’ (p.180) in Western philosophical thought between the 17th and 18th centuries.  

Friday, 3 March 2017

Is Nature Inherently Intelligent?

In his chapter “A stroll through the worlds of animals and men: A picture book of invisible worlds”, von Uexküll illustrates Umwelt theory.  This theory seeks to describe the phenomenal world of animals and their subjective experience.  von Uexküll claims we must start by investigating an animal’s perceptual cues or what the animal experiences as meaningful in the environment.  For example, he speaks of a pregnant tick picking out the perceptual cue of butyric acid through its sense of smell because this signals the presence of a warm blooded animal, and the tick needs a warm blooded host in order to feed before laying her eggs.  Even though there may be a multitude of potential stimuli in an environment, the tick has adapted to respond to this particular cue.  It means something to the tick and stimulates it into action.  Other scents have no meaning and, therefore, do not even exist for the tick. 

A house fly has the capacities to perceive spilled juice on the table through taste receptors in its feet.  The juice takes on what von Uexküll might call a ‘nourishment tone’.  It cannot, however, perceive a spider’s web because its vision is too coarse.  One might question why flies have not evolved to have better vision in order to avoid being eaten.  Shouldn’t a web take on a ‘danger tone’ rather than remaining invisible?  Why do animals have certain perceptual cues which aid in their survival and not others?  Wouldn’t a fly’s optimal Umwelt allow for the detection of nourishment as well as traps?

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

"Consider the Cattle"

"Consider the cattle, grazing as they pass you by" is the famous beginning of Friedrich Nietzsche's "On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life." This meditation, published in Nietzsche's Untimely Meditations, takes the first few paragraphs to notice, not without despair, how the cows are completely absorbed in every present moment. Though this way of being, this Umwelt, is in our eyes more restrictive, for the cows it is in accordance with their being, and man "cannot help envying them their happiness - what they have, a life neither bored nor painful, is precisely what he wants, yet he cannot have it because he refuses to be like an animal" (Untimely Meditations, 60). Nietzsche derives many speculations from this observation, but our point of interest here is in the substantially different kind of Umwelt Nietzsche intuits between himself and the cows.

In his book Instinctive Behavior, Jakob von Uexküll writes expansively on the Umwelt, or a phenomenal/self-world. For von Uexküll, the Umwelt is akin to every organism existing within a soap bubble that is our understanding of all perceptual signs, including time and space. Furthermore, for von Uexküll this metaphor applies just as well to animals as to humans and von Uexküll, having painted an image of a world with every subjectivity existing within a perceptual soap bubble, asserts that "there is no space independent of subjects" (Instinctive Behavior, 29). However, this portrait of man's subjectivity not only makes a mockery of Nietzsche's anxiety, but alienates someone who would have otherwise been a staunch supporter of such a philosophy: Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

Monday, 27 February 2017

Embodied Cognition - developing intelligence

Smith and Gasser attempt to identify some of the crucial lessons we can learn from the development of babies, in order to understand how we could develop artificially intelligent machines.

Human intelligence, according to Smith and Gasser, is flexible and inventive and develops as a result of a huge amount of contact with a physical, social and linguistic world. If we are ever to develop artificial intelligence that resembles the creativity and adaptive qualities of human intelligence, we can learn from the development of human babies. In contrast with the traditional view of intellectual development, which purports that symbolic reasoning occurs as a result of internal representation, Smith and Gasser strongly favour the embodied perspective, which embeds learning and skill acquisition firmly within the world, not within the individual.

The first lesson we can learn from babies is that learning naturally occurs just by being situated in a particular environment. Formal teaching is not always required for learning: babies develop understanding just by perceiving the world around them and acting in it. Secondly, babies develop incrementally, by starting with very little intelligence and gradually increasing their understanding and awareness of the world and themselves. Thirdly, the high degree of organisation in the physical world helps babies to organise their own perception, actions and thoughts. This lesson strongly asserts the embodied perspective, suggesting that human intelligence is reliant upon the structure and organisation of the world in which the child is embedded.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Tangle of cognition: A brain requires a body. A body requires a habitat. A Mind requires their interaction.

There is, in the words of Louise Barrett, a “burgeoning literature on 4-E cognition” (Barrett 2016 p. 14), and this approach may be an enormous help in shifting cognitive science in a direction which embraces a wider, non anthropocentric premise. Cognitive Science would be well served to focus its multi-disciplinary hydra-head on the viewpoint that the body is in relationship with its environment, and (in an archaic but appropriate sense): thence commeth cognition.

A way of connecting some of the various ways of thinking about the Big Questions of cognition (Why? How? Where? What For? and Who?) is through so-called  “4-E Cognition”. Apparently 4-E as a theory has not taken off as a specific label for a project by any one group of scientists (Fred Cummins, Yet it seems to be just the ticket to combine some of the big issues around cognition, taking a philosophical point of view.

The four Es are: Embodied, Embedded, Enactive, Extended. According to Louise Barrett in the article “Why brains are not computers, why behaviorism is not Satanism, and why dolphins are not aquatic apes”, commonalities among these approaches include the idea that cognitive processes emerge from the animal’s physical relationship with its environment. The particular morphology of an animal, including connected sensory and motor capabilities (and a brain), allow specific types of interaction with the world (the world/environment/habitat outside of its body) that induces behaviors that are both adaptive and flexible. (Barrett 2016. p.14)

Monday, 20 February 2017


Iverson and Thelen (1999) highlight the significance of bodily experience in human cognition. They emphasise the importance of the body and how it moves through space, interacting with the world, and affecting how we then process information.

Research within the field of speech and movement focus on three potential theories which may explain the presence of nonverbal gestures during communication. The first is a very linear theory, which essentially purports that the production of speech initiates the production of gestures. The second theory is similar, but in addition to this causal relationship between speech and gestures, this theory claims that gestures can be used to trigger speech if the person is having difficulty recalling a word from memory. Lastly the most embodied theory suggests that speech and gestures are fully interdependent. This would suggest that if one aspect of communication was disrupted the other aspect would be affected too. For example if the ability to move one’s body in order to produce gestures was inhibited, one’s ability to process information would be hindered. This is a potentially controversial statement, suggesting that people who are less mobile, for example due to paralysis or amputation, do not process information as well as they might if they had full range of movement.

One piece of evidence supporting this embodied theory of speech and gesture is research conducted by Hanlon (1990) who studied patients with severe left hemisphere damage and aphasia (reduced ability to name known stimuli). Participants were shown images of known objects and asked to gesture towards the object as they attempted to name it. They were instructed to either point at the object with their finger, or make a fist in the direction of the object. Hanlon found that finger pointing increased the accuracy with which participants were able to name the objects, compared with making a fist, suggesting that more specific and accurate gestures can improve cognition (or at least verbal production).