Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Embodied Identification of Objects

In this article by Smith and Gasser, one of the lessons concerning the development of embodied cognition that we can learn from babies is how language provides us with the opportunity for abstract thought.  Smith and Gasser believe language may be the basis for all symbolic reasoning, including mathematics.  It is argued this happens in four steps.  In the first step, the child learns to associate individual words with specific objects which they identify by shape.  The second step is when the child can recognize similarities between objects within the same category – again, distinguished by shape.  For example, this object is round like that ‘ball’ over there, so this must also be a ‘ball’.  This leads to the third step, or ‘second order generalization’ where the child realizes any novel object may belong to a category which contains similarly-shaped objects.  Finally, in the fourth step, the child learns to attend to the shape of an object in order to learn its name. 

It is interesting that Smith and Gasser’s account of language includes very little about the body.  In fact, despite including a previous section dedicated to multi-modality, Smith and Gasser’s argument seems to be that babies primarily learn language through visually recognizing shapes and associating them with sounds.  However, if we are to take previous sections or ‘lessons’ in the article as true (Be multi-modal, Be incremental, Be physical, Explore, and Be social), then in the first step the baby would not only identify a specific object by its shape.  By the time the child is physically and perceptually developed enough to understand language, he or she is already experiencing the world as an active and engaged, multi-modal subject.  A ball would not be identified through shape alone (which, it could be argued, is already a geometric or mathematic concept rather than the factor in identification which underpins language development which, in turn, is said to underpin mathematic concepts) but also colour, texture, taste, smell, etc.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Where to Place the Efforts?

In his blog post entitled "Embodied cognition is not what you think it is", Andrew Wilson advocates a more authentic understanding of embodied cognition. This effort seems worthwhile, as, with any framework, embodied cognition is not merely a collection of punchlines. Rather, it acts as a lens, providing a new way of seeing and understanding something that was there all along. But these new discoveries can only be explored if one enters completely into the framework. Using the language but maintaining an old vantage point is, as Wilson argues, missing the point and completely useless as regards scientific progress. 


This radical claim seems correct. If one is to make any progress, one must submit entirely to the framework. Spanish words flourish when they are around other Spanish words, as opposed to when they are taken out of context because someone thinks they sound nice. However, at this point, at a point when most of cognitive science is taking the plunge into this embodied cognition paradigm, a question arises: is it scientifically prudent to advocate the study of a single paradigm? A lot of the world speaks English these days, and while this may be communicatively convenient for many people, the result is that other languages are dying out and with them, their capacities for spokenness that English does not, and never will, possess. English is a full system, and it adapts and changes and grows along with its speakers, but there are sounds, attitudes, expressions, sentiments, etc. that other languages communicate that the native English speaker cannot understand because such communications are not available in English. While complete to itself, English is not complete to the world.

This metaphor should need no explanation. The tradition of scientific theory and description is one of fallibility and replaceability. The scientist should be very well aware that a new theory will be able to describe new aspects of life, aspects that were left unchecked by the past theory, but that in exchange they will have to give up on values the prior theory held dear.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

But is the spanner conscious?


Some cognitive scientists and their good friends in the philosophy of mind arena are concerned with working towards a satisfactory definition of “cognition”. There is a long way to go. Here is a short examination of a small part of the Extended Mind Theory Andy Clark and David Chalmers presented in 1998. (Here is the full text.)

There is some kind of connection that happens when you use a tool—the right tool for the job: a well-honed axe will split a chuck of hard maple like a knife through butter. You can feel the task, the job the “thing that needs to happen”, happening as you use it.

People who use tools develop relationships with them: some would go so far as to say they can only do what is needed by using a particular tool. A mechanic has a favorite spanner. When he uses it he can feel the right torque—just the exact turning for the exact bolt which will perform the exact job for which is was designed. He feels it—the rightness-- through his fingers. The spanner is a metal object physically between his fingers and the bolt, yet it becomes (an extension of?) his fingers and so he can feel the bolt, and feel from the bolt what is the correct turn of the spanner.

A driver knows her car. What the tires can, and cannot handle, which way she needs to turn the steering wheel when the tires hit a patch of ice, how fast she can take the curve, exactly how much to push down on the brake pedal. She knows when to slam on the brakes, and when just lifting her foot off the accelerator is enough to slow the car. She “knows her machine.” She feels the road. The tool is superbly designed to its use. And she uses her body—feet, hands, eyes, ears, head—to accomplish the task via the tool. We do this in countless ways every day. We use objects to accomplish tasks. Does this necessitate or even suggest that the tools we use are imbued with consciousness? Are they merely conduits of our mental energy or are they, themselves, a small piece of mind?1 Clark and Chalmers (C & C) side step the question of whether the tool itself exhibits cognition, thus avoiding accusations of panpsychism, and name the relationship between a person and a tool as a system. (Note that Chalmers has gone on record as a panpsychist, and that point of view cannot be ignored, but I beg you to hold that in abeyance for this discussion.)

Distributed Cognition

The traditional view of cognition is highly contentious, and many are moving away from the perspective that humans process information by perceiving stimuli with their senses, interpret it in the brain, and then produce a behaviour in response to it. 

Edwin Hutchins firmly supports a distributed cognitive theory, whereby the individual and the context are so closely entwined they cannot be separated into 'information processor' and 'information to be processed'. Hutchins understands cognition to be distributed over time, space and between individuals and objects. He, like many, propose that when an individual is making a decision, or solving a problem, they are not doing so in isolation, but in continuous communication with the world around them. 

Distributed Cognition builds on the theory of the Extended Mind, but goes further to claim that humans do not merely use tools around them to help them process information, instead we are absolutely reliant upon other people, objects and previous experiences to make sense of any information present. 

Although initially surprising to consider cognition in this way, the more one reflects on how we recall memories, draw inferences and learn new skills, the more one can understand this perspective. Hutchins cites Vygotsky's developmental work to support the Distributed Cognition theory (Society of Mind, 1978). Vygotsky noticed that young children initially process information 'external' to themselves, and are often highly reliant upon other people and objects. For example it is common to hear a young child verbalising thoughts, or see them physically move objects rather than imagine the consequences of their movement. Over time this information processing becomes more 'internalised', but it is still distributed in time, space and between individuals.


One of the greatest challenges to Cognitive Science, including the field of Distributed Cognition, is the current inability to define what is actually meant by 'cognition'. Commonly it is understood to encompass all the things we 'do in our head', such as mental arithmetic, deciding what to eat, recognising a friend. However the theory of Distributed Cognition is just one field of Cognition Science which is increasingly moving away from the idea that we do anything 'in our heads'. Firstly, the head (or brain) is just one organ which is able to process information, so there is now doubt over whether we can claim that processing occurs solely within the brain. Secondly, Hutchins and others question whether the skull really is a barrier within which processing takes place. Distributed Cognition suggests that nothing happens inside ourselves which is not inextricably linked to other people, objects and experiences. 

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Can Embedded Cognition Be Understood Without Affect?

As discussions in cognitive science tend more towards models of embodied cognition and enactivism, it becomes increasingly worrisome that these pictures of cognition, in all their new frontiers, continue to exclude affect. 


The field of philosophy of emotion is rife with disagreement, perhaps, if possible, even more so than other fields in philosophy. The reason, of course, is that emotions are one of the more difficult things for us to understand as they are defined by their very lack of adhering to laws. We contrast them, the alogical, with the logical. It is not that they contradict reason, but rather that they appear to lack it altogether. But even this is not totally agreed upon.

In his 1995 book "Cognition in the Wild", Edwin Hutchins proposes a theory of cognitive science known as distributed cognition. Distributed cognition, roughly summarised, is the idea that cognition is not the traditional psychological model of inside-out representational and computational processing. Rather, cognition is an embedded social interaction, that adapts and changes depending upon the situation. Indeed, according to Hutchins, cognition is socially spread in such a way that a certain layer or skill-set of a task may not emerge unless a specific external situation, be it social or material or both, is at hand. Such a model is revolutionary for cognitive science, as it re-conceives the notion of cognition as inherently embodied, with humans acting as mediators in a cognitive task rather than hoarders of inaccessible cognitive processes.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Linguistic Determinism as a testable hypothesis

Linguistic Determinism as a testable hypothesis

Broadly speaking LD is the claim, quoting (De Cruz, 2009)-“that language shapes the way we see the world, and that as a result, speakers of different languages conceptualize reality differently”. The strong version claims that language determines thought entirely. If this were the case, we would have to confront the possibility of incommensurable linguistic communities. The weaker form claims that language influences cognition to an important extent. Many cognitive scientists would reject LD outright citing evidence of high-level cognition e.g. categorisation, that is independent of language. In this view language is necessary for communication but once the information has been passed on cognition is predominantly non-linguistic. Psycholinguists like Steven Pinker (The Language Instinct, 1994)(How the Mind Works, 1997) would argue that language is crucial for thought but that it is, following Chomksy (1965), the general syntactic structure shared by all people throughout the world, a ‘Universal Grammar’, that pre-empts language acquisition, which fundamentally shapes thought. This is against the blank slate view of the person favoured by social constructivists (Social Constructivism). Despite the prevalence of this view in cognitive science LD has persisted in some form or other. 

One means by which the argument may be put to rest is to subject it to empirical testing. LD makes the prediction that:


If language determines or at the very least influences cognition, we expect speakers of different languages to have divergent conceptualisations of the world-as the linguist Whorf (1956, 213) put it ‘We dissect nature along lines laid out by our native language’”.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

The Development of the Nervous System


The nervous system is regularly considered by the cognitive sciences to be an information processing hub that analyses incoming sensory information and creates an output in return (Keijzer, van Duijn, & Lyon, 2013). This carries a very distinct, sequential and directional view of interactions between an organism and its environment, and is regularly referred to as the Input-Output View (Keijzer et al., 2013). The neuron doctrine lies in the foundation of this view, as well as many similarities drawn between neural activation and logic gates found in computers (Gardner, 1985). Challenges have began to mount against these foundational stances as more and more evidence contradicts their assertions. Contradictory to the neuron doctrine, neurons have been shown to fire bidirectionally, interact with each other through purely electrical gap junctions, and to be affected by substances other than neurotransmitters such as neuropeptides and cytokines (Keijzer et al., 2013).