Research

Members of this research group have a wide range of interests that are unified by their shared basis in new approaches to cognitive science. In particular, we try to understand the mind in terms of the properties that make it:

Embodied

Many forms of cognition are more efficiently realized via our bodily interactions with the environment and with others: manipulating code on the computer helps to understand it more than trying to abstractly represent its logic in our head, leaving a note on our desk makes it easier to remember things when we come across it the next morning, discussing an issue with a colleague increases the likelihood of finding a solution, etc..

In addition, treating the mind as embodied opens up a way of thinking of the body as inherently expressive rather than as only a mechanical process that executes pre-planned motions. For instance, the felt quality of a smile cannot be divorced from how it is realized in our face. Similarly, in some cases a goal or intention is intrinsic to the movement that brings about its completion; when I find myself reaching for the coffee cup then I realize what I want and my arm and hand spontaneously take care of the rest.

An interesting upshot of the embodied mind is that it is arguably much less opaque for other people than is commonly assumed in social cognition research. What you perceive is me reaching for my coffee cup in order to take a sip, and not merely some meaningless movement whose purpose has to be secondarily derived.

Embedded

The embodied mind cannot be conceived of in isolation from its environment; it is always already embedded and situated in a worldly context that is co-defined by bodily capacities and geared towards current concerns and goals. This context offers affordances for interaction that are directly perceived in a meaningful manner. The steaming coffee cup is directly perceived as being there for drinking coffee.

Affordances and bodily capacities should be understood in a relational manner: a coffee cup would not afford picking up for a fly, although the cup may present it with other affordances like walking on its rim; a whale’s flippers can only produce locomotion in an aquatic environment and would not have this capacity on land. Cognition in general is no different, it is always relative to a specific organism and to a concrete situation. Humans have exploited this property to great effect by building more complex niches than any other organism: the cultural and technological world.

Growing up in this human niche has the effect of scaffolding and shaping the mind into its most complex forms of expression. This is where the approaches of 4E cognition provide new foundations for the traditional focus of cognitive science on abstract thought. We can only attain the highest reaches of rationality and objectivity by becoming enculturated into tool-use, language, writing, logic, etc..

Extended

Where are the boundaries of mind when we engage in such enculturated practices? If the devices we use help us to realize processes that we normally consider to be cognitive, such as using pen and paper or a calculator to work through some equations, then arguably we should include these processes – even if they are taking place outside of the body – as part of the constitutive basis of cognition.

The possibility that mind is extended is not just philosophical speculation. Where we draw the boundaries of mind can have a profound impact on real lives. If the niches in which we live are partially constitutive of our cognitive capacities then manipulating them can increase or decrease those capacities. A person suffering from Alzheimer’s disease may remain largely self-sufficient when living in their home, which has been shaped by a long history of interactions to scaffold their behavioral routines, but is likely to lose some of that capacity for independence upon being transferred to an unfamiliar care facility.

A particularly interesting opportunity for the investigation of the extended mind is given by mental processes that are realized in interaction with others. It is well known that the presence of others can empower and/or impede our cognitive capacities. This is hard to explain if one assumes that the underlying processes are completely isolated within individual brains, but it becomes intuitive if we accept that cognition can become extended into the world during interaction (including with others). Others can facilitate or hinder the unfolding of mental processes. Indeed, social interaction may be the most powerful force of scaffolding there is; it is the basis for enculturation.

Enactive

The enactive approach has a special take on each of the previous Es. For example, it holds that the mind cannot be embodied in just any kind of physical system; embodiment refers to a biological body – a living system. The living body is a special system because it is self-producing and adaptive. This living body produces its own identity as the kind of system it is at the same time as it materially distinguishes itself from the rest of the physical environment, an environment on which it nevertheless continues to depend to satisfy its needs via energetic and material exchanges.

This precarious situation is at the root of the embodied mind’s concerned existence, and grounds the normativity that is guiding the adaptive regulation of its interactions with the environment. On this view, there is no essential difference between acting and perceiving; both are activities realized in terms of a sensorimotor loop. This loop is a property of the organism-environment system as a whole, thereby making an extended mind the default mode of mind in general rather than just a special, mainly human case.

Finally, the enactive approach does not shy away from reflexivity. It takes it as given that we have a living body too and we therefore know that it can be experienced subjectively from the inside as well objectively from the outside: a living body can be a lived body. This emphasis on taking seriously the first-person subjective perspective aligns the enactive approach with the phenomenological tradition in philosophy. It also shares its interest in intersubjectivity given that our reality is a social reality.

Methods

This research group takes advantage of the latest developments in computer science and complex systems theory to explore and explain various aspects of 4E cognition. Its main tools are drawn from the fields of artificial life and human-computer interaction, in particular evolutionary robotics, artificial neural networks, agent-based models, virtual reality, and sensory substitution interfaces.

References

The following textbooks are some classical and recent references that provide much of the foundations for contemporary 4E cognition research.

  • Clark, A. (2014). Mindware: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Cognitive Science (second ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Gallagher, S. (2005). How the Body Shapes the Mind. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Gallagher, S., & Zahavi, D. (2012). The Phenomenological Mind (second ed.). Oxon, UK
  • Hutchins, E. (1995). Cognition in the Wild. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
  • Hutto, D. D., & Myin, E. (2013). Radicalizing Enactivism: Basic Minds without Content. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
  • Kelso, J. A. S. (1995). Dynamic Patterns: The Self-Organization of Brain and Behavior. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
  • Malafouris, L. (2013). How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
  • Maturana, H. R., & Varela, F. J. (1987). The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Boston, MA: Shambhala
  • Noë, A. (2004). Action in Perception. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
  • Nolfi, S., & Floreano, D. (2000). Evolutionary Robotics: The Biology, Intelligence, and Technology of Self-Organizing Machines. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
  • Pfeifer, R., & Bongard, J. C. (2007). How the Body Shapes the Way We Think: A New View of Intelligence. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
  • Thelen, E., & Smith, L. B. (1994). A Dynamical Systems Approach to the Development of Cognition and Action. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
  • Thompson, E. (2007). Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
  • Varela, F. J., Thompson, E., & Rosch, E. (1991). The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
  • Wheeler, M. (2005). Reconstructing the Cognitive World: The Next Step. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

The following articles also introduce the diverse research strands of 4E cognition: