Maybe I’m missing something here. That’s entirely possible. I’m no stranger to the concept of radical embodied cognition (REC). Although I’ve only recently come across this new approach to cognitive neuroscience, I’ve believed it for years. It’s how I’ve long understood much that I believe about the brain and its difficulties after concussion / mild TBI.
In short, I believe that a brain injury, no matter how initially mild, can unleash holy hell on the injured party — not due to the initial injury itself (though the axonal shearing / diffuse axonal injury and acute neurometabolic cascade don’t help matters any), but through the extended disruption of the overall “cognitive ecosystem” — a network which includes brain and body and external environment. Disruption to the external environment includes strained social connections, interruptions to interpersonal intimacies, as well as disruptions of the perceptual processes which enable cognitive contributions of brain and body.
So, REC really offers a fantastic scientific approach — with an emerging body of research (woot! woot!) to substantiate its claims.
So, I’ve been reading a bit about it. On Saturday, I read Andrew D. Wilson’s and Sabrina Golonka’s 2013 paper “Embodied cognition is not what you think it is” and I really enjoyed it – particularly the parts about REC discussing a replacement hypothesis of embodied cognition.
… if perception-action couplings and resources distributed over brain, body, and environment are substantial participants in cognition, then the need for the specific objects and processes of standard cognitive psychology (concepts, internally represented competence, and knowledge) goes away, to be replaced by very different objects and processes (most commonly perception-action couplings forming non-linear dynamical systems, e.g., van Gelder, 1995).
At first glance, it seemed to make sense. Standard cognitive explanations for behavior have never sufficed for me. They’ve always seemed to fall short — and I attributed that failing to their myopic avoidance of environmental interactions, including physiological ones.
But I’ve been puzzling for the past 24 hours about how REC can support a “replacement hypothesis”, where the representations and processes of the brain can be replaced by an embodied cognition approach.
If REC by definition involves the entire “cognitive ecosystem” of brain, body, and environment, how can we possibly get rid of the computational piece of neurological understanding? Seems to me, it’s part of it. And while I do believe we need to extend our understanding beyond the echo chamber of the representational view (which seems an echo chamber par excellence), I think that dismissing it outright and replacing it with something else actually costs us something valuable — something we can use.
The need to replace one theory with another strikes me as a bit too narrow. It’s territorial, and the either-or approach comes with a cost. It also provokes push-back from perfectly capable and skilled individuals, who could actually contribute their expertise and insights in a constructive way.
It makes no sense to me, to kick the cognitive psychology folks to the curb, when the areas they’re focusing on are actually part-and-parcel of the full cognitive ecosystem. Rather than excluding and narrowing, why not include and expand? There’s some seriously interesting work being done in a multitude of areas, and I believe if we follow them all to their logical conclusions, their findings can — and will — strengthen the whole, rather than limit it.
For my money, I think these theories can all strengthen and enrich each other. We don’t necessarily need to dismiss one to make room for the other. They can act like layers in a fine piece of laminated furniture — all the more beautiful for their contrasts. They can add much-needed dimensions to the discussion, covering similar territory in very different ways.
If our embodied cognition really consists of everything, how can we comfortably dismiss/replace anything?