But logically, really, how can REC support a “replacement hypothesis”?

replacement-hypothesisThis the question that’s been pestering me for the past day or so.

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?

Wonder on…

Not just a floating brain: Action and Cognition Lab studies human body’s impact on visual perception

brain-blue-patternsThis is an excellent article – and it really helps explain certain mysteries of post-concussion issues. I’m thinking and writing a fair amount about this, these days, tying in “embodied cognition” with the neurofunctional pieces.

Essentially, embodied cognition approaches our cognition as a result of a combination of influences — from inside and outside the brain. There are a number of different “definitions” and approaches, but the one that makes the most sense to me actually replaces the brain-only / mind-only definition of cognition.

I believe that our brain and biology both affects things, and so does our environment. We’re in constant interaction with the world around us, and that interaction is at the heart of our cognitive process. We’re more than brains floating around inside skulls, making up images and meanings and metaphors about our world and where we fit, then acting accordingly. The world around us, in fact, plays a central role in our cognitive process.

It’s fascinating stuff. Take a look:

Not just a floating brain: Action and Cognition Lab studies human body’s impact on visual perception

FARGO — Humans are not just a pair of eyes and a brain floating around.

The idea that humans are active beings with bodies that interact with the environment is at the core of the study of embodied cognition: what a person sees and perceives in the world around them as influenced by aspects of the body beyond the brain. The parts of the brain a person uses to perceive the world are also the same parts of the brain they use to think.

“We’re acting beings who have these bodies that allow us to do things in our environment,” said Laura Thomas, an assistant professor of psychology at North Dakota State University. “The idea is what I’m ready to do with the environment is going to have this interaction with the information that I’m biased to perceive.”

The NDSU Action and Cognition Lab, headed by Thomas, studies the impacts a person’s physical, social and kinetic interactions with the world have on the way the brain processes information. Studies in the lab have found that factors as minor as how a person holds their hands affects their ability to perceive movement or fine spatial details.

“Just being ready to catch a ball or thread a needle will create this subtle bias in terms of what my brain is going to emphasize when I take in that information,” Thomas said.

The lab’s primary study looks at how a person perceives visual information near their hands based on what they are doing with their hands.

Researchers have subjects put their hands in a “power grasp,” with their fists closed as though they are ready to swing a hammer, and perform a task on a computer display. They then have them do the same task with their hands held in a “precision grasp,” as though they are about to tie their shoes or thread a needle, and compare their performance against the same activity done with their hands in their lap.

“We’ve found that if people are holding their hands up on a computer display (in a power grasp), they’re more sensitive to changes in motion information — information that changes quickly over time,” Thomas said. “That’s the kind of visual information that is most useful to me if I’m doing something like trying to catch a ball or swing a hammer.”

“If your hands are positioned (in a precision grasp), you are more likely to respond to visual information that is related to fine spatial details. Little differences between the positions of dots on the screen are going to be easier for you to notice.”

More studies

The other two areas of study in the lab test how social interactions affect what a person sees and the effect of physical motion on thought processes.

The social interaction study tests how people perceive a person’s face if they compete with them versus if they work together on a team.

“We found that if you’re playing against another person — if you’re competing — you remember that person’s face as being more aggressive looking,” Thomas said. “This idea of facial aggression is measured basically by — if you think about a triangle where you’ve got your eyes and your mouth — a triangle that is more scrunched up is more aggressive.”

The study on the impact of physical motion on thought tasks subjects with solving a difficult spatial reasoning problem. The solution to the problem involves swinging a string like a pendulum. The study has found that if they ask subjects to swing their arms back and forth, without telling them it has anything to do with the problem, they are much more likely to solve the problem.

“Movements of the body can serve as primes or triggers to particular types of thought,” Thomas said.

The lab also provides opportunities for undergraduate students to conduct studies. Junior psychology major Hallie Anderson is about to begin a study on the impact handshakes have on business interactions. They are bringing in a grip testing machine to see whether a firm handshake actually yields superior economic results.

“The popular hypothesis would say that the firmness of the handshake would play a factor into who would receive more money in an economic game,” Anderson said. “But I almost think personality will play a factor as well. We’ll see if the handshake itself is making that difference.”

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