I have the wonderful opportunity at the moment to teach methods of Ecological Psychology and Dynamic Systems Theory, their philosophical basis, theoretical concepts, how they require certain analyses, and what kinds of explanations this/these perspective/s give. I am lucky to be in a department that is (as of yet) wholly representation-dominant, yet are curious, interested, and promotes theoretical plurality. I just personally keep running into the wall of not being able to believe in representations as an ontological foundation for psychology.
Perhaps someone can convince me otherwise. Four different ways of defining representations are as follows. The ‘literal-structural’ version, which amounts to old-school phrenology, i.e., it is literally neurons/physical structures in the brain that are/store representations. I do not meet many researchers that hold this belief. Mostly, I find this belief in folk psychology, because I think it is an easily envisionable version that has surface validity through movies and tv-series that talk about brain function in this way (the British “knowledge”-panel program QI is an example of this). Second, you have a ‘literal-activational’ version, which amounts to what I would call modern phrenology, i.e., it is the electrical activity in the brain that are representations. This and the literal-structural version are sometimes unhelpfully combined. fMRI, MRI, PET and similar techniques try to get at this by measuring blood flow to different parts of the brain, although it is an indirect technique since the assumptions go 1) thoughts, feelings, reactions, cognitions, etc, are produced in the brain, 2) in the brain there is electrical activity presumed to indicate usage of a particular brain area, 3) when a brain area is used, increased blood flow is seen to the area, 4) blood flow can indicate brain-part-usage and therefore thoughts, feelings, reactions, cognitions, etc. Third, we leave the literal kinds and hop the fence to ‘symbolic-mathematical’ accounts, that representations aren’t literal parts in the brain, but a more abstract version, instantiated by mathematics. This version is often combined with the methods of the ‘literal-activational’ version, and I’ve listened to several, prominent cognition scholars that have expressed beliefs in how mathematical equations are running in/produced by the brain… somehow. And several of them, upon explaining how the math got there to begin with, used various kinds of nativism as explanations. I’ve also found network-explanations, or ‘patterns of activation across groups of neurons’ and similar, both here and in the fourth grouping. Fourth, the ‘symbolic-abstract’ version, which often amounts to more hand-waving than the third, where representations are not mathematics, they can be groups of patterned activity, sometimes explained as dynamic clouds of activation of different kinds.
I just don’t find myself believing in any of them. With the literal-structural versions, there’s actually been attempts at finding them. Or, they were called Engrams at the time, and could simply not be found. There is little wiggle room in this description, either you can show empirically that a literal neuron/structure changes when you memorize something new or change a memory, or you are more or less forced to accept that this story isn’t the best one. Which is why I think so few ascribe to it beyond non-experts (e.g. folk psychology and AI researchers, the latter of which are almost exclusively dependent on this version).
The literal-activational version is far more popular however. In part, a lot of support comes from the medical sciences, where, if you poke a brain with electricity while talking or playing an instrument, are often disrupted in their activities. Or, if you have particular cognitive issues, a neurosurgeon can often quite easily pick out where a tumor is pushing up against (if you have a tumor, which isn’t always the case). This evidence is a muddle to me, since you can also completely remove brain parts, even half the brain(!), and still maintain functioning -which seems to me to break down the validity of this narrative. It is usually explained away with brain plasticity, but if brain plasticity is true (in reference to literal-activational representations), then the reliability across time when looking at the same brain, or when looking at different brains, break down (Anderson’s book After Phrenology is an interesting read). In fact, if either of the literal accounts are true, we should have specific structures and/or patterns of activation found to be stable across time for a single person, or across people. And if this were substantiated by research and industry, where the f* are our mind-reading helmets? Often when I bring this point up in discussions, neurocognitivists retreat back to neurons and how we don’t have the technical expertise to measure individual neurons in the entire brain simultaneously to answer that question. There are a couple of practices that seem to support the view however, sending a whole bunch of electricity down the spine seems to help people with motor-function constraints to regain/less disruptive movements. Which is great. But it is a far cry from being specific in the sense that’s needed to support the theoretical position. There are also toy versions like moving cubes on a screen using EEG, and beyond taking a surprising amount of time to train, once the person leaves the room and comes back the next day, the process restarts and cannot be continued the next day. I understand this position though, I do, I can deal with living alongside it (although I am extremely frustrated by grant-decisions heavily favoring neuroscience). However, the evidence surrounding it promises a specificity, a specificness, of identifying recurring activation/al patterns, that very clearly both empiricism and practical implementation does not live up to.
We get to the symbolic version of brain activity, particularly mathematical accounts, the story about activation standing in for representations seems to me to either give up the ontological foundation of representations (hand-wavy “it’s maths” explanations), or simply add another step of assumptions to the literal-activational account. Now, not only do you have to solve the above problems, but you also have to explain why a conglomerate of biology-chemical-electrical activity would instantiate an accounting tool that humans created to begin with. A good tool, mind you, but human-created nonetheless. From this point, of course, you get all kinds of half-to-non-scientific abstractions about how everything in the world is made up of mathematics, a tall-tale version of ruthless reductionism, and you of course lose the ontology of the phenomena you are trying to explain. You’d be surprised who I have heard literally say, in very public circumstances, that babies run physics equations in their brain that they are born with. And they are given so much research funding. My personal grievances aside, we have the symbolic-abstract version, which I find the most convincing, perhaps surprisingly. In some ways it can be seen as a less specific version of the literal-activational/structural versions of representations. Often, the explanation begins from the point that larger structures in the brain are not specific specific, but rather, there may be particular patterns of activation across structures that are recruited in a kind of online fashion. The patterns can thus “move around” the brain in part-deterministic-part-stochastic ways, meaning that, if you think about a cat, you come into that time-period from a different point than if you had been asked to think about it the next day. So, a similar pattern would repeat, but, not necessarily the same neurons and not necessarily all the same structures. This account would additionally fit the empirical findings detailed in After Phrenology. It would also explain how fMRI and MRI studies find general trends (averages over both spatial structures, and averages over time -how much time of course depends on imaging technique) across people. However. If this account is true, then I will most likely never get my mind-reading helmet, because it would be near-impossible to know how a particular pattern of activation would only stand for one object, and, what that pattern would look like the next day. Of course, an objection could be that it is not objects that are represented, but everything that we are exposed to continuously at the same time (plus memories, plus …). But then it would be nigh impossible to sort out which components of input lead to what activational pattern, particularly if that pattern changes over each instance. I do have some sympathy for this position though, as it seems to me to better fit more of the empirical data, but it gives a version of representations that is practically unusable except as a theoretical description.
To sum up. The more literal narratives of representations gives promises of specificity (particularly the medically inspired accounts), but this just hasn’t materialized on the practical-functional end, and, there is plenty of contradictory empirical evidence. The symbolic-mathematical perspective seems to explain some of the contradictions due to the shift of ontological basis to mathematics, but this step seems fantastical as it requires another set of beliefs to accept an ontological reality of maths. The world isn’t maths. The world is the world. Although it can be described in detail by maths. Lastly, we have the more symbolic-abstract-network version, which seems to me to cover most of the empirical literature and dispel the contradictions of the literal account. However, this perspective seems to me to not live up to the definition of a representation to begin with, losing the ‘specificness’ of representations that at the outset make them attractive to AI-researchers. In a recent interview with a prominent Ecological Psychological researcher, they were reacted to with a “I don’t see how anything could be anything else than computation”, and I have the exact opposite view, I have a very hard time seeing how anything could really be computational (that says something of value about psychological phenomena beyond simple, mechanical, surface level generalisations).So what is the brain up to? Biology does not preserve components that are not used.
Well, finally, we have the Raja-ian version of brain-activity, but we have left the realm of representations. Where the brain and central nervous system is seen more as a tuning fork, a resonance device, than something harboring ‘the real world’ in one way or another. As a non-content explanation of the brain I have high hopes for this perspective, and perhaps it is compatible with some versions of the abstract-variational-network version of representations (which do not live up to the demands of what a representation would be in the first place). But, just as more literal proponents of representations wait for the technological solutions to their theoretical problems, I’ll have to wait out the empirical evidence and theory-building required for a fuller account of the resonance narrative.