What in the world is the brain necessarily up to?

Some simple reflections on ‘necessariness’

How we consciously experience the world is not necessarily a reflection of what the brain is doing. While it is fully possible to assume that the brain does a bunch of things, I find it a better way of going about things to notassume that the brain does more than necessary. Is it possible that we internalize the world and represent it in our mind? Yes. Is it necessarily so? No. What then are the most basic abilities our brain necessarily has in order for us to function successfully in the world? In my perspective, it is necessary for our brain to perceive change in a meaningful way across all sensory modalities, inform each other and produce motor-movement.

·         Change here is defined as whatever is discernible to our senses from something else.

·         Meaningful here is defined as; Experiments where we do not see change, it is often in situations where change would not matter for our safety or well-being. Changing words in a text when someone isn’t looking and other change-blindness experiments, is non-threatening and not a part of the current goal of the situation, thus, non-meaningful. Even in repeating a pattern of coloured blocks, and changing the colour of completed blocks, is non-meaningful in the sense that, in a first person perspective a part turns non-meaningful when it has been completed (but obviously not in an objective sense, where the overarching goal is to create the same pattern of colour for all parts of the picture).

Change is something that could be universal within the brain and wherever our sensory organs connect with the brain, enables cells to activate on change, as well as connect to all other modalities. Detecting change is necessary, because without it we could not navigate through the environment. This all necessarily needs to be connected to motor-movement of our bodies, because without it we couldn’t respond to these changes. Why then aren’t representations necessary? Because of the simple fact that we do not need to internalize the world in order to successfully navigate in it. The Portia spider and Webb’s crickets in Louise Barrett’s Beyond the Brain exemplifies this. Does all of this mean that we don’t internalize the world and create “representations”? No. However, in order for us to conduct science, we need to criticize and reflect upon the assumptions we make about ourselves –even the ones that seem to make sense in regard to conscious experience as well as the concepts standing for invisible inner processing.
I believe it too indulgent to see the brain as an infinitely complex organ, I just do not believe it to be the pinnacle of evolution. We just make far too many mistakes. I also believe that internalizing every single object that exist through our contact with them makes little sense too. The amount of cognitive load that this requires, in terms of representations, computation, memory and other concepts created by traditional cognitive literature, seems to me to be all too overwhelming. While it is true our brain allows us to act in ways afforded to few other animals, we are still animals and we are not too different from other animals either. In my mind then, it is simply more probable that our brain evolved to sufficiently solve navigating our environment in a cost-effective way, rather than overkill with extreme specialisation. Evolution should have selected for the simplest possible way to achieve, shouldn’t it?

Embodied emotion?

A quick note on EC and the lack of discussion on emotion. Becoming fascinated by the Embodied Cognition approach championed by, amongst many others, Barrett (2011), Wilson & Golonka (2012) and Nöe (2009) I find the embodied approach to enable explanation of behaviour without the use of representations. As taught through philosophy, the less assumptions a theory makes about the world, still being able to explain the phenomenon, the better science we are producing. While there are personal and emotional resistances to the idea that cognition belongs more so in the dynamic reciprocal relationship with the environment, body and brain rather than solely in the brain, I have found one area of discussion lacking. That of emotion.

[Edit 22/02/2013] Semin och Smith’s ‘Embodied grounding…’ has a few chapters on affect. Still emotion seem hard to account for under env-body-brain…

I have long wondered if not our [subjective] experience of emotion may just be the consequence of brain activity [in a horribly general sense, as it obviously does not hold scientifically]. We happen to pay attention to some of it as it blends into the collected sensory experience [and their reciprocal relationship] we call consciousness. This [simplistic] view is not entirely coherent with representationlistic ideas and cognitive research seem to want to put the initiating processes of our inner workings down to cognition, not emotion (however, on occasion emotion is defined within the cognition concept). Where does an embodied cognitive approach consider emotion?

I have, as of yet, not touched upon literature discussing the topic on embodied cognitive terms. I can accept that cognition is not in the brain, or perhaps rather, not solely in the brain. I can accept that perception of our environment is enough to have us experience the world such as that we think it is inside us -because- all we really need in a brain is an elaborate change-detector for all sensory modalities, the ability to form connections between these systems (as if they are separate or “geographically” determined biologically from the start anyways -ferret example in Barrett comes to mind) and the ability to guide motor-movement of our bodies [in relation to what we perceive in our environment and vice versa] (cricket or spider example here) [also connecting this to modalities throughout the brain and body].

However, when it comes to emotion, accepting it as a stimuli-response mechanism, follow representationalist assumptions. Although, some literature would have it that arousal could be enough to place within the brain, then the act of determining what type of arousal (what am I feeling?) would be dependent on the situational, environmental and bodily factors. This is however slightly unsatisfactory since it still seems to rely on representation.

I will thus, for now, await further literature in the embodied cognition perspective that will deal with emotion. If not I get to it first (just have a master thesis in EC to take care of). Suggested literature more than welcome.

Bargh, Doyen and conclusions thereof.

I have just witnessed an interesting phenomenon.

I am concurrently to writing this blog-post, writing a literature review on priming and the Perception-Behaviour Link*. Another paper whom closely replicated the findings of Bargh et al. (1996)*, Doyen et al. (2012)**, were unable to replicate findings as well as provide an interesting demonstration of experimenter expectation. It is however presumptious to assume that the original literature* then also is explained by this bias. The reason is given in a reply by Bargh*** to the Doyen study, basically stating that the experiment was run as a blind study and so experimenter expectation can be safely ruled out. While Bargh’s reply unfortunately contains personal attacks and evidence towards being technologically unwilling, he is defended by others in that his experiment _has_ been replicated successfully and that one study cannot refute several made on the same topic. The studies given (by others than Bargh -he did not give any studies as support in his criticism) as support for this claim are these; Elderly prime effect on simulated driving speed, Gay male prime effect on hostility, elderly or youth prime effect on walking time and accessibility as precursor to goal-fulfilment and high vs. low self-conscious difference in being primed by an elderly stereotype on walking speed (xps 2 & 3). I have reviewed one of these in my literature review and it is at best a conceptual replication with several issues in methodology and statistical interpretation (specifics available on request).

In my book, it is not enough to conceptually replicate, since one is then stuck with reviewing another piece of research with its own flaws and fallacies. Granted, Doyen comes close to replicating but did differ on the point of blind experimenters (it was one of the manipulations in Doyen). The assumption was that Bargh’s work was non-blind (something I came to the conclusion of as well, although I’ve read the paper a gazillion times). This was not the case, and hence, it is also a conceptual replication. What _is_ interesting with the Doyen study is that it still supports the PBL, albeit unintentionally. The most important statistic presented is the believe-slow-walking speed comparison between automatic and manual measurement. Believe-fast-walking’s significant difference was removed when considering both automatic and manual, not so for believe-slow. A last alternative for this significant difference is then experimenter expectation. The thing is though, experimenter expectation is also an environmental stimuli that is unconsciously internalised and evidently had an effect on observable behaviour! Well, this is what the Preception-Behaviour Link strictly posits.

Again, it is a bit of a shame that many of the arguments Bargh uses in his criticism of the Doyen study are arbitrary, unsupported and, on occasion, false in light of other research (even some from the area of priming)****. It does however not reflect on his prior research. In conclusion, Doyen does not specifically cut Bargh’s research down, but rather, introduces another concept able to be accounted for within the Perception-Behaviour Link’s framework.

On a second note, if you have unpublished research on the replication of Bargh et al.’s 1996 study, I would very much like to read it. I believe it is of central importance to be open-minded to one’s own fallacies and others’ criticism (even if I very much like the Perception-Behaviour Link theory), the only way is forward and it is only obstructed when self-preserving opinions and values are set before empirical research.

*Bargh, J.A., Chen, M., & Burrows, L. (1996). Automaticity of social behaviour: Direct effects of trait construct and stereotype activation on action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72, 230-244.
**Doyen, S., Klein, O., Pichon, C., & Cleeremans, A. (2012). Behavioural priming: It’s all in the mind, but whose mind? doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0029081
***Bargh, J.A. (2012, March 5). The natural unconscious: Nothing in their heads. [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-natural-unconscious/201203/nothing-in-their-heads.´
****See comment section of Bargh’s blog post, specifically the one referring to Assimilation and Contrasting (which is found in Dijksterhuis, A., Spears, R., Postmes, T., Stapel, D.A., van Knippenberg, A., & Scheepers, D. (1998). Seeing one thing and doing another: Contrast effects in automatic behaviour. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 862-871.)