A non-content brain. 2/2

There is some misreading of Ecological Psychology due to the way direct perception and information detection are spoken about. Direct perception seems to carry with it a connotation of specificity (guarantee), that the world is in the specific way it is seen, we cannot be wrong and we have all of it available at once. There is an explicit rejection of the poverty of the stimulus. But pause here a second, because this is what information detection is about.

First, the production of photons exist regardless of my existence. They will bounce around on surfaces, be partly absorbed/reflected depending on surface makeup, and create structure (if we were to put an observer somewhere in this space). In this instance, it would be most appropriate to simply refer to this as the optic array, or structured light. It is not that this structure carries content, it simply is structured (and continuously re-restructured) in a manner specific, and guaranteed, by the surfaces around it and the medium(s) by which it came to any specific point.

Second, for a very long time, organisms have grown to be able to detect such structures. I cannot remember the organism, I think it’s a deep water fish, but a precursor to our eyes was sensitive only to ‘light’ or nothing. Since, eyes seemed to catch on as an important way (in an evolutionary sense) to keep developing, which in our case meant becoming more and more sensitive to the structure that light carries with it. There is no reason to believe that at once, in any given slice of time, that we can perceive all of the structures that light carries with it. ‘We see what we see’ and if we want to see more, we have to explore whatever we are trying to see by moving, to literally detect structure that may be occluded to us from one vantage point (like “illusions”), or, we simply have not looked at something for enough time that we have yet to learn to discriminate between smaller differences in structure in the optic array. I can, in the end, come to the same or a different conclusion about what I saw, depending on the history with which I came into the situation, but also depending on which parts of the array I was detecting, or trying to detect, at the time.

Third, we see and hear and detect pressure and other things at the location at which that information is available (but as you might expect, we do not necessarily detect it, but, we have the possibility to). The firing of cells in the eye that propagate to the brain, never held content, and was always in a ‘language neutral’, ‘symbol neutral’, non-content “signal”.

However. Vicente Raja Galian pointed out that so far, I have yet to assign any function to the brain, and it seems appropriate that we should since it is a curious structure and we have kept it evolutionarily. Keeping a biological structure does not entail function or even importance (in the strictest interpretation of the word), but it seems to me to be a very valid point. So far, I am having issues arguing against that the brain is for ‘where’ (on/in the body) and ‘in what order’. Something is detected at the foot as intense pressure, I look down and see a dog biting it, this (in a sense) creates a loop where whatever signals are propagated back from the retina together with the pressure of the foot are happening simultaneously. There is simultaneous increased firing from two directions into the brain. Solely by being simultaneous in a close (geographically) space, intertwines the two. Experience does not happen in the brain, it happens in the relationship between body and environment, but one thing happening before, after or simultaneously, may come to be through having a space within a body where the ‘where and when’ co-exists. Because a lot of neural propagation going on in the body, in one way or another, travels to one collected structure, the brain. No content is needed, all we need to “know” is where and when, which is simply (although plastic) a matter of bodily geography.

I also have a sneaking suspicion that the brain is for drawn-ness and repulsion, but that currently requires more thought and explication before I feel comfortable laying it out publically.

A non-content brain. 1/2

In search for a non-content perspective of brain activity, I often feel I come up empty handed. Either non-content is not really directly spoken about (e.g. Anderson, 2014, and isn’t really intended to -it does however very importantly free us from other assumptions), or when a positive account is languaged like “but the brain does this or that” is more confusing to me than clarifying. So I’ve been criticized for not having my own positive account, or even a reasonable idea of what I expect or accept as a good answer. So here’s a minimal start.

With a non-content view of the brain, I mean that, any and all activity in the brain is not representational, symbolic, or in any way carries any content in the sense that if I show you a picture of a cat then your cat neurons are firing (simplified of course). To clarify this further, Anderson to me gets close, talking about the brain in a functional sense, non-reductionally. Instead, everything “magic” already happens in a) the continuously ongoing relationship in a given organism-environment system, but importantly, b) in the sensory system(s) (e.g. eyes, ears, legs, body at large, etc.).

All that really would happen after sense-making at the sensory system organs, would be probabilistic (and likely functional as Anderson suggests) networks of directed firing. I mean this in quite a specific way. For example, eyes connect to brain at specific sites, electrical signals propagate from eye to brain at specific sites and an initial direction, but after that, neuronal firing is (due to specific reasons) a matter of what current state immediately neighbouring neurons are in. So, if one neighbour is in post-firing and another not, the latter has a higher likelihood of firing. At a larger scale, what we will see in an image of the brain is a dendritic spreading that at the time is part stochastic (and re-used) because neurons in this sense are non-essential. Of course, if a network of neurons (with part stochastic spread) are firing together, like the oscillators they are, they are more likely to fire together again at a short time scale (they are also likely to fire together again at a longer time scale, but less so. Here is where a lot of the misinterpreting of brain images (by cognitivists usually) exist if you ask me, neurons and often networks of neurons are seen as essential or carrying content so we make a one-to-one mapping between an image of a cat and the specific neurons that are firing -but there are far too many confounds for this to be a confident finding.

Like anything dynamic systems tells us, future (or current) state depends on the history of the system, and because there is no real beginning to any one individual’s brain activation, I cannot bring myself to believe that the brain ‘starts a series of neuronal firings to achieve a body movement’. Body movement is in relation to environment, that’s where the decision is made to move a certain way, that’s where “cognition” is. Actually moving a body part, yes, that is connected to brain firing -but not (necessarily) in a causal manner. Direction, intentionality, agency, mind, is not in the brain, it is in the relationship between organism and environment, a course of body movements is already given by that relationship, at most and only in this sense, is the brain a “mediating” structure.

An aside. Blood flow through the brain is already always ongoing. Co-developing with all our other organs, will also play a (perhaps minor) part in where and how a probabilistic dendritic neuronal network of firing will move through the brain. Then, wherever that was, will need more blood flow (as is the basis of most imaging techniques), however (and again), because the route through the brain is part stochastic anyways, it makes no sense to talk about brain regions, networks, or neurons in any detached, representational, contenty, essential, manner. Re-use, on the other hand, and functional (roughly similar from time 1 to time 2) networks of firing, over time, is what the brain is up to. Because of this, with current imaging techniques, they can get us worse or better probabilities of ‘what’s going on’, and interventions can hit or miss depending on individual and time of intervention. But if you are interested in human behavior, it is probably not the most productive scale or scope at which to analyse it (although there’ll be some absolutely beautiful oscillator dynamics going on at a neuronal level).

The first response ever to anything non-representational, ‘yeah, well, how do you explain closing your eyes and thinking to yourself “I am going to move my hand now” and then move your hand?’ Well, firstly, the question already assumes the brain did it, so it is always an unfair question. But. Nevertheless it needs to be answered. As always, closing your eyes and remaining still isn’t some kind of magical state where you are closed off to the world, you are still continuously co-constituted with it. In fact, I can predict that sentence above to be said because of the type of conversation we are having -the history of the system already determines and constrains direction and force into and with the future. But most importantly, the experience of the “decision” in the ‘word-sentence’ that you are thinking doesn’t ‘come from’/isn’t instantiated in the brain, it is already a decided course due to the relationship between you and the environment that you are in -alike other body movement through the world. I could respond and say “do you know how many people choose their arm/hand to move when we get to this point in the conversation? 100% so far”, that is how constraining our history is (and the direction it already gives us) even on a short timescale. You could respond “ok well now I can think of anything and maybe I won’t even move, just think that I will but don’t”, and we can go around forever in this type of dialogue, entrenching us further into that dissonant attractor state. The last point is, that question doesn’t really tell us what is going on, at worst it is a defensive reaction, at best a curiosity that likely can be satisfied empirically or by appealing to the continuously ongoing activity of our senses and sense-making.

Theory of Mind really is dead.

First conference talk and proceedings publication!

Going to CogSci17 in London this summer for my first research presentation, the paper is to be published in the proceedings (and can be found here). Here’s the abstract:

The actualization of affordances can often be accomplished in numerous, equifinal ways. For instance, an individual could discard an item in a rubbish bin by walking over and dropping it, or by throwing it from a distance. The aim of the current study was to investigate the behavioral dynamics associated with such metastability using a ball-to-bin transportation task. Using time-interval between sequential ball-presentation as a control parameter, participants transported balls from a pickup location to a drop-off bin 9m away. A high degree of variability in task-actualization was expected and found, and the Cusp Catatrophe model was used to understand how this behavioral variability emerged as a function of hard (time interval) and soft (e.g. motivation) task dynamic constraints. Simulations demonstrated that this two parameter state manifold could capture the wide range of participant behaviors, and explain how these behaviors naturally emerge in an under-constrained task context.

Keywords: affordances, dynamic systems, cusp catastrophe, dynamic modeling, simulations, constraints

Has “Has Milgram been misunderstood?” misunderstood Milgram?

Short article here. So this will be short too.

“This new analysis suggests that we may have misunderstood the ethical as well as the theoretical issues raised by Milgram’s studies. We need to ask whether it is right to protect participants’ own wellbeing by leading them to think that harming the wellbeing of others can be justified as long as it is in a good cause.”

There seems to be something missing here. What was unethical wasn’t ‘causing someone harm’, because it is not what actually happened in the experiment. It was debriefed that they hadn’t harmed someone. So Milgram didn’t excuse the behaviour in the experiment by justifying it being for a good cause, however, he justified the deception by saying it was for the greater good. And it worked (according to his book and to the authors of the article). The ethical discrepancy rather is; is it ethically sound to temporarily cause participants distress? Even if debriefing removes this distress? Is it ok if the means justify the ends…

My own contention about Milgram’s study is that, while it seems his means were worth the end, the thing is that prior to running the experiment we could not know if it was going to gain us anything. Even opinion stated that nothing exciting would come from it (by researchers’ and students’ best estimates), finding out that that wasn’t case, could be argued to justify the means. But only in retrospect. A “luxury” we most definitely don’t have today.

I have however not read the paper that the article is based off of. So perhaps I am misunderstanding the misunderstood Milgram misinterpretation.

Statistics > Philosophy … I disagree, sir, I disagree.

Mathematics preferred over creativity and critical thinking, I’m sad to announce.

Last year I tutored students in Philosophy of Science in Psychology, I did it because I wanted to, because I love teaching, because I had taken the class the previous semester and saw peers struggle, because I wanted to learn from my own tutor and gain experience for my (hopefully) future job. All students in the class passed and I received excellent feedback from students.
I attempted to get paid for my services this year since I can’t take student loans any more and need to get a “real job”… so sent e-mails to the right people and received a response; “while we appreciate the effort you have put into the course, we are focusing on the statistics-part of the three courses A, B and C and there is unfortunately no room in the economy for tutors in Philosophy of Science in Psychology”.
I think philosophy is at least as important as statistics. Philosophy taught me (amongst a massive number of things) how to look at a study and then neatly pick out what the actual arguments and conclusions are based on which data and analyses are presented (and not presented). Statistics taught me to mass-produce those arguments and conclusions, and reading (even published) articles it is not clear that everyone understands what they are producing..
It’s like .. I’m having a hard time thinking of a metaphor.. Sigh.. It’s like anything else you do.. Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you can.. Oh nevermind. No example. My point is, it would have been reassuring to see other parts than statistics be prioritised and valued by higher-ups, could have given a broader base to stand on and larger understanding of the tools (including statistics) we use in psychological research.

Pragmatic case studies as a source of unity in applied psychology. (6/19)

Article 6 of 19 in Eric Charles’ Special Issue of Review of General Psychology
Author, Daniel Fishman and Stanley Messer; in Review of General Psychology, 2013, 17(2), p. 156-161.

A very interesting perspective put forward here, and from an angle that I have little insight into but am fascinated by.

To exemplify that pluralism benefits all involved perspectives, four different therapeutic processes/techniques are discussed. It is clear that they have benefits and drawbacks and that they complement each other and are appropriate situationally. A parallel can be drawn here to the different philosophical backdrops used in psychology; social constructionism is an excellent diplomat in that it takes into consideration all opinions, critical realism is humble in its acknowledgement that we may not be perceiving reality for what it is and so on, and so forth. It thus forms valuable insight into the perspective from applied psychology.

“Thus, as mentioned above, treating theories as complementary conceptual tools, rather than as competitors for a single truth, can enhance the effectiveness of applied psychological interventions, like psychotherapy.” (p. 158).  This is a neat idea for the unification of applied psychology. I would be very interested to read about how it would relate to basic psychology. Simply multiple-theory-based perspectives? The danger I think is that it might be more clear cut in applied psychology.

“It emerges from a search for a third way out of psychology’s present “culture wars” between modern/positivist and postmodern/constructivist visions of psychology. These culture wars undermine unity in applied psychology and draw resources away from practical problem-solving (i.e. , directed toward today’s pressing psychological and social issues)” (p. 158). Well this certainly applies to basic psychology also, considering for example quantitative and qualitative psychology (an example of this can actually be found in the previous article).

It is proposed that “the ultimate purpose of applied psychological knowledge is to improve the condition of actual clients within the complexities of their reality” (p. 159) and that case studies in applied psychology should form a large database and knowledge be built up inductively. I can’t help but think here that in medical science this works great, how would it fare in a discipline with few agreed upon tenets? Also, how does this suggestion apply to less clearly practically applied psychological areas? Those interested in the most basic theoretical work in psychology can only by several steps come down to a practical level and if focus is pragmatist, will they be able to pursue their interest? It is however a fantastic idea and I hope this last concern could be adressed.

The only other issue I can think of is that I believe we still need a shared ontological basis, otherwise the keywords in the database will confuse when one concept has several definitions. How could this be controlled for? Agreed upon?

“The long journey to unity in applied psychology (and perhaps in basic psychology also) starts with a single, individual case.” (p. 160) I can understand that this most definitely could work in applied psychology, it mimics the medical science recipe in part. Can we have this in basic psychology? Single cases count for little because of the types of questions asked, methodology used and statistics applied -how would basic psychology have to change?

The Fragmented Object: Building Disciplinary Coherence Through a Contextual Unit of Analysis (5/19)

Article 5 of 19 in Eric Charles’ Special Issue of Review of General Psychology
Author, Joshua W. Clegg; in Review of General Psychology, 2013, 17(2), p. 151-155.

There are some very interesting perspectives on unification in this article, for one, it is proposed that there are three approaches to unification; reductionism, pluralism and specialisation. This is a valuable categorisation, as is the later proposal, to combine pluralism and reductionism, however, I disagree with what the solution to a unified psychology would be: One of the arguments in the article “is that fragmentation is written into our discipline at the most basic level, -namely, in our objectivist unit of psychological analysis- and so, any hope for a coherent approach to psychological knowledge must begin with a move toward a more contextual way of framing our phenomena.” (p. 151). Dr. Clegg makes the point that we can’t understand without context and that the current, decontextualised, unit of psychology doesn’t do the job. The opposite argument has been proposed for quite some time now (that we have to be as objective as possible to do science) and it is not the best argument, neither is the opposite..

There are other curious quotes and ideas that I agree or disagree with, but it is outside the scope of unifying psychology, so I will leave the article with the above reflection.

Radical embodied cognitive science. (4/19)

Article 4 of 19 in Eric Charles’ Special Issue of Review of General Psychology
Author, Anthony Chemero; in Review of General Psychology, 2013, 17(2), p. 145-150.

I agree with Chemero’s theoretical perspective, and I believe rECS built on top of Gibson’s Ecological Psychology complements the latter. I believe it does so because questions asked in EP seem to me to be more about the absolute basis on how animals exist in the world (why, is answered by evolution), questions in rECS ask more specifically how we interact with stuffs in the world and why. Neat.

However, specific to the article, I only have one point of disagreement. The last paragraph. “Is Radical Embodied Cognitive Science the Right Way to Do Psychology?” (p. 149). I don’t understand the question.

“It seems prudent to adopt a pluralistic stance toward theorizing in psychology.” “The mind, I submit, is just as complicated as the Mississippi River, and it would be shocking if just one style of explanation could account for all of it.” I am partly stumped for words. Where is the full avant garde against representations and that we can do just as well without them? I’m not advocating dismissing a perspective outright, and while I agree that there are issues calling things right and wrong, it can impossibly be correct both to stipulate the non-existence of representations to be a core value and also state that it is an alternative to use in psychology. Ontologically even, it cannot both be and not be (unless representations are Schrodinger’s cat). On the other hand, it may be easier to explain more complex cognitive experiences with representations, but here I believe empiricism has to supercede pragmatism. How else can we become a unified paradigm?

It seems to me that Dr. Chemero has come to the conclusion that all we have in psychology are perspectives, different ways of seeing the same thing.. I am not ready to concede to this quite yet.

Psychology: The empirical study of epistemology and phenomenology. (3/19)

Article 3 of 19 in Eric Charles’ Special Issue of Review of General Psychology
Author, Eric Charles; in Review of General Psychology, 2013, 17(2), p. 140-144.

Already in the abstract I realised something that has felt like a missing puzzle piece since I began reviewing literature for my Master Thesis on the philosophical backdrop of representationalism. Why is language so important to claim for themselves ontologically? Well, it struck me that current cognitive psychology hasn’t come very far away from behaviourist ideas after all. They still base experiments off of observable behaviour, the only difference is that it is used as inferences towards assumed, unobservable, inner entities. It is not an excellent assumption (although it has to be said that it is an utterly brilliant and ingenious step by, amongst others, Fodor). No wonder then that language became so central to claim, it can be seen as a bridge between inner stuff and observable stuff. Descartes’ ideas about the pituitary gland being the place where matter and non-matter interacted pales in comparison. Representationalists needs language to be inner stuff so that representations gain a tangible, corporeal basis. It is necessary to be able to call representations a monist/realist, and not a dualist/idealist, assumption. This fails however when seeing language as verbal behaviour.

Apologies for the side-tracking.

Eric Charles’ article also evoked another line of thought, what does it actually mean to unify psychology? What is it that needs to be shared between all divisions? Methodology? Concepts under study? It seems to me to need a discussion on a meta-level of what we think needs and wants uniting. My own answer to this is relatively simple, we need to share ontological assumptions, the rest is a matter of individual interest (but admittedly, I am constantly questioning this idea also). This is where Eric Charles’ article comes in.

The title aptly captures what is argued for to be the overarching goal of psychologists and I can’t help but wonder if a goal on this level of philosophy is exactly what is needed. As Eric Charles argues for in the article, it allows psychologists to pursue their individual interests, but under one overarching goal.

Although I will not give specific examples here (read the article!), my opinion is that Eric Charles arguments support his conclusion strongly. The conclusion I come to is that having “The empirical study of epistemology and phenomenology” as a unifier can become very productive as a top-down definition for a future unified field. This is one of the parts that needs to be in place for us to have one paradigm at all.

The only snag I feel worth mentioning, is essentially a very basic one. Dividing epistemology and phenomenology into two concepts, has the possibility to misguide. Phenomenology, or experience of the world, has historically led to dualistic concepts and ideas and while I understand that this is most definitely not the intention with this division, it may perpetuate that undertone. This is of course easily remedied by clarifying the definition of experience, just that, given as a question to different fields of study, we will end up with different definitions. This is why I believe we need a common ontological basis to stand on, but, I have already mentioned that the top-down definition is one of several parts that need to be in place and so is not to blame for other areas of inquiry.

A Natural Science of Behaviour (2/19)

Article 2 of 19 in Eric Charles’ Special Issue of Review of General Psychology
Author, A. Charles Catania; in Review of General Psychology, 2013, 17(2), p. 133-139.

Catania argues strongly for “Treating language as verbal behavior [because that] brings it within the purview of a unified account of human action.” (p. 133) and “My argument here is that psychological science cannot survive other than as a science of behavior; further, if it is a science of behavior it must be intimately tied to the biological sciences.” (p. 134). One of the reasons believed to be why we are reluctant to see language as a behaviour is that “We are all so immersed in language that we find it difficult to treat it as a variety of behavior, and yet the functions of verbal behavior are crucial to our understanding of human behavior.” (p.137), and I fully agree. It is often argued that psychology cannot be studied like other sciences because we have a “subjective” view of our subject matter, I just don’t believe that to be the case. What I do accept however is that since we are humans and are accustomed to being humans, it is easy to oversee assumptions we make about ourselves due to this very subjective perspective. I therefore agree in full that a large reason for many different criticisms against language as a behaviour, stems from an unwillingness to realise that we are creatures of habit, and as such can oversee the “simple” assumptions that shape the way we see ourselves.

A central argument in why we should view language as a behaviour is that it enables us to draw parallels to biology; “The verbal behavior that survives within the members of a group is part of that group’s culture, but the sharing of cultural elements need not be correlated with genetic relatedness; one need not be closely related to Darwin or to Skinner to repeat their words. Viewing verbal behavior as selected has the advantage of involving units with measurable dimensions comparable to units selected at the other levels.” (p. 137). This is to me a strong reason to use such a perspective. It puts a framework around verbal behaviour that is parallel to the mechanics of evolution -Catania makes a convincing empirical case for the successes of this perspective.

Lastly, I am unsure if I misunderstand or not, but at times there is a very strong push on behaviour as a central focus. Coming from an ecological background, it seems to me to make less sense to focus on one part of a process spanning environment, body and brain. At other places in the article however, it seems as though the author would agree to this. I believe that this perspective is brilliant to use if you want to study behaviour over phylogenetic, ontogenetic and cultural perspectives as reinforced/extinct/etc. The specific questions answered by this perspective seems to be defined by the timeframe you are seeking to adress, very interesting indeed!

In light of the previous article in the series (and my previous blogpost), are they compatible with each other? The focus in Anderson’s article is on a specific process, one that is a part of many different psychological divisions. My conclusion was that it is less of a unifier but universally applicable. I fear that Catania’s perspective seems to join it, because, although behaviour is a central concept regardless of which perspective is taken, it will most probably always be claimed as a part of a larger process. With that said, Catania’s perspective on behaviour aligns it very nicely with biology, something it has in common with ecological psychology and embodied cognition, very useful.