Friday, 5 February 2016

On "The poverty of embodied cognition" (Goldinger et al, in press)

A new paper in Psychonomic Bulletin and Review (Goldinger, Papesh, Barnhart, Hansen & Hout, 2015if that link is down, try this Google cache version) has taken a swing at the field of embodied cognition, claiming that it is vague, trivial and unable to add anything scientific to the investigation of cognition.
...our goal is to zoom out from specific empirical debates, asking instead what EC offers to cognitive science in general. To preview, we argue that EC is theoretically vacuous with respect to nearly all cognitive phenomena. EC proponents selectively focus on a subset of domains that work, while ignoring nearly all the bedrock findings that define cognitive science. We also argue that the principles of EC are often (1) co-opted from other sources, such as evolution; (2) vague, such that model building is not feasible; (3) trivially true, offering little new insight; and, occasionally, (4) nonsensical. 
My basic take is a) I actually agree with a lot of the criticisms in the context of the kinds of 'embodied' cognition we critique for similar reasons, but b) there is nothing new to any of these critiques, none of them are compulsory failings of the field and nothing about them makes embodiment an intrinsically empty notion. 

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Information is typically dense and continuous (A Purple Peril)

Optic flow is everywhere, all the time (same with other energy arrays, like the acoustic array). We depend on this fact deeply. When we are cast adrift from information, our behaviour quickly accumulates errors and strays in often disastrous ways. One example is the case of friction, which doesn't exist until two surfaces are in contact and therefore does not create information about itself that is available ahead of that contact. In another example, when cut off from landmarks, people walk in huge circles, getting seriously lost and confused; Souman, Frissen, Sreenivasa & Ernst, 2009). A simple version of this is the game of walking with your eyes closed; you quickly lose all confidence about where you are and what's happening and it's actually very difficult to make yourself walk at normal speed. 

The Perilous proposal is that behaviour emerges in real time, as a function of the current flow of information, and that this flow is typically dense and continuous, not intermittent. I will illustrate this with an example of two designed sets of instructions for navigating though a building, where the dense information set leads to better, more stable behaviour.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

A Quick Review and Analysis of Perceptual Control Theory

Perceptual Control Theory (PCT; Powers, 1973) is a theory that proposes behaviour is about the control of perception. We act so as to keep some perceived part of the world at some state, and it's by doing this to sensible variables that we come to exhibit functional behaviour. People have noted the seeming overlap between PCT and the ecological approach, and it's advocates (mainly Richard Marken and Warren Mansell) all talk about it in revolutionary terms that should also feel a bit familiar.

I first encounted it in the context of an interview with Richard Marken on a now defunct blog (pdf of the archived pagelink to page and scroll down to "Interview with Richard Marken"). Marken and I got into it a bit in the comments, as you will see! I was not impressed. However, Mansell & Marken (2015) have just published what they pitch as a clear exposition of what PCT actually is and how it works. I took the opportunity to read this and evaluate PCT as a 'grand theory of behaviour'.

My basic opinion has not changed. PCT is not wrong in most of it's basic claims, but it has no theory of information or how that information comes to be made or relate to the dynamics of the world. It's an unconstrained model fitting exercise, and it's central ideas simply don't serve as the kind of guide to discovery as a good theory should. Ecological psychology does a much more effective job of solving the relevant problems. 

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Tasks from the First Person Perspective (A Purple Peril)

The great snare of the psychologist is the confusion of his own standpoint with that of the mental fact about which he is making his report. I shall hereafter call this the ‘psychologist’s fallacy’ par excellence.
William James, The Principles of Psychology
This is a video of a baby trying bacon for the first time. The baby gets really really excited, and everyone around him goes 'Ha! Babies love bacon as much as the rest of us, this is great!'. And everyone laughs and cheers.


Except here's the thing. I think what this baby really likes is making his loved ones laugh and cheer. The bacon is fine, but I don't think it's the magical experience his parents assume. They are making the psychologist's fallacy: mistaking what you think is going on for what the person is actually experiencing. (It's our fallacy because our subject matter makes us uniquely susceptible.)

When people come into our labs to take part in experiments, we present them with a situation that we have designed to elicit a specific behaviour from them, and that we manipulate in various ways in order to probe the makeup of that behaviour. We therefore think we know what the person is doing: they are doing the thing we asked them to do. However, this isn't necessarily true, and in order to figure out what our participants did and why, we need to consider how they experienced the experiment. In effect, doing our science right means taking the first person perspective of our participants when we formulate our explanations. 


I take this idea primarily from Louise Barrett's excellent book, Beyond the Brain: How Body & Environment Shape Animal and Human Minds (which I reviewed here). The first couple of chapters spend a lot of time talking about anthropomorphism, and why it's a problem. To be honest, when I read the book I didn't quite know why Louise started with this. But over time, I've realised what an extraordinarily powerful point it is and we now talk about all the time. 


Peril Proposal: The psychologist's fallacy is real, but the ecological approach to understanding task dynamics and the information they create offers a useful framework for avoiding it while we science.

Monday, 14 December 2015

The ecological approach to sporting performance

Last week I took part in a Google Hangout with Mark Upton and Al Smith, who run the sports coaching blog 'My Fastest Mile' and who are generally all about getting sports coaching and training to be more ecological and dynamical. The recorded hangout is here - I assume it's good, I can't watch myself on video without cringing :) I've fleshed out some of these ideas below; please comment below or on Twitter if there's anything you want more on.

We talked perception, affordances and a little about what makes the ecological approach different from more cognitive approaches. There's a lot of detail sitting under the discussion; see, well, the rest of the blog to get a sense of where I'm coming from! I'm not a sports scientist, and so my particular research programme isn't specifically about applying the ecological approach to sports. However, I do study some sports related activity (specifically throwing; see my latest paper, blogged here). 

The main thing that gets applied to sports from the ecological approach is the concept of affordances (which is the topic of that paper). Affordances are cool, obviously, but the thing that makes an approach 'ecological' is a focus on information; how things like affordances are perceived. I wanted to briefly sketch how I see ecological psychology feeding into sports, which I think it's a great idea for everyone involved.

A disclaimer: I am also not a coach. I'm just a scientist. I like to let people know that I know this, because I've found that whenever I interact with practictioners of any kind (coaches, but also occupational therapists, physios etc) there's a real resistance to listening to people like me. I mean, what do we know? We aren't in the trenches, working with the athletes or patients, and our wonderful ideas might simply not apply to the messy real world. I've also chatted to people who felt worried I would be judging their messy actual practice, the one they've put together over years of experiencing the actual needs of the people they help. 

I understand this concern entirely. Let me say, for whatever it's worth, that I am not trying to waltz in, figure out what you're doing wrong and save you with my wonderful theory. I always see my role as just 'the scientist in the conversation'. I'm going to listen to what you actually want to know, and I'm going to see if there's anything I know from what I do that can feed into that process. It will either work or it won't, and that's ok. I get to think about ways to make my science work in an interesting applied high stakes context; I hope you might get some insights into how learning works that help you make sense of what you see in the people you work with. 

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Thoughts on Ding et al (2015) "Cortical tracking of hierarchical linguistic structures in connected speech"

I happened to be reading Cummins (2000) paper “’How does it work?’ vs. ‘What are the laws?’ Two conceptions of psychological explanation”, when my Twitter feed announced that Chomsky was right and we do have grammar in our heads after all. The Twitter buzz concerned a new Nature Neuroscience paper by Ding and colleagues called “Cortical tracking of hierarchical linguistic structures in connected speech.” You can find it online here. Curious whether I needed to completely overhaul my understanding of language, I tracked down the paper and read it this morning. The method employed is sensible, the results are fairly clear, the analyses seem legit (though I’m not a neuroscientist). So, why am I not worried that everything I thought I knew about language is wrong?

Quantifying the Affordances for Throwing for Distance and Accuracy

I have a new paper in press at JEP:HPP (Wilson, Weightman, Bingham & Zhu, in presssupplemental material). It is the end result of five years work across two jobs, and it has involved kinematic data collection from expert throwers in Leeds and Wyoming, analysis of that data, then interpretation of that data in the context of detailed simulations we ran in order to identify the affordance property of the target structuring behaviour. This is my first paper on affordances, my first about my current favourite topic of throwing, and probably the heftiest empirical piece I have ever done, so getting it published in my journal of choice is pretty exciting!

I'm going to just lay out the basic framework of the paper here. I will leave the (very many) details to the paper. The paper consists of two experiments, a series of simulations, and a discussion of affordances as dispositional properties of tasks best described at the level of task dynamics. This last bit feeds into the argument in the (mostly philosophical) literature on the nature of affordances; bad news, people who think they are relations - they aren't, and I've got two experiments that back that up!