The Interactive Brain Hypothesis

A new paper is now available exploring the implications of participatory sense-making for social neuroscience.

The Interactive Brain Hypothesis

Ezequiel Di Paolo & Hanne De Jaegher

Abstract. Enactive approaches foreground the role of interpersonal interaction in explanations of social understanding. This motivates, in combination with a recent interest in neuroscientific studies involving actual interactions, the question of how interactive processes relate to neural mechanisms involved in social understanding. We introduce the Interactive Brain Hypothesis (IBH) in order to help map the spectrum of possible relations between social interaction and neural processes. The hypothesis states that interactive experience and skills play enabling roles in both the development and current function of social brain mechanisms, even in cases where social understanding happens in the absence of immediate interaction. We examine the plausibility of this hypothesis against developmental and neurobiological evidence and contrast it with the widespread assumption that mindreading is crucial to all social cognition. We describe the elements of social interaction that bear most directly on this hypothesis and discuss the empirical possibilities open to social neuroscience. We propose that the link between coordination dynamics and social understanding can be best grasped by studying transitions between states of coordination. These transitions form part of the self-organization of interaction processes that characterize the dynamics of social engagement. The patterns and synergies of this self-organization help explain how individuals understand each other. Various possibilities for role-taking emerge during interaction, determining a spectrum of participation. This view contrasts sharply with the observational stance that has guided research in social neuroscience until recently. We also introduce the concept of readiness to interact to describe the practices and dispositions that are summoned in situations of social significance (even if not interactive). This latter idea links interactive factors to more classical observational scenarios.

Download your free PDF here:


Di Paolo E and De Jaegher H (2012) The interactive brain hypothesis. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 6:163. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2012.00163


my new windowless existence

I have heard it said before and, for reasons that will soon become apparent, with increased frequency in the last few months, that architects should be obliged to live and work for a few years in the buildings they design. Nothing exaggerated, just a period sufficiently long to allow them to exercise their empathic skills and think of people other than themselves when they start those drawings.

Never mind the moral obligation, it should be a major safeguard that any intelligent society should put into practice to defend itself from the architectural crimes that, through a combination of strong thirst for notoriety and a very weak concern for their victims (I’m not ruling out stupidity plain and simple), they perpetrate on us.

Needless to say, the same should apply even more strongly to those who commission, select, approve and proudly inaugurate such monstrosities. They should move their offices with us into the belly of the whales they help create.

Until now, I have inhabited offices of different qualities, sometimes a bit too hot in summer or not very airy, or without an inspiring view, sometimes small and with furniture that could be better designed for bipeds. But in general I’ve been satisfied with them. I saw other people’s offices in universities around the world and I never thought myself particularly lucky. It turns out I was. I’m only realising this now because I’ve been forced to move to the recently inaugurated Centro Carlos Santamaría of the University of the Basque Country in San Sebastián, Spain. Thus sharing the same fate as some of my postdocs (who for some reason don’t seem to smile as much as they used to).

For the first time I must confront the joys of working in a window-less, air-conditioned, open plan environment, of grey walls, and furniture of a grey so similar that one must make an effort to make it out to avoid walking into a desk or tripping on the cupboard (my first action will be to glue some yellow/green stripes on particularly risky corners). My desk is in a big, 50 sq m room with 4 desks and several empty bookshelves. I was promised a partition so I can have supervision meetings with some pretend privacy – that was more than 7 months ago and I’m still waiting – but that’s early days by local standards. Like this space, parallel rows of several square, grey, window-less, air-conditioned rooms lie one next to the other, with no way of telling whether it’s day or night, except for a tiny 1 sq m glass sealed opening in the ceiling near the entrance.

The building (photo), which also houses the university library is designed along time-honoured principles for academic buildings, such as the principle that too much natural light thwarts knowledge production, that fresh air induces serious risks such as letting the ideas that should legally be the university’s intellectual property float out freely into the world, that recycled and droning air-conditioning is the best way to keep us alert and creative, and that windows are known to be conducive to suicide in academic circles (this one may be true).

Plan of first story of the building where my new office is. My desk will be located in one of the little squares on the right. On the left part of the library where light is less of a problem. There’s also a little garden in the middle, “far from the noises of traffic” where one could expect to find some peace, except nobody is allowed to step into it – we can stare at it through a glass door.

Perhaps this eco-friendly marvel (lights on: check, air-conditioning on: check – and yes, this is in Spain) should be better appreciated along artistic lines (philistine me). Modern art must be painful, says Zizek, and the architect who designed this building must have heard someone mention this at some cocktail party, because the effort was surely put on the pain, if not on the art (logic not being the architect’s forte). The result looks like the dead carcass of a concrete, legless crab after the seagulls have finished with it. Painful, yes.

What kind of brain damage makes a person capable of commissioning, selecting, and accepting such a working environment for academics? What kind of childhood trauma explains their total lack of foresight (and they’d better claim it was lack of foresight because otherwise we need immediately to raise some more difficult questions). I don’t think it’s fair to put the blame on the architect, since we should expect certain lack of common sense within their cast, especially among those that intend to make a name for themselves in their quest for the oddest, most useless, headline-grabbing form; it’s not their fault and they need society’s understanding and care, institutional if possible. It’s the ones who say yes to this who should humbly apologise. Those who once they realised they were actually commissioning an intellectual sweatshop, just didn’t care, or cared as much a 1 sq m glass un-openable aperture in the ceiling – the architectural zenith of last minute decisions – which lets in only enough photons to find the light switch and the thermostat.

Thank you so much… We needed this because we had it so good until now. This building should carry your name too. A bronze plaque with a list of perpetrators, lest we forget. Because in a few years time, when it looks as silly and ridiculously outmoded from the outside as it now does to those who are actually trying to work inside it, they should prevent you from commissioning another one.

The social invisible

Some work takes time to see the light. I’ve decided to post here a series of ideas that remain work in progress, some of them still burning slow while more urgent commitments get the most of my attention.

Here’s the abstract and the slides of a talk I gave in Oct 2010 at a conference on Embodiment, Intersubjectivity and Psychopathology at the University of Heidelberg. This should eventually be worked into a proper publication soon.

The social invisible

Ezequiel Di Paolo,

The enactive approach to life and mind examines the systemic conditions for autonomy, agency and (inter)subjectivity. As defined in this approach, engagement in social interaction is what happens when encounters between autonomous agents acquire a form of autonomy in themselves. However, it is not required yet that I recognise the other as an other. Indeed, it has been empirically demonstrated that social coordination can happen without interactors being aware of each other’s presence. The processes that allow us to interact with others do not all pass through the bottleneck of strictly interpretative acts. What are the phenomenological implications of this?

Interaction dynamics show the same kind of organisational self-reference that defines the autonomy of a single organism and the normativity of its sense-making (its world). In other words, the processes of intra-bodily and inter-bodily coordination are intersecting systemic cousins. I claim that 1) the intersection of intra- and inter-bodily coordination is a condition of possibility for intersubjectivity, 2) this intersection is not, in the first instance, manifest intentionally but (if at all) as forms of “self-other-affection” (feelings of togetherness, isolation, fluidity, tension, etc.), 3) precarious individual autonomy can develop systemic dependencies on inter-individual engagement, thus making the conditions for self-affection dependent on a history of social encounters.

The latter possibility implies that there is no zero-level of human experience that is itself not already social, that our experience is not only enabled by a corporeal invisible (the interiority and self-affection of life according to Henry or the flesh of the world reversed on itself according to Merleau-Ponty) but also by a social invisible.

Among the varieties of the social invisible, the enactive approach has begun to investigate the sensitivity to social norms in processes that range from the self-structuring of normativity by a history of unintended interactive breakdowns and recoveries, to institutionalised practices of socialisation of the body and its habits. Moreover, participatory sense-making may in part retroactively construct the very objects of social interpretation via non-intentional routes. In other words, my understanding of the other may result from processes already operative on the other’s intentions and it may feed back on those processes. Assuming a non-static and open notion of intentions, the understanding of social acts may run simultaneously to, or even precede, the intention behind the acts themselves.

Slides of the talk (pdf)

Note: Since I was trying to show the ‘topological’ similarities between two lines of argument, one phenomenological linking self-affection and hetero-affection, the other enactive/scientific, linking autonomy and social interaction, I decided to colour-code some of the concepts and slide headings (orange = phenomenology, green = science).

Copyleft under the Creative Commons Attribution- Share Alike license. Feel free to copy for non-commercial purposes, but please, do not re-use any of content without attribution.

Two recent papers looking at the micro and macro aspects of enaction

Egbert, M. D., Barandiaran, X. E., & Di Paolo, E. A. (2012). Behavioral metabolution: The adaptive and evolutionary potential of metabolism-based chemotaxis. Artificial Life, 18(1), 1-25. doi:10.1162/artl_a_00047.


We use a minimal model of metabolism-based chemotaxis to show how a coupling between metabolism and behavior can affect evolutionary dynamics in a process we refer to as behavioral metabolution. This mutual influence can function as an in-the-moment, intrinsic evaluation of the adaptive value of a novel situation, such as an encounter with a compound that activates new metabolic pathways. Our model demonstrates how changes to metabolic pathways can lead to improvement of behavioral strategies, and conversely, how behavior can contribute to the exploration and fixation of new metabolic pathways. These examples indicate the potentially important role that the interplay between behavior and metabolism could have played in shaping adaptive evolution in early life and protolife. We argue that the processes illustrated by these models can be interpreted as an unorthodox instantiation of the principles of evolution by random variation and selective retention. We then discuss how the interaction between metabolism and behavior can facilitate evolution through (i) increasing exposure to environmental variation, (ii) making more likely the fixation of some beneficial metabolic pathways, (iii) providing a mechanism for in-the-moment adaptation to changes in the environment and to changes in the organization of the organism itself, and (iv) generating conditions that are conducive to speciation.

Froese, T. and Di Paolo, E. A. (2011). The enactive approach: Theoretical sketches from cell to society. Pragmatics and Cognition, 19, 1-36.


There is a small but growing community of researchers spanning a spectrum of disciplines which are united in rejecting the still dominant computationalist paradigm in favor of the enactive approach. The framework of this approach is centered on a core set of ideas, such as autonomy, sense-making, emergence, embodiment, and experience. These concepts are finding novel applications in a diverse range of areas. One hot topic has been the establishment of an enactive approach to social interaction. The main purpose of this paper is to serve as an advanced entry point into these recent developments. It accomplishes this task in a twofold manner: (i) it provides a succinct synthesis of the most important core ideas and arguments in the theoretical framework of the enactive approach, and (ii) it uses this synthesis to refine the current enactive approach to social interac- tion. A new operational definition of social interaction is proposed which not only emphasizes the cognitive agency of the individuals and the irreducibility of the interaction process itself, but also the need for jointly co-regulated action. It is suggested that this revised conception of ‘socio-cognitive interaction’ may provide the necessary middle ground from which to understand the confluence of biological and cultural values in personal action.

Keywords: adaptivity, autonomy, cognition, enaction, sense-making, social interaction

And watch out for a couple of forthcoming papers in the participatory sense-making saga!

Gogoa ez dago buruan!

That (apparently!) means: The mind ain’t in the head! in Basque. I’ve learned it from this short interview published in the Ikerbasque monthly bulletin where I briefly talk about my research. If you’re interested you can read the Spanish and Basque versions too.

(Still working on the website update/transfer – Research pages next; I promise more interesting posts here soon.).

Moving my webpage

This is something long overdue. I’m now in the process of moving my old Sussex webpage (which was still being updated) to WordPress. This will make updates easier as well as the possibility of adding better content and this blog.

Why WordPress and not a “typical” academic page associated with the institutions I’m affiliated with? Well, because in general universities provide silly restrictions to format, functionality and content (it wasn’t quite the case at Sussex during the time I was there, not sure how it is now) and they don’t update with the times. But perhaps more importantly, because it seems to me that affiliations these days are much more loose and a matter of convenience. I feel more strongly affiliated to a network of researchers around the globe who share similar interests and passions than to a stuffy bureaucratic machine that manufactures degrees and papers either out of sheer inertia (in Spain) or for profit (in the UK).

So there it is. I hope to bring some thoughts here about the latest research work as well as more general concerns. The interesting and the important stuff.