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.

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


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!