Enactive sense of agency

A new open access paper discussing the enactive notion of sensorimotor agency and how it helps explain the phenomenology of the sense of agency in a non-representational manner.

Buhrmann, T., and Di Paolo, E. (2015) The sense of agency – a phenomenological consequence of enacting sensorimotor schemes, Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, doi: 10.1007/s11097-015-9446-7. (online first).

Abstract. The sensorimotor approach to perception addresses various aspects of perceptual experience, but not the subjectivity of intentional action. Conversely, the problem that current accounts of the sense of agency deal with is primarily one of subjectivity. But the proposed models, based on internal signal comparisons, arguably fail to make the transition from subpersonal computations to personal experience. In this paper we suggest an alternative direction towards explaining the sense of agency by braiding three theoretical strands: a world-involving, dynamical interpretation of the sensorimotor approach, an enactive description of sensorimotor agency as contrasted with organic agency in general, and a dynamical theory of equilibration within and between sensorimotor schemes. On this new account, the sense of oneself as the author of one’s own actions corresponds to what we experience during the ongoing adventure of establishing, losing, and re-establishing meaningful interactions with the world. The meaningful relation between agent and world is given by the precarious constitution of sensorimotor agency as a self-asserting network of schemes and dispositions. Acts are owned as they adaptively assert the constitution of the agent. Thus, awareness for different aspects of agency experience, such as the initiation of action, the effort exerted in controlling it, or the achievement of the desired effect, can be accounted for by processes involved in maintaining the sensorimotor organization that enables these interactions with the world. We discuss these processes in detail from a non-representational, dynamical perspective and show how they cohere with the personal experience of agency.

Keywords Enactive cognitive science. Agency. Sense of agency. Sensorimotor contingencies. Equilibration. Metastability

Reports for the eSMCs project (2011-2014)

The project eSMCs: Extending SensoriMotor Contingencies to Cognition (1/2011-12/2014, EU FP7-ICT-2009-6 no: 270212) has recently come to an end. You can find more information on the project website. Here I include the reports delivered by our research team. They summarize what was work-in-progress at the time of writing, most of which was later published. But also some bits that have not yet been published.

Barandiaran, X., Buhrmann, T. and Di Paolo, E. (2012). Deliverable D1.1: Interim report on eSMCs and embodiment.

Barandiaran, X., Beaton, M., Buhrmann, T. and Di Paolo, E. (2013). Deliverable D1.2: eSMCs and embodied cognition.

Beaton, M., Barandiaran, X., Buhrmann, T. and Di Paolo, E. (2014). Deliverable D1.5: Cognitive organisation for sustaining eSMCs.

Buhrmann, T., Di Paolo, E., Barandiaran, X., De Jaegher, H. (2015). Deliverable D1.6: Agency and eSMCs.

Beaton, M. and Di Paolo, E. (2015). Deliverable D1.7 Virtual Actions and eSMCs.

An enactive perspective on language (Finally!)

After more than one and a half years, our work on enactivism and language (co-authored with Elena Cuffari and Hanne De Jaegher) has finally been published.

The enactive approach has often been criticised for not offering a clear story about high-level human cognition. It’s been said that it is often ok to think in enactive terms for simple, environmentally-guided performances (such as walking, even dancing) but that traditional computational stories will be necessary to bridge such “low-level” performances with “high-level” mental function, such as human linguistic capability. The endgame of such stories is a return to some form of representationalism.

We show in this paper that there are concrete alternatives to this way of thinking and that dichotomies such as high and low-level cognition, “online”/”offline” performance, etc. are the first to go when we consider the activity of languaging enactively.

We offer two models linking participatory sense-making and languaging. One is dialectical (figure below), the other describes the development of linguistic sensitivities and linguistic bodies diachronically.


Find the open-access article here:

Cuffari, E. Di Paolo, E., De Jaegher, H. (2014) From participatory sense-making to language: There and back again, Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, doi 10.1007/s11097-014-9404-9.

Multijoint movement without internal models

Thomas Buhrmann has been working on a model of arm movement that, contrary to widespread assumptions, can compensate for the complex and dynamic inter-joint torques without the need for a central control using internal models. This work has been just published and can be accessed for free:

Buhrmann T and Di Paolo EA (2014) Spinal circuits can accommodate interaction torques during multijoint limb movements. Front. Comput. Neurosci. 8:144. doi: 10.3389/fncom.2014.00144.


The model shows how a combination of the musculo-skeletal complex non-linear dynamics and spinal control circuits can produce smooth arm movements where the torque produced in one joint due to movement around the other is actively compensated without the need of a central control by the brain. It lends support to the plausibility of alternative hypotheses of motor control, such as the equilibrium-point hypothesis, that do not rely on internal representations or models.

La mente corporizada – A short documentary

Earlier this year I participated in the making of a short documentary on the embodied mind organized by Manuel Bedia at the University of Zaragoza. A version has been around online for a while now, but now there’s a new version with English subtitles.

The embodied mind from Universidad de Zaragoza on Vimeo.

Non-representational sensorimotor knowledge

Close your eyes and follow the contour of the table in front of you. When you reach the end of it, do you think you would be able to continue moving your hand along the same imaginary line as if the table went on a little further? Most people would not have any problem doing this for a wide variety of conditions (body posture, distance and angle with respect to the table, etc.) Given this variety of circumstances, traditional approaches to perception and motor control postulate when we’re no longer in contact with the table, we must be using some form of representation that keeps guiding the arm along the same invisible line in a robust manner.


Together with Thomas Buhrmann, we have demonstrated that representations are not necessarily the only explanation, and that indeed it is possible to attune the movement of your arm to the world without at any point involving any internal models or representations, but simply by a shaping of dynamical sensorimotor transients. The “memory” of the direction of movement is kept in the whole agent-environment system in a way that generalizes across various relative positions and angles of movement.


For more information see:

Buhrmann, T. and Di Paolo, E. A. (2014). Non-representational sensorimotor knowledge. In A.P. del Pobil et al. (Eds.): From Animals to Animats 13, Proceedings of the 13th International Conference on Simulation of Adaptive Behavior, SAB 2014, LNAI 8575, pp. 21–31, NY, Springer Verlag.