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

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.

A genealogy of the notion of “habit”

In collaboration with Xabier Barandiaran, we have embarked some years ago in what at first looked like a simple exercise in map-making. We encountered such different reactions when we mentioned our interest in the concept of habit that it was clear that the word meant very different things to different people. Cognitive scientists and neuroscientists immediately think of habits as blind automatisms, psychologists and psychotherapists think of them as remnants of a developmental history, while social scientists think of them as self-sustaining normative structures of the life world. We thought it would be relatively easy to disentangle these different meanings and connotations of the term. In fact, we found a rich and ever-expanding network of ideas, influences, nuances, expansions and reductions of concepts and even rejections of the notion(s) of habit.

The result is the following map.


You can read about how we constructed this map, the literature consulted, and what we make of it here:

Barandiaran XE and Di Paolo EA (2014) A genealogical map of the concept of habit. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 8:522. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00522.

And you can find the map in other formats following this link: http://barandiaran.net/design/habit-map.

As we suggest towards the end of our mini-review, we think that the time is ripe of a modern notion of habit, not as blind automatisms but as sophisticated, adaptive and self-sustaining structures of sense-making, to re-enter the discourse in psychology, neuroscience and embodied cognitive science.

AVANT Interview, 2012

Hanne De Jaegher and I have been interviewed on our work on enactivism by the open access journal AVANT Volume III, Issue 2/2012 (October-December), ISSN: 2082-6710.

You can download the interview here and Tom Froese’s introduction here.


Several other interesting things in this issue. It can be downloaded as a whole.

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.).