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

Tarkovsky’s Stalker and the paradoxes of non-linear decision making

In Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker three men undertake a perilous trip into the Zone, an off-limits and run-down post-industrial area full of the dangerous but valuable scattered debris left behind by a passing alien visitation (the leftovers of a “roadside picnic” as the title of the original novel by the Strugatsky brothers suggests). It is said that within the Zone there is a room with the power of making one’s innermost desires come true, even the unconscious ones – a ruthlessly rule-governed spot in a land of exception. The road to this room is full of mortal traps, often invisible to the eye. Your body could be crushed with artificial gravity or burned to cinders almost without a warning.

Two of the men, who for different motives want to visit the room, hire the help of a third as a guide, a Stalker. The guide is overcautious as they advance, making the others walk in line and for short stretches at a time. He tests for the presence of traps by throwing metal nuts with long ribbons into the air looking for distortions in their trajectory. At one point they come very close to the building where the room is located and yet the Stalker convinces the other men that they should not enter it directly but they should instead take a very long-winded route leading away from it. The journey is arduous and confusing and the travellers often find themselves stuck confronting the same situations and dilemmas. The route parallels the inner personal journeys of the characters and their own stumbling blocks.

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I believe that such a situation is an accurate, if extreme, description of how motivations, rational judgements and emotional reactions interact during ongoing decision-making in real life. It certainly provides a better picture than the way these questions have been investigated in neuroscience, psychology and economics until recently. Our decisions are rarely isolated events, and their interaction is rarely additive. And yet these are the basic assumptions of most research on decision-making and on the interplay between the rational and emotional processes that underlie it. Judging a situation and making a decision is generally embedded within a dynamical context in which a path towards a longer-term goal is being laid down by our own actions.

Consider a doctor prescribing a certain long treatment for a patient. The initial steps of the treatment may still serve a diagnostic function and as a result of one intervention, the doctor decides what the next step should be. Setbacks may as much indicate an insufficiency or an excess provoked by the treatment. And some interventions are deemed too risky to be used at first even though perhaps they would produce the desired effect and most quickly cure the patient. Past decisions, risk judgments and actions interact with not fully known time-extended processes in the world. Real life decision making is a non-linear journey into the unknown, where the unknown is constantly changing in part as a result of our own decisions.

In a recent study, Manuel Bedia from the University of Zaragoza and I have examined this situation using a non-linear model of Antonio Damasio’s Somatic Markers Hypothesis. Our mathematical model considers the case of a journey towards a goal similar to the situation depicted in Stalker in a much more simplified setting. According to Damasio’s hypothesis, and to  other so-called dual-process theories of decision making, the act of judging a situation and deciding on a course of action is not a simple cost-benefit analysis but a context-dependent mixture of rational and affective processes. The question we ask is: what counts as a good balance in this mixture? What factors determine how much we should rely on affective or rational processes?

Our findings were surprising at first. The answer to our question turns out to be highly dependent on whether we consider decisions in a chain as independent events (the traditional linear approach) or allow for interactive coupling between decisions, moves, and situations in the world.

We have found that the effect of primary emotions (often associated with conservative, cautious and protective actions) tend to be larger in non-linear decision chains than one would expect from their effect on single decision events. This results in over-cautiousness and leads to frequent re-visits to stumbling blocks until they are finally overcome. On average we tend to “stay on the spot” in a situation that again re-elicits the same emotional reactions that lead back to it in the first place.

Secondary emotions (somatic associations between past experiences and visceral processes) are conceived as making sense only if their positive effect is larger than the combination of rational and primary emotional decision making. But again, this is true only for an isolated decision event. It turns out that badly attuned somatic markers – for instance, reckless and unreliable gut feelings that often would lead us to bad results (e.g., losing our cool, replying to an annoying email too angrily and too quickly) – can sometimes break the paralysing effect of over-represented cautionary emotions. In other word, in non-linear decision chains, a combination of “bad” decision-making mechanisms (over-cautiousness and recklessness) can lead to a positive chance of successfully attaining your goal. This is what we have shown mathematically.

We might call this approach to decision making “enactive” in that decisions and actions affect the dynamics of the path that needs to be traveled towards a goal, a “path laid down in walking”. This famous phrase by poet Antonio Machado was picked by Francisco Varela and his followers to describe one of the central insights of enactive science: the fact that cognitive agents are participants and not merely observers. Apart from highlighting the importance of this perspective and showing that it makes a concrete, empirically testable difference, the result also has interesting developmental and evolutionary implications. It could help explain how somatic markers can exist in the first place if their positive effect depends on experiential tuning to the world and this tuning can only be poor at the early stages of development. If our result holds in such situations, it would indicate that in fact this is not a problem at all because even poorly attuned somatic markers can have a positive effect.

Childish recklessness is after all one way of breaking out of the paralysis of excessive precaution and learning about the world and making your mark in it. How else are you going to make your way through the Zone and reach that room?

Bedia M and Di Paolo EA (2012). Unreliable gut feelings can lead to correct decisions: The somatic marker hypothesis in non-linear decision chains. Front. Psychology 3:384. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00384

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:

http://www.frontiersin.org/Human_Neuroscience/10.3389/fnhum.2012.00163/abstract

Citation:

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

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.

Abstract

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.

Abstract

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.).