Continuing coverage of Beyond the Brain, by Loise Barrett. The book presents much of its material in a way that will push the average reader's comfort zone, but not smash their cherished ideas head on. This is a reasonable stylistic choice and, overall, a great strength. The next two posts will talk about the book's presentation of embodied cognition, hopefully giving fair balance to the places where the book did a solid job, and where it could have hit a little harder.
"Embodied" has become a bit of a buzz word recently. Most people who use the term seem well intentioned, but seem to have little clue about the full implications of their thoughts. Those who use the term lightly seem merely to mean that they do not believe in a non-corporeal soul or mind-independent-of-the-body. What they do not seem to understand (and what I mean when I say they use the term 'lightly') are the radical implications of such statements for reshaping psychology.
That is, they want to keep using the frameworks they inherited from people with firmly dualistic ideas: Keep the old terms, keep the old problems, keep the old methods and interpretations. It is Orwellian double-think, pure and simple. These people manage to hold at the same time the following contradictory thoughts: 1) It is silly to think about the mind as separate from the body. 2) The mind is best understood and investigated using terms that continue the logic of metaphysical dualism.
Those who use the term 'embodied' in a heavy-weight manner understand that full acceptance of the term requires that much standard thinking about psychology be revised. One tension amongst those who embrace embodied control of action is whether there is room to talk about the mind at all in an embodied system. That is, does a commitment to embodiment require the denial of all things mental, or can we talk sensibly about an embodied mind? Barrett does not explicitly discuss this controversy, and she splits the difference between the two positions... which is clearly the correct decision given the tenor of her book.
Embodied Not Minds
In many parts of the book Barrett seems to be using the notion of embodiment to replace the notion of minds. A few examples of this include:
Discussion of Grey Walter's modified "turtle" robots. The robots had a very small number of behavioral options, but performed several interesting (not directly programed) behaviors, such as moving objects in their environment into piles. (The story about how they feed themselves is the coolest part, but you can get that if you read the book.) The robots had lights on their heads that could turn on or off, and they could respond to lights, including of course the lights of other robots. Just for kicks, the experimenters decided to put a mirror in enclosure. Details aside, the robot seemed to dance in front of the mirror, and Walter noted that such behavior "on a purely empirical basis, if it were observed in an animal, might be accepted as evidence of some degree of self-awareness." (p. 46) One moral of the story, according to Barrett, is that behavioral complexity should not be mistaken for mind-stuff:
Grey Walter's robots highlight perfectly how we cannot simply translate behavioral complexity into an assessment of an animal's cognitive complexity. (p. 47)
complex behavior can be produced, not only by a very simple mechanism, but also by a mechanism that bears absolutely no relation to the behavioral outcome produced when that mechanism operates in the real world. (p. 49)
The the latter quote is taken slightly out of context, it applies here as well. The point is that nothing inside the turtle will resemble a self-recognition mechanism, a pushing things into piles mechanism, or a get yourself more power mechanism, yet all these behaviors, or reasonable facsimiles thereof, are enacted by the turtles.
There is also the excellent example of how crickets "choose" mates. Note that common wisdom would have you believe that there is a cacophony of woodland sounds through some sort of cognitive signal vs. noise "information processing" system, and then the cricket would have to weigh the available options, again through some sort of cognitive, information-processing, decision system. Quite to the contrary. The cricket has eardrums on its legs, and a series of interneurons that have a slow decay from activation back to resting threshold. The male song is carefully attuned to this decay in a way that steers the females towards them. The female's auditory and nervous system is designed to respond by orienting towards whichever eardrum first affected by a male's chirp. One moral is that:
females are not "picking out" and then tracking a male's song against a background of other kinds of songs and noise; rather, they simply don't perceive the background. (p. 52)
That is, the physical form of the cricket does much of the work we might intuitively suspect required involvement of a complex nervous system. And from this:
The interaction of the cricket's body, its "brain", and the environment may allow females to solve all the apparently complex problems of mate finding by... [repeatedly following the rule] turn to the side that fires first. (p. 53)
This almost seems to simple to be true. But Barrett smoothly takes us back into the world robotics, where we meet Webb's cricket robot, which shows that it really can be that simple. Implication:
Orienting toward individual sound pulses isn't what one would expect if females were analyzing the entire pattern of song and then choosing the best one; instead choice emerges from the kind of simple auditory steering process Webb used in her robot. In other words, these results again reinforce the idea that the "steering" mechanism and the "picking-out" mechanism are one and the same thing. It is the rhythm and temporal pattern of the male song that simultaneously "steers" the female to its source, and "discriminates" the male's chirps from the background.
Note the scare quotes. They imply, or at least so I read it, that we should be suspicious of the claim that the cricket is "picking-out" anything, or "discriminating" anything. Instead, like the first robot's seeming self-recognition, the cricket is doing things that might mislead us to ascribe such mental processes.
This comes up again in one of the big morals from the chapter dedicated to the still ridiculously-fascinating example of the Portia spider's predatory behavior. Given a complex enough situation, the spider will scan its surroundings for some time before moving off to capture its prey, and the spider avoids potential routes with several types of problems. Moral:
Far from demonstrating that spiders plan a detour route in an insightful way, these detailed and careful experiments reveal that... It is this set of simple mechanisms—not insight—that allows them to reach the prey... (p. 70).
Barrett will have have a few passages that suggest these earlier examples were intended to be about cognition proper. She asserts, for example, that: "cognition need not be—either by definition or by logical inference—a purely computational process." (p. 129) However, in context, these and several other examples seem to suggest that the result research that uncovers more and more "embodiment" is that we ascribe to animals less and less "mind".
However, Barrett does not banish all talk of minds, and is not (when the book is taken as a whole) making the crude behaviorists claim that mental phenomena do not exist. Barrett notes positively, for example, Gibson's argument that "psychological phenomena are not things that happen 'inside' the animals, but are found in the relations between animals and their environments." (p. 95) I'll cover Barrett's discussion of ecological psychology later, but for now it is enough to note that she clearly believes there is a thing called "perception" that animals do, and that it can be properly described as "mental", even under a firm commitment to embodiment.
Mental terms become pervasive in the discussions of extended cognition that book concludes with. Quoting Clark and Chambers Barrett tells us that:
If, as we confront some task, a part of the world functions as a process which, were it to go on in the head, we would have no hesitation in accepting as part of the cognitive process, then that part of the world is (for that time) part of the cognitive process. (p. 198)
This takes the notion of embodiment and extends it dramatically. Gibson's message was something like: If you use your toes to help peak up to a high shelf, then your toes are part of your perceptual system. Clark's message can be phrased with sane seeming examples: When you make a grocery list, the physical list is part of your memory. Or it can be phrased in ways that seem more bizarre: If the roll of the cobblestones determines the path you take when walking down the street, then the roll of the cobblestones is a part of your choosing where to go.
Most aggressively, perhaps, Barrett tells us that "acting simply is a form of thinking." (p. 143) This stuck out to me because I am typically tempted to phrase it the other way around, namely that "thinking" is simply a form of "acting", though of course an equivalence relationship can be expressed either way.
In any case, in these sections it is clear Barrett is arguing that evidence for embodiment or externalization does not require us to abandon talk of minds and mental processes.
Brief Digression - Embodiment vs. PSYCHOLOGY!
One of the nice things about Barrett's book is that it is clearly about psychology. Chemero's "Radical Embodied Cognitive Science" definitely hits the readers with the more extreme embodied-cognition view at full force, making no pretension that it will be an easy introduction to these issues. Most chapters in his book have several examples illustrating the possibilities of embodied behavioral control. In almost all chapters, he provided a final example that I would refer to as the "Little Albert" example. Recall that when Watson performed this experiment much was already known about the power of Pavlovian conditioning, but many psychologists still didn't care about it, nor any other animal work. That was because it was not obvious how a drooling dog was relevant to the problems of 'PSYCHOLOGY!' (imagine a 1950's radio voice saying "SCIENCE!", with a cymbal crash and slowly moving jazz hands). Watson new it was crucial to the advancement of behaviorism that he changed that attitude, and so he decided to create and cure a phobia, because 'phobias' are blatantly 'PSYCHOLOGY!', and curing phobias is something that would be undeniably useful to 'PSYCHOLOGY!'. Similarly, Chemero would give several examples of animal behavior or mechanical control that solidly proved his points, but that were not clearly psychology, and then would try to end on an example that would convince the reader Chemero was employed in the correct department and that he wasn't crazy to put the word "cognitive" in his book's title. This strategy worked well, in my opinion, and most professions (the target audience) will agree. However, my students really needed me to provide the Little Albert metaphor before they understood what was going on. Because Barrett's book adopts a less extreme presentational style, and talks more fluidly about mental processes, I never found myself wondering "How is this going to connect to psychology?" This is true even in the sections in which embodiment seemed anti-mental.
How Beyond the Brain could have pushed the embodiment argument a bit further, i.e. why Barrett needs Holt.