Monday, June 10, 2013

Brain, Behaviour, and Cognitive Science

This past weekend I participated in the 23rd annual meeting of the Canadian Society for Brain, Behaviour, and Cognitive Science (CSBBCS), held on the University of Calgary campus.  As far as my lab is concerned, the conference was a moderate success.  My PhD student Brian Dupuis was extremely busy at his poster, and throughout the conference had many research-related conversations with researchers from around the country.  I was less busy at my own posters, but was not surprised at this, because I was not reporting experimental results – and this is a very experimentally oriented society.  I did have a handful of detailed discussions about na├»ve Bayes and modern perceptrons, as well as about strange circles and the Coltrane changes, which helped pass the time!

When I go to a conference like CSBBCS, I am interested in seeing the kinds of topics that are ‘hot’, and I enjoy watching students present their posters and their talks.  This conference is  a particularly good one for students to work on such skills.  I saw many excellent student presentations at the (nicely organized) poster sessions.  I enjoyed a particularly enthusiastic account of different types of cuing presented by Shelby Siroski from the University of Regina.  I watched some fine student oral presentations  as well.  I was very impressed by a talk on the bouba/kiki effect delivered by David Michael Sidhu of the University of Calgary.
Of course, I also enjoyed bumping into former students and mentors whose professional lives have intersected mine throughout my career!

In terms of ‘hot’ topics, what surprised me about CSBBCS 2013? Several talks and posters expressed sympathy with embodied cognitive science.  This included the Donald O. Hebb Distinguished Contribution Award Address delivered by James Enns of UBC.  His address, “Human Perception: A science of synergy”, made calls to increase the ecological validity of experimental cognitive psychology, to consider the role of action and interaction, and to take seriously the notion of ‘cognition in the wild’.  There was also a full symposium on embodied cognition, which included an excellent talk by my former graduate student Paul Siakaluk who has established his own productive lab at UNBC.  References to action and to ecological validity were sprinkled liberally throughout all of the poster sessions.

However, what struck me about most of the CSBBCS nod to embodied cognitive science was that it was so … classical … in nature.  Much of the research aimed to provide representational accounts of phenomena that involved actions or bodies.  A popular citation that situated this approach (pardon the pun) was Barsalou’s (2009) approach to simulation theory.

What I did not see was any recognition of the fact that a key implication of embodied cognitive science involves removing mental representation.  I have been grappling with the tension between embodied and classical cognitive science over the last few years (Dawson, 2013; Dawson, Dupuis & Wilson, 2010).  What happens to classical cognitive science when notions like the extended mind and stigmergy assail it?  Representationalists might be surprised at the implications, discussed for instance by Clark (2008).  When Hutchins (1995) studies cognition in the wild, he discovers cognitive scaffolds in the world that externalize both representation and computation, and support group cognition.  Hutchings notes that we do less (cognition) because the world does more.  At the extreme, Chemero (2009) argues that cognitive science’s big mistake was to appeal to representations.
This radical critique of representationalism has not yet received any traction at CSBBCS.  Intrigued by the apparent lack of concern about the tension between representational and embodied cognitive science at this conference, I tried to explore it in more detail.  At the Hebb address, I asked Enns about what he thought about the future of representation in cognitive science.  He seemed to respond (once he parsed my question, which apparently puzzled him) that introspection indicates that we have representations, so there will always be a place for them in cognitive theory.  I had a more fruitful exchange with Michael Masson from the University of Victoria, who pointed out that it was a reasonable research strategy to explore representations of action, and that it was interesting to consider the cognitive neuroscience of such representations.
Of course, others – like myself – find it equally interesting to consider how much cognition can be accomplished in the absence of representation!  What happens when you find inspiration in Chemero instead of Barsalou?  Perhaps we will find out at future meetings of this society!

  • Barsalou, L. W. (2009). Simulation, situated conceptualization, and prediction. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences, 364(1521), 1281-1289.
  • Chemero, A. (2009). Radical Embodied Cognitive Science. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  • Clark, A. (2008). Supersizing The Mind: Embodiment, Action, And Cognitive Extension. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Dawson, M. R. W. (2013). Mind, Body, World: Foundations Of Cognitive Science. Edmonton, AB: Athabasca University Press.
  • Dawson, M. R. W., Dupuis, B., & Wilson, M. (2010). From Bricks To Brains: The Embodied Cognitive Science Of LEGO Robots. Edmonton, AB: Athabasca University Press.
  • Hutchins, E. (1995). Cognition in the Wild. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. This article is really very interesting and enjoyable. I think its must be helpful and informative for us. Thanks for sharing your nice post about Brain, Behaviour, and Cognitive Science .
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