Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Brains Don't Have to be Computers (A Purple Peril)

A common response to the claim that we are not information processors is that this simply cannot be true, because it is self-evidently the case that brains are transforming and processing information - they are performing computations. Greg Hickok throws this ball a lot, and his idea is clear in this quote from his book 'The Myth of Mirror Neurons':
Once you start looking inside the brain you can’t escape the fact that it processes information. You don’t even have to look beyond a single neuron. A neuron receives input signals from thousands of other neurons, some excitatory, some inhibitory, some more vigorous than others. The output of the neuron is not a copy of its inputs. Instead its output reflects a weighted integration of its inputs. It is performing a transformation of the neural signals it receives. Neurons compute. This is information processing and it is happening in every single neuron and in every neural process whether sensory, motor, or “cognitive.”
Hickok, pg 256.
There are two claims here. First, neurons are processing information because their input is not the same as their output; they are transforming the former into the latter. Second, this process is computational; 'neurons compute'.

This is a widely held view; psychologist Gary Marcus even wrote about this in the NYT saying 'Face it, your brain is a computer'. In response, Vaughn Bell at Mindhacks posted about this op-ed and this issue in a nicely balanced piece called 'Computation is a lens'. He sums up the issue nicely by asking 'Is the brain a computer or is computation just a convenient way of describing its function?'. The answer, I propose here, is that computation is a fantastically powerful description of the activity of the brain that may or may not be (and probably isn't) the actual mechanism by which the brain does whatever it does. This is ok, because, contra Hickok,  not every process that sits in between an input and a different output has to be a computational, information processing one

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

What Would It Take to Refute Radical Embodied Cognition?

People often send us papers and data via Twitter that they believe rule out a radical, non-representational theory of cognition. Because I have yet to agree about any of these studies, these people then often ask in exasperated tones 'well, what would you accept as evidence?'. 

My current best answer is "about 20 years of hard work". 

Friday, 26 June 2015

The Perturbation Experiment as a Way to Study Perception

When you study perception, your goal is to control the flow of information going into the system so that you can measure the resulting behaviour and evaluate how that information is being used. There are two ways to do this, one (sometimes) used by me, one used by, well, everyone else. In this post I'm going to compare and contrast the methods and describe why the perturbation method is what we should all be doing.

The standard method is to present experimentally isolated cues and test whether people can detect those cues. The perturbation experiment presents a 'full cue' environment but selectively interferes with the link between a single variable and the property it might be information about. These two different methods lead to very different ways of thinking and talking about perceptual abilities. 

Monday, 4 May 2015

Is Autism a Deficit in Invariance Detection?

If ASD is a problem detecting invariants, the world would remain a 'blooming buzzing confusion' and lead to the behaviours we see in children with ASD, claims a new paper. 
A new paper in Frontiers in Psychology (Hellendoorn, Wijnroks & Leseman, 2015) has proposed that autistic spectrum disorders might be the developmental consequence of a low level, domain general perceptual deficit, specifically the detection of invariants. They explicitly ground this hypothesis in Gibson's ecological approach and theories of embodied cognition that emphasise the key role perception plays in behaviour. This seemed like something I should evaluate, so thanks to Jon Brock for sending this my way on Twitter.

While I am very sympathetic to the basic idea, this particular implementation is too flawed to get off the ground. The authors make a critical conceptual confusion. They mix up invariant features of the world with invariant features of perceptual arrays that might serve as information for the world, and this stops the paper in it's tracks. I think an interesting exercise might be to fix this problem and then simply repeat the paper with the more careful grounding to see where you end up. 

In this post I've briefly reviewed the claims in the order in which they came up in the paper. I've focused my attention on the central hypothesis about invariant detection because that underpins everything else. I've also briefly summarised some of the cited evidence and implications as laid out by the authors, and commented on any issues I saw. This bit is briefer, because my knowledge of the specifics of ASD are limited. I am also considering a comment to Frontiers on this paper, so feedback on this welcome. If you want in on a comment or reworking of the paper, let me know!

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Function vs Structure (A Purple Peril)

One of the apparently controversial things that I say is that psychology, as a science, needs to address function before it gets worried about structure; what is the brain trying to do, vs how is it doing it? This Peril lays out the argument in a little more detail. As always, this is my current thinking not my final thinking and I am happy as ever to hear arguments for and against this proposal.

Structure (the details of how a function is implemented) is important, there is no doubt. But I see two related arguments about putting function first, or at least giving it the driver's seat in our science.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Specification and Some of Its Consequences (A Purple Peril)

Perception is how we maintain psychological contact with functionally relevant objects and events in our environments. Explaining how we do this means describing that environment in appropriate terms and investigating what information might possibly exist for that environment, given that description. The ecological hypothesis is that the correct level is dynamics, and that describing the environment this way allows there to be information that can specify those dynamics. This information can support the kind of behaviour we need to exhibit. 

This Purple Peril describes what is meant by specification, and what that implies for how information comes to mean something to an organism. There is more detail in the various links, so check those for information too.

Friday, 10 April 2015

(Re)Introducing "The Purple Perils"

'Note for a tentative redefinition of behaviour', 1975. 
James J Gibson ran an afternoon seminar for many years at Cornell. This seminar was widely attended by a variety of students, professors and visiting scholars, and Gibson used them as a place to try out new ideas, new ways of describing those ideas and generally hammer his theory as hard as he could to see where the weak and strong points were.

Before many of these seminars, he would write and distribute a note, often fairly detailed, detailing the topic of that week's meeting. These were copied as he typed by 'ditto' sheets which transferred the text onto multiple sheets of paper. The ink on these sheets was purple, and the notes became known as the Purple Perils. (There is a nearly complete archive of these online hosted by Bill Mace.) 

These Perils were never the final word on anything. They reflected Gibson's current thinking and were always up for debate. That debate often found it's way into the next week's seminar and Peril, so these were always works in progress.

I've just finished reading Ed Reed's Gibson biography (there's a couple of taster chapters here) and I've been inspired by his description of the kind of scientist Gibson was; the Perils and his seminar were good examples of the kind of rigour and openness he embraced in his science. So, in this spirit, we are going to start posting some shorter, more focused posts on specific topics and ideas from the ecological embodied cognitive science we are developing. They will reflect our current thinking on the topic, but not necessarily our final thinking, and they will not aim to solve everything, just move it forward. They will typically include some 'facts of the matter' as seen from the ecological view, and some analysis to reach some conclusions and hypotheses based on those facts. The goal is to stimulate debate and discussion and come away with a better, clearer theory. 

We would like to invite you all to come get into it with us; ask questions, challenge us, agree with us (we like this too!), talk to each other in the comments and argue/agree with each other. Keep it friendly, keep it a little focused on the topic and try to be specific, detailed and clear in your arguments. If specific parts of topics become sticking points they will likely show up in future Perils for a more focused discussion; otherwise they will be what we're trying to clarify for ourselves. If there are particular topics that are bugging you about radical embodied cognitive science, post about it here and they may show up as future Perils. "What about language then, huh? Huh?" is not something we can work with, though, sorry - be specific :)

We cannot promise to have time to do one every week (Gibson didn't have to teach anything else!) but we will post them as frequently as we have things to post. Feel free to steal the idea and host something similar on your own blogs; we will link to them here. Gibson valued a good argument above all other things in science, and I entirely agree, so please take any opportunity you see to make this a dialogue people can all take part in.