Tag Archives: ecological psychology

A crude theory of perception: thoughts on affordances, information, and the explanatory role of representations

Perception is the reaction to meaningful information, inside or outside the body. The most basic information is information specific to affordances. An affordance is a part of reality which, in virtue of its objective structure, offers itself as affording the possibility of some reaction (usually fitness-enhancing, but not necessarily so). A reaction can be understood at multiple levels of complexity and mechanism. Sucrose, in virtue of its objective structure, affords the possibility of maintaining metabolic equilibrium to a bacteria cell. Water, in virtue of its objective structure, affords the possibility of stable ground for the water strider. Water, in virtue of its objective structure, does not afford the possibility of a stable ground for a human being unless it is frozen. An affordance then is, as J.J. Gibson said, both subjective and objective at the same time. Objective, because what something affords is directly related to its objective structure; subjective, because what something affords depends on how the organism reacts to it (e.g. human vs. water strider)

The objective structure of a proximal stimulus can only be considered informationally meaningful if that stimulus is structured so as to be specific to an affordance property. If a human is walking on the beach towards the ocean, the ocean will have the affordance property it has regardless of whether the human is there to perceive information specific to it. The “success” or meaningfulness of the human’s perception of the ocean is determined by whether the proximal stimulus contains information specific to that affordance property. A possible affordance property might be “getting you wet”, which is usually not useful, but can be extremely useful if you are suddenly caught on fire. Under normal viewing conditions, the objective structure of the ambient array of light in front of the human contains information specific to the ocean’s affordance properties in virtue of its reflective spectra off the water and through the airspace. But if the beach was shrouded in a very thick fog, the ambient optic array would stimulate the human’s senses, but the stimulus wouldn’t be meaningful because it only conveys useless information about the ocean, even though that information is potentially there for the taking if the fog was cleared. An extreme version of “meaningless stimulus without perception” is the Ganzfeld effect. On these grounds, we can recreate, without appealing to any kind of representational theory, the famous distinction between primary and secondary qualities i.e. the distinction between mere sensory transduction of meaningless stimuli and meaningful perception.

Note too how perception is most basically “looking ahead” to the future since the affordance property specifies the possibility of a future reaction. This can be seen in how higher animals can “scan” the environment for information specific to affordances, but restrain themselves from acting on that information until the moment is right. This requires inhibition of basic action schemas either learned or hardwired genetically as instinctual. In humans, the “range” of futural cognition is uniquely enhanced by our technology of symbols and linguistic metaphor. For instance, a human can look at a flat sheet of colored paper stuck to a refrigerator and meaningfully think about a wedding to attend one year in the future. A scientist can start a project and think about consequences ten years down the road. Humans can use metaphors like “down the road” because we have advanced spatial analogs which allow us to consciously link disparate bits of neural information specific to sensorimotor pathways into a more cohesive, narratological whole so as to assert “top-down” control by a globally distributed executive function sensitive to social-cultural information.

This is the function which enables humans to effortlessly “time travel” by inserting distant events into the present thought stream or simulating future scenarios through conscious imagination. We can study the book in our heads of what we have done and what we will do, rehearse speech acts for a future occasion, think in our heads what we should have said to that one person, and use external symbolic graphs to radically extend our cognitive powers. Reading and writing, for example, has utterly changed the cognitive powers of humans. Math, scientific methodology, and computer theory have also catapulted humans into the next level of technological sophistication. In the last few decades, we have seen how the rise of the personal computer, internet, and cellphone has radically changed how humans cope in this world. We are as Andy Clark said, natural born cyborgs. Born into a social-linguistic milieu rich in tradition and preinstalled with wonderful learning mechanisms that soak up useful information like sponges, newborn humans effortlessly adapt to the affordances of the most simple environmental elements (like the ground) to the most advanced (the affordance of a book, or a website).

So although representations are not necessary at the basic level of behavioral reaction shared by the unicellulars (bacteria reacting to sucrose by devouring it and using it metabolically), the addition of the central nervous system allows for the storage of affordance information into representational maps. A representational map is a distributed pattern of brain activity which allows for the storage of informational patterns which can be utilized independently of the stimulus event which first brought you into contact with that information. For example, when a bird is looking right at a food cache, it does not need its representational memory to be able to get at the food; it simply looks at the cache and then reacts by means of a motor program for getting at the food sparked by a recognition sequence. However, when the cache is not in sight and the bird is hungry, how does the bird get itself to the location of the cache? By means of a re-presentation of the cache’s spatial location which was originally stored in the brain’s memory upon first caching the food. By accessing stored memory-based information about a place even when not actually at that place, the bird is utilizing representations to boost the cognitive prowess of its nonrepresentational affordance-reaction programs. Representations are thus a form of brain-based cognitive enhancement which allow for the reaction to information which is stored within the brain itself, rather than just contained in the external proximal stimulus data. By developing the capacity to react to information stored within itself, the brain gains the capacity to organize reactions into more complicated sequence of steps, delaying and modifying reactions and allowing for the storage of information for later retrieval and the capacity to better predict events farther into the future (like the bird predicting food will be at its cache even though it is miles away).


Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy

Skeptical about Chemero's interpretation of Gibson

Chemero makes a curious statement about Gibson in a recent paper:

The claim that the cognitive system is not in the head at all, that cognition is to be explained entirely in terms of the interactions of whole animals and their environments, may seem like an automatic nonstarter and an idea so crazy that no one would have held it. That is not so. Skinnerian behaviorists still make claims like this (Hineline 2006), and the later work of Gibson (1979) can be interpreted as making claims like this. In both cases, the claim is that all of the explanatory work can be done by carefully studying the ways active animals interact with the environment. In the Skinnerian case, one focuses on the subtle ways that animal behavior is shaped by environmental outcomes, and claims that reinforcement learning can account for the whole gamut of behavior.In the Gibsonian case, one focuses on the breathtaking amount of information available to a perceiver, especially one that is moving, and claims that this information is sufficient for perception of the environment without the addition of information stored in the brain. Note that neither Gibson nor Skinnerians claim that the brain is not importantly involved in cognition; rather they claim that psychologists can do all their explanatory work without referring to the brain.

First claim: ecological information in the environment is sufficient for perception of the environment.

This sounds weirdly put to me. I think a better way of stating Gibson’s claim would this: the discrimination of ecological information from the environment is sufficient for the control of action in that environment. The point is not that “cognition ain’t going on in the head”, but rather, that the brain doesn’t need to build an internal model of the environment in order to successfully navigate it. If we define cognition as the “coordination of motor control”, then it seems metaphysically plausible that this is taking place inside the head, without violating the spirit of Gibsonian psychology.

Second claim: Gibson thought that psychology can be complete without referring to the brain.

I’d like to see some solid textual evidence supporting this interpretation. I do not recall Gibson ever saying such a ridiculous thing. If we want to give a complete account of how information is discriminated then we are going to have start talking about the brain. Gibson never talked about the brain only because so much more conceptual work needed to be done. It is only after we have laid down the basic foundation of affordance theory that we should investigate the brain, otherwise we might be prone to improperly determine the computational task. Gibson was against cognitivist theories only because he thought they were positing unnecessary steps in the computational process. For example, we don’t need to compute information about depth from a 2D picture because the information specific for depth is already available in the ambient optic array.

However, if we redefine cognitive computation in terms of controlling action-perception cycles, then there is a real sense in which the brain is computing information. Rather than doing the computation in terms of discrete mental representations and internal, lingua-form models (that get experienced as a rich picture of the external world),  the computation of information is done in terms of sensorimotor connectivity. On Edward Reed’s selectionist account and Robbins’ subtractionist account, Gibson’s affordance theory actually makes empirical predictions about how variable neural activity is coordinated so as to produce functionally specific responses to changing environmental demands. Gibsonian information theory actually predicts that the brain will seek out invariances in the environment so as to “select” the most functionally advantageous course of action from out of the “virtual phasespace” of the neural population dynamics. This approach turns out to endorse a theoretically deep model of decision-making and attention-control at the prereflective level. Moreover, such a selectionist account is self-consciously compatible with evolutionary biology and developmental systems theory insofar as the emphasis is on plasticity and adaptation.

So, far from being a psychological theory that completes itself without referencing the brain, Gibsonian theory actually provides a radical new approach to understanding small and large scale brain dynamics. Once we have done the hard theoretical work of determining what kind of affordance information is available in the environment, we must then look into the brain and determine how the discrimination of such information allows for the coordination of neural dynamics in such a way as to bring about functionally specific, adaptive behavior in response to changing environmental demands.


Filed under Psychology

Ecological Realism in the History of the Concept of Time

Heidegger’s 1925 lecture course published as the Prolegomena to the History of the Concept of Time is widely considered to be the prequel to Being and Time. Since I consider BT to be a realist work in philosophy, it should not be surprising to find quotations in HCT that support what I call ecological realism. Ecological realism is to be decisively distinguished from philosophical realism. Both realisms agree, doxographically, that the natural world (what Heidegger later calls the Earth) would still exist if humans were wiped off the planet (Of course, this is just common sense, but many commentators seem content to ascribe to Heidegger the nonsensical position of anti-realism in respect to the ontic dependence of the Earth on human disclosure).But ecological realism differs from philosophical realism insofar as the latter accepts the “mind independence” of the Earth but arrives at this position from the starting point of a mind essentially cut-off from the Earth by means of the sense-data “veil”. According to philosophical realism, the only things we know directly are the sense-receptors at the edge of our bodies i.e. what’s called the proximal stimulus. Because they claim we are only in an epistemic relationship with the proximal stimulus, we must therefor “deduce” or “infer” that the distal stimulus exists. And moreover, because of the possibility of hallucination and illusion, we can never be certain that the proximal stimulus veridically corresponds to the distal stimulus. We are thus unable to adequately rebuff the radical skeptic of knowledge.

Ecological realism is different because it assumes that we have a direct epistemic relationship with the Earth by means of our intentional directedness towards the Earth. For ecological realists, the distinction between proximal and distal stimuli is a nonstarter in terms of epistemology. Indeed, Heidegger says in HCT:

When I perceive the chair and say, “The chair has four legs,” the sense of this knowledge according to Rickert is the acknowledging of a value. [However], even with the best of intentions one cannot find anything like this in the structure of this perceptual assertion. For I am not directed toward representations and less still toward value but instead toward the chair which is in fact given. (33)


[Rickert] is prevented from seeing the primary cognitive character of representation because he presupposes a mythical concept of representing from the philosophy of natural science and so comes to the formulation that in representing the representations get represented. But in the case of a representation on the level of simple perception a representation is not represented; I simply see the chair. This is implied in the very sense of representing. When I look, I am not intent upon seeing a representation of something, but the chair. (35)

For ecological realism then, the sense-data hypothesis is mistaken insofar as it begins with the assumption that representations get represented “in the mind”. For Heidegger, we need not make this assumption and indeed, we shouldn’t make it if we are to make sense of the phenomena of perceiving. One might reply by saying that Heidegger is merely assuming what he wants to assume in order to counter the neo-Kantians but why is he justified in assuming that intentionality is directed toward the environment and not toward the proximal stimulus? For one, the Heideggerian position is more parsimonious on the evolutionary and developmental stage because it allows for the possibility of coping behavior without the need for positing an internal consciousness “synthesizing” the proximal data into a percept of the distal stimuli, a processing heavy and thus energy-consuming process. If we look at the earliest progenitors of perceptual systems in unicellular bodies, we can see that the chemical receptors are directly connected with locomotion. The bacterium’s detection of instrumentally relevant chemicals sets off a causal cascade that eventually results in the spinning of the flagellum. In these bodies, there is no possibility of radical skepticism. The epistemic situation is akin to a gear that connects a car’s engine to the tires. Any possibility of perceptual mistake is thus physiological in character rather than epistemological. If we scale these systems up to humans, the same principle applies. We need not assume that the possibility of perceptual breakdown implies the possibility of radical skepticism. Understood from the ecological point of view, perception evolved so as to put us in intimate contact with the Earth. Ecological realism is also committed to the possibility of molar stimuli.

Moreover, in regards to the problem of other minds, philosophical realism assumes

that a subject is encapsulated within itself and now has the task of emphasizing with another subject. This way of formulating the question is absurd, since there never is such a subject in the sense it is assumed here. If the constitution of what is Dasein is instead regarded without presuppositions as in-being and being-with in the presuppositionless immediacy of everydayness, it then becomes clear that the problem of empathy is just as absurd as the question of the reality of the external world. (243)

By exposing the way in which philosophical realism depends on certain unnecessary assumptions about the nature of intentional perceptual systems, we can pave the way for ecological realism as both a metaphysical and epistemological doctrine. Metaphysical, because ecological realism accords with our common sense intuition that the Earth existed before humans and will continue to exist after humans are gone. Epistemological, because it offers a theory of knowledge in terms of opportunities of meaningful behavior.

‘[O]riginally and to begin with,’ one does not really hear noises and sonorous complexes but the creaking wagon, the ‘electric’ streetcar, the motorcycle, the column on the march, the north wind. To ‘hear’ something like a ‘pure noise’ already requires a very artificial and complicated attitude. (266)

This is of course an explication of our being-in-a-world with world understood in terms of significance and meaning. The world is directly meaningful because our affective care-structure compels us towards goals in a teleological fashion. This is of course much more parsimonious with evolutionary theory than any sense-data theory. There is much more to say on this issue, but I will leave the details for another post (and for my master’s thesis!). Also, In Jon Cogburn’s upcoming Fall graduate seminar, we will be exploring this issue of teleosemantics and animal cognition in great detail, so expect a flurry of posts related to these issues in the Fall. I can’t wait!

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Filed under Heidegger, Phenomenology

Missing the Forest for the Trees – Iain Thomson on the concept of "Earth"

In his recently published article on Heidegger’s Aesthetics in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Iain Thomson has this to say about Heidegger’s concept of Earth:

“Earth,” in other words, is an inherently dynamic dimension of intelligibility that simultaneously offers itself to and resists being fully brought into the light of our “worlds” of meaning and permanently stabilized therein, despite our best efforts. These very efforts to bring the earth’s “inexhaustible abundance of simple modes and shapes” completely into the light of our worlds generates what Heidegger calls the “essential strife” between “earth” and “world”

In Heidegger’s view, then, for a great artwork to work—that is, for it to help focus and preserve a meaningful “world” for an audience—this artwork must maintain an essential tension between the world of meanings it pulls together and the more mysterious phenomenon of the “earth.”

the “earth” is thus Heidegger’s name in 1935–36 for what he most frequently calls “being as such,” a dynamic phenomenological “presencing” (Anwesen) which gives rise to our worlds of meaning without ever being exhausted by them, a dimension of intelligibility we experience both as it informs and as it escapes our attempts to pin it down

With world and earth, in other words, Heidegger seeks to name and so render visible the quietly conflictual structure at the heart of intelligibility, the unified opposition that allows “being” to be “dis-closed” in time.

Pretty confusing, no? To me, such attempts to make Heidegger intelligible are simply too complex, too philosophical, and too difficult to fully make sense of. Can anyone translate such jargon into plain English? I propose a much simpler explanation of what Heidegger’s concept of “Earth” means: the Earth!

Yes, it really is that simple. “Earth” means the Earth i.e. the planet we live and die on. But note, Heidegger is attempting to describe the subsisting earth which continually and effortlessly surrounds us in nonmetaphysical terms . Thus, “Earth is that which comes forth and shelters.” Examples of “Earth”? A cave to live in, a tree for shade, the ground for walking, materials for building,  ecological mediums for seeing and hearing (light and air), etc. The earth is “that on which and in which man bases his dwelling…In the things that arise, earth occurs essentially as the sheltering agent.” However, “World and earth are essentially different from one another and yet are never separated. The world grounds itself on the earth, and earth juts through world.”

As Being and Time clearly spells out, the “World” in which Dasein lives is different from the planet “on which” we dwell. The world of Dasein is the world of significance given through being-in-a-world i.e. understanding, interpretation and language (as-structure, rift-design, etc.) being-with, possibilities of authenticity, etc. In other words, the “World” of Dasein is our rich cultural-linguistic life and the “Earth” is the always-already-there environment in which we are always already dwelling, indeed, born into.  As Heidegger says, “Upon the earth and in it, historical man grounds his dwelling in the world.”  Accordingly, I interpret the “strife” between earth and world as being characterized by, for example, the tension between hammer-as-physical-thing and hammer-as-tool.

As for the stuff on self-seclusion, this idea is best made sense of in terms of J.J. Gibson’s work on ecological optics. Heidegger, like Gibson, is essentially describing the earth in terms of biological agents and how they interact with the world through perceptual comportment. The earth is self-secluding because due to its three dimensional structure, seeing the book on the table is at the expensive of seeing the table underneath the book. The earth, with its ground, horizons, buildings, and objects, is always occluding some parts of itself from the perspective of a perceiver. There are “lines of sight” embedded in the environment in virtue of the ambient light bouncing off the the ground and various objects and “settling” into stable, overlapping “arrays” which reflect information about the objects and environment being reflected. Gibson describes all this much more rigorously than does Heidegger.

So, for all those confounded by Heidegger’s ideas, do yourself a favor and read Gibson’s  book The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception or his The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems. Gibson was a much better Heideggerian than Heidegger himself. Getting a sense for what “ecological psychology” entails will provide the conceptual resources for understanding and making sense of Heidegger without all the confusing jargon that does more to obfuscate that illuminate, particularly with a text as complicated and rich as The Origin of the Work of Art.


Filed under Heidegger, Philosophy

An Ecological Approach to Mental Health


…how come we so often ignore to consider that many mental issues that arise (such as phobias, anxieties, bad habits, low self-esteem) are learned behaviors, not causes of a biological disturbance…

…the 2008 American Psychological Association President Stephen Sharfstein released a statement saying psychiatrists had “allowed the biopsychosocial model to become the bio-bio-bio model.”

…We need to also accept that first and foremost psychology is a social science; we need to study humans in the context of their whole environment and being, not just inside their brains.

Right on! In his latest book, which I highly recommend, Alva Noë concurs that we are not just ours brains, but rather, embodied brains interacting with a complex environment. The difference sounds like mere semantics, but it makes all the difference in the world!

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Filed under Psychology, Random