Thursday, 12 January 2012

What is Embodied Cognition? - A Brief Introduction - Pt2/2

 Part 1/2 can be found here.

Strong Embodied Cognition - Dynamical Systems, Feedback Loops and Turbocharged Engines

The strong approach to Embodied Cognition distinguishes itself from the weaker form in that its implications leave no room for an isolated brain or the classical cognitive model of mind. That is to say that strong EC cannot be reunited with the computational paradigm. On this view, cognition is understood as part of a dynamic system incorporating brain, body and environment, whereby every output is fed back, in what is known as a feedback loop. The nature of the interactions between self and environment continuously feed back, resulting in the emergence of a tightly coupled system - the mind.

Larry Shapiro gives a good example explaining the concept of dynamic systems and feedback loops in the form of car engines. Very, very simply, a normal engine has the inputs (fuel, Spark plugs etc) and outputs (exhaust) which then exits the car. A turbocharged engine, however, feeds the exhaust back into the engine, which turns a turbine, compresses more air in the cylinders, provides more combustion and produces more exhaust, which is all the time re-entering the engine as an input. As a result the exhaust is clearly more than a by-product; it becomes an essential constituent of the system itself.

We can think of the process of cognizing as a complex dynamic system (analogous to the turbocharged engine). The body and environment are essential constituents of the system (analogous to the exhaust). Even though they act as inputs/outputs they are contained within the overall system of cognition. Thus to conceptualize the mind as only composed or produced in the brain is to leave out significant, necessary parts.

But what are the implications?

Is your iPhone part of your Extended Mind?

Chalmers and Clark argue that it follows the mind is somehow contained or extended in the environment. They provide us with the thought experiment of Otta and Inga:

Otto and Inga are travelling to the museum. Inga is able to access the directions by searching her memory, such that she then has the belief the museum is in direction x. Otto, however, has Alzheimer’s Disease and as such, has written down the directions which he accesses. He now holds the same belief as Inga that the museum is in direction x.

Chalmers and Clark argue that the only difference is that Inga’s memory is internally processed by the brain, whereas Otto’s is externally written down. Hence Otto’s notebook has the same function of memory as Inga’s brain processing – both are part of the same dynamic system.

It is certainly true that we offload cognitive tasks externally, in order to decrease cognitive demand. We exploit our environment such that it can store and even calculate information for us – just think of iPhones, laptops and books. But is your iPhone really a part of your mind? I find this difficult to grasp. Are Chalmers and Clark confusing ‘causes’ for ‘constituents’? Part of the problem may lie in our definition of systems.

Understanding Systems

Margaret Wilson argues a little clarification on systems is needed. She explains that the 'forces that drive cognition do not solely reside in our head and are thus distributed across mind, body and environment'. But this is trivially true. Of course we are influenced by external as well as ‘internal’ causes; we evolved to respond to our environment. A car is influenced by the weather, other cars, other drivers etc, but this does not lead us to conceptualise these external causes as part of the ‘car system’.

In this sense the ‘car system’ is being viewed as an ‘open system’ – that is, it is open to external causes but these causes are not part of the system itself. The alternative is a ‘closed system’ – which is not influenced by an external causes. But short of the viewing the entire universe as a .’closed system’, it is difficult to think of any other examples. Surely there is no disagreement that we can study the earth as an ecosystem in its own right, without viewing all the external causes that influence it, such as the sun, as part of the system itself?

Two further definitions are necessary here. Systems may facultative – ‘temporary, organised for a particular occasion and disbanded readily’ or ‘obligate’ – ‘permanent, at least relative to the lifetime of their parts’. Wilson argues Chalmers and Clark make their error in opting for a closed system. In assuming a closed system is the only way to incorporate all the constituents and account for external causes, they gain a temporary facultative system. This, however, means the mind would ‘arise and disband rapidly and continuously during the daily life of the person’.

Wilson is quite vague as to why this is so troublesome. Presumably, for her, the concept of a mind that ‘comes and goes’ is incoherent. But is she making the Cartesian Materialist’s error? Is she viewing the mind as a noun, a ‘thing’ which resides somewhere in the brain? How could it possibly come and go? If we conceptualise the mind as a verb – some kind of active process such as cognizing – surely the idea of a facultative system in constant flux, responding to it's ever changing environment, seems more plausible.


Embodied cognition is a broad term encompassing varying attitudes.

Two key features are a) the rejection of the classic computation theory of mind b) the view that the brain, body and environment are all involved in the process of cognition. 

The weak view attempts to emphasise the importance of the role of the body and environment and provides examples where computation is not needed, due to relying on direct information from the environment. This does not necessarily call for a complete rejection of computational representation. There are some examples, such as dead reckoning which seem to be computational and some view the two theories as compatible.

The strong view argues the mind is a complex dynamic system of which the brain, body and constituents are all necessary parts. As such, the mind extends across brain, body and environment and can only be properly understood if we conceptualize and study it in the context of all its parts. 

References and Further Reading

McBeath MK, Shaffer DM, & Kaiser MK (1995). How baseball outfielders determine where to run to catch fly balls. Science (New York, N.Y.), 268 (5210), 569-73 PMID: 7725104

The extended mind - A Clark, D Chalmers - Analysis, 1998 - JSTOR
Embodied cognition is not what youthink it is - Excellent blog by notes from two scientificpsychologists
Embodied Cognition -Another great blog by Fixing Psychology
Six views of embodied cognition - M Wilson - Psychonomic Bulletin & Review,2002  
Brain Science Podcast -evidence for the computational approach with Randy Gallistel
Brain Science Podcast -evidence for embodied cognition with Larry Shapiro


  1. Another good post!

    I must say that the "extended mind" stuff (e.g. the iPhone is part of your memory) still make me nervous. It's not that I think it is completely off base, but that I think we need to be very, very careful with the language we are using. It seems very is easy to slip from something that is true and insightful to something that a vast overstep. I also think the extended mind arguments are something not at the core of the embodied cognition arguments, nor the extreme form of it, but another issue entirely.

    This is on my list to blog about in relation to Barrett's Beyond the Brain. She does a very good job talking about Clark's work, and placing it in context with the embodied cognition work.

    P.S. Edinburgh has a very cool looking "Chancellor's fellowship" program. I keep wanting to contact Clark (as well as David Lee's group) to see if he (they) would consider supporting an application from me. My wife has not warmed up to the idea though :- (

  2. Thanks for the comment(s) Charles. Been stressing with stats revision hence the late reply.

    I agree, I find the extended mind stuff tricky. If you can accept the turbocharged-engine-dynamic-systems analogy, it's hard to see how the environment is not included the that system of mind. I think Margaret Wilson makes a good point about confusing constituents and causes. Chalmers and Clark seem to be trying to make the mind a closed system in order to account for all causal influences but the mind can be viewed as an open system which is influenced by external causal factors that are not in themselves constituents.

    I look forward to your blog on how Barrett's contextualises Clark's work within embodied cognition. :)

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