An Enactive Approach to Psychology

Drayson (2009) reveals that traditional cognitive psychology is based on the notion that we make inner representations of what we see in the world around us. She tells us that it puts forth a computer metaphor to explain our mental processes: which are our software and the brain is our hardware. She claims that cognitive science is a disembodied approach to discussing the mind. The enactive approach on the other hand, deals with the mind’s interaction with the world around it (McGann, 2008). The enactive approach became known as such from the book “The Embodied Mind” (Torrance, 2006). Torrance (2006) informs us that there are two types of accounts of enactivism, a broad approach which is associated with Varela and Thompson and is to do with the “nature of the mind”, and a more directed approach to do with the “nature of perception”. This article will concentrate on the broader view of enactivism. It will also look at what an enactive account of social perception and psychopathology would be, it contributions towards an explanation of consciousness, and why this approach is controversial.

McGann (2008) reports that there are 5 criteria used to identify the broad enactive approach: Autonomy, a dynamic systems approach, embodiment, experience and sense making. Autonomy is about the agent being an independent system – it doesn’t need something else to define it. The dynamic systems aspect shows how the nervous system can be dynamic. The central nervous system is ruled by a network of feedback sequences between its neurons which affect each other more than any “input” coming from outside it. It therefore cannot be influenced solely by outside happenings, but it can be disturbed by them and its actions are then a result of the combination of this disturbance and its own activity. Torrance (2006) claims that this system works to generate meaning rather than internal representations of the external world. Embodiment is the context in which cognition occurs. McGann (2008) advises us that cognition is the adjustable synchronization and regulation of actions and therefore cannot be examined without referring to both the agent itself and its environment. Sense making is about how the agent gives meaning to it environment. Our interpretation of anything in our environment depends on our personal meanings for it. A chair is not actually a “chair” but pieces of plastic and metal put together. It is the agent that gives it the title of “chair” with the connotation of “something to sit on”, which is in view of the fact that McGann states: “the world you live in depends as much on you as it does on the physical environment”. Cognition, perception and action are three aspects of this (McGann and DeJaegher, 2009). Experience then, McGann (2008) tells us finally, plays a crucial role in the comprehending of how cognition works. Experience is a central feature of the agent’s “lived embodiment” in its world and therefore must be included if any proper science of the mind is to occur (Torrance, 2006). However, although the enactive approach is committed to including bodily facts in the understanding of experience and meaning, it is more interested in the meaning and experience itself (McGann and DeJaegher, 2009). Torrance (2006) tells us that this broad view of enactivism can be clarified by discussing what minds are not. They are not:

“information processing engines, receiving external stimuli from a re-existing world, which are transduced into internal neural representations, from which internal cognitive transformation processes recover, through complex computational operations, objective features of the world so as to generate appropriate motor actions on the world” (pg 359).

Now that what an enactive approach is has been put forth, its account of psychological processes must be considered.

McGann and DeJaegher (2009) discuss an enactive approach to Social Perception. They consider the five elements of enactivism named earlier to be crucial to our understanding of social interaction. They argue that the relationship between the “cognizer” and their world is important to examining social interactions. They assert that perception is a way of examining our surroundings in an “active, engaged way”; where embodiment plays a fundamental role. McGann and DeJaegher suggest that social interaction is made up of two parts: the “autonomy of the participants” and the “autonomy of the interaction process”. They report that a social interaction can organise itself and become a temporary system of self-production. During the time of this self-organisation the “interaction is autonomous” though it does not necessarily have to be autonomous all the time. This process is involved in the interplay of individuals and this interaction process, and this co-ordination is an elemental component of sense making whereby individuals can take part in another’s sense-making. Social perception then, they enlighten us, is “the skilful handling of social situations… the capacity to participate in social or self-other contingencies”. Contingencies are mainly affective and emotional in temperament. Social perception then is different from physical perception in that you perceive a person, not an object, this “who” also perceives you, and the actions of this person can also change you. Social enaction, McGann and DeJaegher postulate, offers a view of the self “as the principle of coherence of skilled activity by the agent.” This makes the self central to cognition, while letting us attach importance to the way it is partly determined by interaction. There may be implications from this for such disorders as autism and Capgras syndrome. Essentially, McGann and DeJaegher believe that an enactive view of sociality lets us understand what is shared by social and physical interaction and the uniqueness of social interaction.

Drayson (2009) tells us that because of the aforementioned metaphor used to describe cognitive science, psychiatric disorders can be thought of as “bugs” in our software.  However, she states that this kind of description does not withstand close examination. Affective disorders, she declares, would be “obvious candidates” to be used in an enactive approach to psychopathology because of the link between body and emotion. She relates how symptoms of depression which involve “dysfunctions of abstract thought and memory processes (are) accompanied by lower level symptoms” such as sleep disturbances. On the other hand, if an enactive view to psychopathology were taken, a view of psychopathology would have to be taken where mental disorders would have to be seen as “disorders of embodied brains embedded in their natural and social environments”. Drayson claims that brain imaging studies would lose credence as it would only be a part of the picture rather than the whole (which in cognitive science it is currently thought to be) and as such would not provide an accurate diagnosis because the interaction of the brain with the body and its environment would also have to be considered. She believes that the main problem psychopathologists have with cognitive psychology is that it is disinterested in consciousness as it sees it as a by product of brain activity. She supposes that an enactive approach could provide a way for incorporating “experiential qualities and the bodily aspects of mental and life disorders”.

Torrance (2006) also discusses a possible enactive response to the “hard problem” of consciousness, by claiming that the problem itself has been misunderstood. Enactivists believe that rather than creating an internal representation of the external world in our minds – which tells us nothing of how the world and the mind are related to each other experientially, consciousness is a process which is embodied in the actions of the agent that come from its “adaptive sensorimotor coupling with the world.” Torrance asserts that cognition and consciousness are both a part of this process and cannot be considered separate from each other.

Memory might also be seen from an enactive view point. If you think about driving a car: you drive to a place you have not been to many times before. You could not describe the directions to get to the place, but you know the route once you are on it. You know which turns to take as you see them, but not before. It could be argued from this that your memory of how to get to the place is in fact actually stored in your environment, rather than your mind. There are only cue points on your route which remind you of where you need to go as you see them, stored in your memory. The rest of the information is stored in your environment waiting for you to access it as necessary.

Enactivism then essentially, differs from a cognitivist view of the mind by incorporating both bodily and environmental influences into the workings of our mental processes. This is controversial as it would basically mean that everything that has come before in psychology cannot be completely trusted to be an accurate account of the mind because, from this point of view, the brain is only one piece of the puzzle, the body and its environment would need to be considered also to solve the enigma. This has implications for much psychological research including, as previously mentioned, brain imaging science, theory on emotion (Colombetti and Thompson, 2008) and memory amongst others. Further research could be conducted in these areas and in particular the aforementioned area of memory to see if this supposition is actually accurate. Such research may show that a complete overhaul of how we view the mind and even our personal identities may be needed. We suppose that are thoughts, feelings and emotions come solely from our minds (or brain) but if our bodies (our general health, hormones, whether we have one foot slightly smaller than the other) and environment play an equal role in how our minds work then are we really who we think we are.



Colombetti, G. & Thompson, E. (2008). THE FEELING BODY: TOWARD AN ENACTIVE APPROACH TO EMOTION. In W. M. Overton, Developmental Perspectives on Embodiment and Consciousness (pp. 45-68). New York: Taylor and Francis Group, LLC.

Drayson, Z. (2009). Embodied Cognitive Science and Its Implications for Psychopathology. Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, Vol. 16, No. 4, 329-340.

McGann, M. & Jaegher, H. D. (2009). Self–other contingencies: Enacting social perception. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 8:417–437.

McGann, M. (2008). What is “Enactive” Cognition? A Cognition Briefing. Retrieved April 8th, 2010, from euCognition The European Network for the Advancement of Artificial Cognitive Systems:

Torrance, S. (2006). In search of the enactive: Introduction to special issue on enactive experience. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 4: 357–368.


~ by kayleighmarieswords on April 10, 2010.

3 Responses to “An Enactive Approach to Psychology”

  1. I suppose that within previous cognitive research, the framing of the problem, the task undertaken and the interpretation of the results could be considered as constituting the environmental aspect inherent in the enactive approach. This is often disregarded in favour of the new information gleaned about brain activity but taken as a whole it could be argued that previous research does in fact include the broader environmental context. I would agree that meaning (of results or conclusions) is actually only apparent within a given context. I would also defend the scientific tendency towards specialism in ever more isolated areas (the brain divorced from the environment for example) as a means to further investigate specific properties. This is acceptable so long as results are carefully interpreted within context and the broader, more holistic level guides investigation at the narrower or more specific level.

  2. I really liked the way you applied the enactive approach to disorders and brain imaging. In your argument, the point is made that memory could actually be stored in the environment rather than in the mind as the traditional view would attest. Furthermore, in concluding your article, you state the need for more research about memory from an enactive view. Although your point talked about memory being stored in the environment, there is research existing to suggest that memory is an embodied activity. This obviously links in with the embodiment pillar of the enactive approach and offers support to your argument.

    Yang, Gallo and Beilock (2009) undertook a study to explore whether motor system fluency effects recognition memory. They examined the difference between skilled and novice typists at recognising letter dyads. Participants were presented with two types of letter dyads; ones that would be fluent to type (typed with different fingers on different hands), and ones that would not (typed by the same finger on the same hand). It was found that skilled typists made more errors of recognition than novice typists. It was concluded that memory is centrally influenced by actions and thus the body. This adds support to your argument that memory does not solely exist in the brain, and thus lends itself as further evidence to the enactive approach.

  3. I would agree that an enactive approach to cognition in general and memory in particular is a worthwhile pursuit. Memory, as theorised computationally, cannot be sufficiently described or explained. Your example of driving a route is just one of many which one could draw from which illustrate your point. I would venture that given the strictures of traditional models of memory, it is definitely time to cast a wider net. Whether it includes enactive, embodied, embedded or any of the other new approaches is a moot point. What is important is that it looks farther and deeper with as few preconceptions as possible in order to engage more fully with the complex human experience that is memory.

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