Can psychology adhere to a radical enactive framework just yet?

Psychology has gone through a number of paradigmatic changes since its relatively recent beginnings. The main shift has been from behaviour directed psychology to the current cognitive focus (Koschmann, 1996). However, a new paradigm is looming to reinvent the way in which we explore psychology. The enactive mind paradigm offers a complete transformation by fundamentally rooting the psychological mind in its body and environment (Clark, 1997). This radical assertion is certainly still up for major discussion. It is the aim of this article to question if such a radical framework can yet be adhered to. Essentially it will attest that a more simple view of the new paradigm must be followed until further justification is achieved.

Firstly, the contrast between the radical and simple view must be accurately defined. Clark (1999) provides a clear theoretical distinction to this contrast. He identifies the radical view as a new cognitive framework that profoundly alters sympathetic in psychology as opposed to the simple view that constrains the traditional view of cognition based on linear internal processing and representation. This distinction suggests the theoretical implications of adopting either stance, but a more detailed understanding of the claims of the radical framework is necessary.

Based on Clark’s distinction, three primary issues of the radical view are presented. The second and third issues assert that internal representation and functioning of the traditional computational model have been misguiding research in the cognitive field (Thompson & Varela, 2001). Such claims are driven by the first issue which deals with the dynamic relationship attributed to the mind, the body, and the world in which they exist. In order for this relationship to be examined sufficiently the radical framework calls for a dynamical systems model of interpretation where the organism’s body and meaningful world are fundamental to its cognition (Thompson & Varela, 2001). Essentially, each person is an organism with a mind and body in a closed but dynamic system that fundamentally thinks and behaves due to this dynamism coupled with its interactions in its selected environment (Maturana & Varela, 1987). The use of such a model in cognition directly refutes the traditional computational framework in which cognitive psychology has been explored to date.

As psychology considers itself a science and before such a major theoretical shift can be accepted, empirical evidence must vindicate its fundamental claims. Research in infant development is often cited as justification for the radical enactive approach (Di Paolo, Rohde & De Jaegher, 2007). In Piaget’s “A-not-B” error, research now argues that the thought processes required are centrally reliant on bodily movements and the infant’s environment (Thelen, Schöner, Scheier & Smith, 2001). In the “A-not-B” error, a child who succeeds in finding an object at location “A” will continue to look in that location even if they observe the object being moved to location “B”. The continuing activity of the motor and perceptual systems is given as the source of this error. Thelen et al (2001) assert that such activation reinforces the memory of the initial action (reaching to location “A”), and thus increases the likelihood of this action recurring. Their study shows that infant activities are born out of dynamic interactions between the mind, motor functions and their local environment (Thelen et al, 2001). Although, this appears as positive justification for the radical framework, concern exists with similar infant research that it fails to negate the formation of internal representations, a key component of the traditional system it aims to replace (Clark, 1999).

In this regard, the research of Ballard, Hayhoe, Pook, and Rao (1997) offers further verification for the radical enactive view. Through a time pressured computer task, they asked participants to recreate arrays of coloured blocks. Their eye movements were recorded and it was found that participants repeatedly rechecked the original arrays of blocks. Furthermore, the eye movements happened at important stages in the task; primarily to obtain colour information of a block and secondly to assess its location. The repeated frequency of eye movements to gather strategic information was dubbed a “minimal memory strategy” by the researchers. According to Miller’s “seven plus or minus two” theory of the number of information chunks that we can process at any one time, we should be able to complete this task using only one eye movement (Miller, 1956). However, we appear not to internally represent the original array in our mind but rather alter our bodily orientation with regard to the environment to aid our information processing and make our cognition less strenuous (Ballard et al, 1997). This support coupled with the infant development research strongly supports the radical enactive view as outlined earlier in this article.

However, there exist concerns with this framework that neither of the previous examples address. A major issue for the radical enactive view is how effectively it deals with higher-level abstract cognition (Di Paolo et al, 2007). Although, it removes abstractness from the nature of the mind, this view seems to fail in dealing with the mind being used for abstract thought. In this regard, a lack of scientific evidence in an abstract domain is a major drawback of this radical approach (Mahon & Caramazza, 2005). The relationship between abstract higher-level cognition and sensory-motor processes is still ambiguous (Svensson and Ziemke, 2004). A further issue lies in the form of off-line cognition; thoughts that exist outside of the real-time responses that enable us to adapt to our environment. Questions concern how such cognition can be embedded in any environment or how the body can be central to it (Wilson, 2002). For the radical view to continue, a balance between its theoretical claims and empirical evidence must be achieved (Mahon & Caramaza, 2005).

Following on from such concerns, it is important to point out that there appears no empirical evidence to challenge these issues. As alluded to in the presentation on this topic, all of the abstract based language research is strongly grounded in a concrete domain (Glenberg & Kaschak, 2002). Due to a lack of empirical verification, the question of whether the radical framework is a genuine paradigmatic shift is pertinent (Clark, 1999). For the radical view to be upheld, the ambiguity of how sensory-motor abilities could possibly explain abstract thought processes and off-line cognition must be resolved. As this resolution is currently nonexistent, this article asserts that it is the simple view that must be adhered to, particularly when it comes to abstract cognition. Instead of dramatically altering the way in which psychology is examined, the enactive approach is constraining the current cognitive paradigm of internal computational functioning and enabling it to include bodily based and environmental aspects. Rather than these new dynamics being absolutely fundamental to and changing how we view abstract cognition, the simple view still lends to the idea of internal representation where the role of the body and the environment is informative rather than central (Clark, 1999). With abstract cognition working in such a way, this article asserts that bodily and environmental factors have a complementary rather than a fundamental role in such cognition.

There is evidence to support this view. The use of gestures in mathematics clearly highlights the complementary role of our bodies in abstract cognition (Goldin-Meadow, 2000). Goldin-Meadow’s (2000) study found that gestures used while solving equations enabled children to illustrate more information than they could verbally. In one example, she identifies the use of gestures to show grouping although the child was never explicitly taught this technique. Similarly, teachers have been found to teach more effectively when gestures are used to help show how a certain problem is solved (Singer & Goldin-Meadow, 2005). Essentially this works as it lightens the cognitive burden for the child. Further support shows that children who use gestures in explaining mathematical problems perform better in a memory task than those children who did not gesture (Goldin-Meadow, Nusbaum, Kelly & Wagner, 2001). Such evidence certainly highlights a connection between the use of bodily movements and understanding the abstract nature of mathematics. However, in none of the above examples is it claimed that gestures, and thus the body, were fundamental to the cognition of the abstract mathematical concept. The body operates in a supportive role that helps reduce the cognitive burden. None of this research proposes that this alters the traditional realm of cognition but it does suggest that there are bodily factors in play that it has previously overlooked. This fits in precisely with the simple framework.

With regard to the environment’s role, Clark provides a good everyday abstract example. When solving multiplication problems one often relies heavily on a pen paper to complete the task (Clark, 1999). In this situation, the question is whether the cognition is rooted in the environment or whether it is a supportive tool that reduces the problem solver’s cognitive load. This article believes it is the second explanation that is true. If we try to solve a difficult multiplication problem without the use of environmental tools, it is often the ability to hold information accurately in our memory that hinders us (Geary, Widaman & Little, 1986). Our cognition of the problem may be correct but our memory might let us down. Effectively, the pen and paper are holding our memory for us and similarly to the gesture examples, are reducing the cognitive burden for the problem solver. With this being the case, then the environment is not centrally influencing our abstract cognition like the radical view dictates. It is merely supporting our cognition. This is adding a new dimension to the traditional cognitive theory, not changing it entirely.

It is important to reiterate that there is a significant lack of empirical evidence surrounding the issue of how abstract cognition fits into the enactive approach. In a concrete domain, the framework is gathering pace but its radical claims cannot be upheld until such abstract verification is found. As a result, the simple view must be adhered to. Cognitive psychology must begin to incorporate bodily functions and the environment into its findings in abstract domains. As of now, the radical changes proposed are still someway off.


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~ by maoliosaq on April 16, 2010.

One Response to “Can psychology adhere to a radical enactive framework just yet?”

  1. You say that “bodily and environmental factors have a complementary rather than a fundamental role…” in certain forms of “…cognition”. Well couldn’t it instead be the case that in certain situations the body and environment do have a fundamental role in some situations but in other situations they do not. This might be a possible explanation to the confusion in research. Rather than an “all or nothing” approach perhaps a “sometimes” approach is better. So that sometimes, but not always, cognitiion can be rooted in the environment. At other times, it stays firmly in the mind.

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