A blog about problems in the field of psychology and attempts to fix them.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Beyond the Brain: Intro

Beyond the Brain: How Body and Environment Shape Animal and Human Minds, by Louise Barrett was released earlier this year. I just finished writing a review of it for PsycCritiques (The American Psychological Association online journal that used to be the printed Contemporary Psychology). So, first things first: Highly recommended.

Alas, PsycCritiques has a pretty short word limit, and so there are many aspects of the book worth discussing that were left undiscussed. Thus I am going to start throwing some comments, positive and negative, up here on the blog for the next few weeks (i.e., I do not feel it is fair to duplicate my review here, but will be discussing things that could not be included in the review). This isn't going to be a chapter by chapter book-club sort of things as some blogs do (good examples: Heft's book and Chemero's book), though I hope some day to do a few of those. Rather, this will jump around, and draw from different parts of the book as needed. Who knows, maybe I can even get Dr. Barrett to engage in a little back and forth. If anyone out there knows her, please pass this invitation along.

Let's start with an overview.

This book contains a wide number of my favorite things. It overlays human work, animal work, robotics and even a few computer simulations to give a broad vision of an embedded, embodied, and extended explanation of cognition. It starts off explaining the problems with anthropomorphizing animal behavior, and over-intellectualizing human behavior. There are examples of how very smart behavior can happen in animals of very little brain, including a chapter on the premier example of this, the Portia spider. This includes a pretty through bashing of the nature vs. nurture / learned vs. innate distinction, complete with examples from Tinbergen and Gottlieb. After showing that big brains are not necessary for flexible and adaptive behavior, it tries to explain what big brains actually help you do. This takes us into ecological psychology and unpacking of the faulty metaphors of traditional cognitive psychology. Next come several examples of how properly constructed physical bodies can - without any centralized control - lead to many of the behavioral phenomena we might otherwise think need a big brain. A shout out is given here to the work on rat pup huddling that my old adviser did, including the experiments showing that robots could produce many of the same huddling patterns with only random movement, if they were shaped like pups, i.e., the body shape itself gets you most of the way to a functionally adaptive outcome. Also here are several examples of how developing and living in the right environment can produce adaptive variation we might otherwise think required intellectual foresight. Finally the book ends with a discussion of 'extended cognition' which is the idea that anything used to produce a 'cognitive' activity is part of that activity. This might have been the weirdest part of the book, especially when the concept is applied broadly. However basic examples can be very straightforward: If I use a list on my refrigerator to help me remember what to buy at the supermarket, then that list functions as external 'memory' (a quintessentially 'cognitive' thing)... and it is not absurd to say that the list is as essential to my remembering what to buy as is my brain.

Names in the reference section that made me smile included: Karen Adolph, Jeff Alberts, Mark Blumberg, Richard Byrne, Tony Chemero, Andy Clark, Alan Costall, Franz de Waal, James Gibson, Gilbert Gottlieb, Konrad Lorenz, Alva Noe, Lloyd Morgan, Ed Reed, John Searle, B.F. Skinner, Linda Smith, John Sutton, Ester Thelen, Niko Tinbergen, Jakob Von Uexkull, Lev Vygotsky, Andrew Whiten, and Robert Wozniak, oh, and Chris May, who was a grad student with me. There were also quite a few names I did not recognize, but will have to look up after reading about there work in the book.

Alright, I know a names list is a bit boring, but hopefully it gives a feel for the breadth of the book and the types of ideas it is pulling together. My prior familiarity with Barrett's work was her textbook on Human Evolutionary Psychology, which I had mixed feelings about -- it was a great textbook, but it was really about human behavioral ecology and sociobiology, without much psychology proper -- and so I was worried about having to review this new book. But I worried needlessly, the book was solidly about rethinking psychology. A few possible thesis statements include:
a reduced focus on the nature of animals' "inner lives" and greater attention to how their brains, bodies, and environments work together will give us a deeper understanding of how intelligent, adaptive behavior is produced. (p. 18)
In the same way that a "mutualistic" view pays dividends when we endeavor to understand evolutionary processes, a similarly mutualistic view of behavior and psychology is equally valuable. (p. 93) 
and maybe
What goes for physiology applies equally well to cognition: we shouldn't expect evolved organisms to store or process information in costly ways when they can use the structure of the environment, and their ability to act in it, to bear some of that cognitive load (p. 216).
That's all for now, but more soon. Hopefully it has piqued your interest.


  1. This book is on my list to read; Tony pointed us in her direction for another project and Sabrina and I were both pretty impressed with what we saw. We emailed her out of the blue, she seems friendly :) You should just give her a heads up.

  2. I'm up to Chapter 7 after only a couple of days; it's really good, really well written and a great contribution to the literature. It's amazing how uncontroversial embodied cognition seems when you're talking about spiders rather than humans; that, in and of itself, makes this an excellent book to direct people to if they can't see why you'd be interested in this sort of thing.

    Plus Chapter 6, on Gibson and the ecological approach in general, was excellent. Just rock solid and laid out in a really clear way that covered a lot of important ground. I was really impressed by this bit.

    I'll comment on your other posts once I've finished the book and I know what the posts are about :)

  3. Andrew,
    Lets see if I can help with that. The latest point is all about Chapter 6. I agree that it covers a lot of important ground, but didn't it seem to lack some of that uncontroversial straightforwardness that happened when Barrett was talking about embodied cognition in spiders?

  4. Actually I thought it followed on from what had come before very nicely. I take your point about the Marr stuff but I thought the contrast made Gibson gel even better with the approach she's set up in the earlier chapters. I hope readers might look at the Marr stuff and go 'really? people thought that, when Portia spiders do all that crazy shit?'

  5. Andrew,
    I agree with you that it seems to follow very naturally. But doesn't that strike you as even a touch odd? Why would you say that the contrast felt like it made Gibson gel better? And, especially, why would you say that right after you admitted being amazed how well the embodied stuff sells without the contrast?

  6. The fact of embodiment is one thing. The ecological account of embodiment is another. Andy Clark keeps the latter fairly separate from the former, for instance.

    So what I liked was Barrett making embodiment, not computation, important, and then following up with the two basic ways of talking about perception that psychology has mustered. She's already laid the ground work for computation being irrelevant; now the option is Marr or Gibson, and Gibson seems obvious.

    Frankly, making Gibson seem like the obvious choice is a fine effort - too many people look at Marr type stuff and say 'well, that seems feasible' and Gibson's talk of affordances and perceptual systems seems mystical to them.