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

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Beyond the Brain: Ecological Psychology

Continuing coverage of Beyond the Brain, by Loise Barrett. 

Barrett dedicates an entire chapter of her book to Ecological Psychology, the study of perception originating from the work of James and Eleanor Gibson, and ideas compatible with the ecological approach fill the book. The coverage is excellent, but shares some of the strangeness of what I might call the "standard presentation" of Gibson's approach. To get an idea how intellectually fun the chapter is, it opens with a quote from John Dewey, goes briefly into Alva Noe's work, then has quotes from James Gibson and Maurice Merleau-Ponty all in the first two pages!

The Good Stuff

By the time we get to the chapter on ecological psychology (chapter 6), a lot of ground has already been covered, and the reader should already be up to speed with the idea that active exploration is key to proper perception and that the bodily perceptual mechanism includes much more than just the brain. Thus Barrett can introduce Gibson's ideas into an already sympathetic context, a well crafted opportunity. For example, the idea of the "perceptual system" is introduced, then immediately connected back to the example of the female cricket choosing a mate. Recall that in that example, the cricket's perception was not independent of its bodily arrangement, and also depended on large orienting movements. These movements were essential to the perceptual process, and so the parts of the body doing those motions are equally part of the cricket's "perceptual system." I especially enjoyed that Barrett did not set up this approach in opposition to the results of standard psychophysical testing or the study of sensory physiology - those are both admitted to be perfectly good scientific pursuits, and the emphasis is on reminding the reader that the senses do not function in isolation from the larger system. 

The idea of affordances is then introduced, and connected with the idea of an animal's "umwelt." The original coverage of the umwelt concept (circa p. 80) was a bit odd, but the connection with affordances was excellent. Both concepts "reflect the degree to which an animal with a particular kind of nervous system can detect and make use of particular kinds of environmental opportunities" (p. 98). Barrett's example of a "thank god" hold in rock climbing (an easy place to grab during a difficult climb that allows time for rest and recover) is, frankly, one of the  most straightforward examples I have ever seen to explain how affordances cut across the subjective and objective divide. As she puts it: 
A climber who encounters one of these at the end of a long climb... is likely to be enormously pleased... Never the less, even though there is a relationship between the nature of the hold and the feelings of the climber, the aspects of the hold that specify its "Thank God" qualities are present whether or not anyone is there to use it, and the hold is always there to be perceived and used." (p. 99)
There is a very good explanation of how the purpose of action is often to produce new perceptions (rather than the other way around): Acting so as to produce a certain type of perception is the correct way to accomplish many goals. Spot on.

There is also good coverage of ecological optics, including good discussion of animals' ability to correct for deficient perception through continued action that leads to new perception.

All in all, very nice.

The Stuff I'm not So Sure About

To tell the truth there were no ideas in this part of the book that I had a problem with! Where I'm a bit uncertain is in the order of the presentation and style of presentation.

Order of Presentation
I am still nervous about putting the idea of affordances too far in front when presenting the ideas of ecological psychology. Barrett doesn't put affordances first, but she does put them second (after perceptual systems). Most noticeably, she uses the idea of affordances to build towards the idea of ecological optics. This is not horrible, and it follows the order of presentations I've seen elsewhere, but somehow it still feels backwards -- not just historically backwards, but logically backwards. Because I've talked about this at least a little bit elsewhere, I won't go into any more detail here, but I'd still love to hear other people's opinions. 

Style of Presentation
In this chapter, for the first time in Barrett's book, we find significant space devoted to A) defending the books approach versus alternative approaches and B) explaining the alternative approach in depth. I can see no logic explanation for this, except that ecological psychology is so often explained in this way that we all just naturally fall into this way of thinking as soon as we start talking about it. Why is Barrett suddenly talking about Kepler, Descartes, Hemholtz, and David Marr? Why, in this chapter, is she suddenly explaining the wrong way of thinking before we expose the reader to the full story of the right way of thinking? Why is she telling us the names of fallacies that we commonly fall into? Why all the effort defending ecological psychology, rather than simply displaying it?

All these things are fairly standard in explanations of ecological psychology. However, this presentation significantly reinforced my view that it is not ideal. In all the other chapters, Barrett led with the evidence. She simply illustrated, with carefully chosen examples, how the reader could think more insightfully about animal behavior and (as the book's subtitle indicates) Animal and Human Minds. There was an elegance to this, and a pedagogical logic. I'm convinced this can be done with Ecological Psychology.

However, not only do I find it difficult to craft the more straightforward presentation, I have found that many others don't even seem to know what I'm talking about. When I pitched the idea for a group-authored Ecological Psychology Textbook (a Perception-Action textbook built around the logic of the ecological approach), the most frequent question was how the book would start. Immediately, several people started talking about the need to draw students into "the argument," to explain the history to them, to make sure the students knew how they (supposedly) already thought before we explained the better way to them. I think, due to the rocky start of the field, people naturally think that the core of Ecological Psychology is the controversy. The crowd as a whole, and I am very thankful for the exceptions, seemed to have difficulty envisioning that our field might have advanced to the point where we had enough successful experimental paradigms, and a solid enough theoretical foundation, to simply present Ecological Psychology.

It had never occurred to me that people would object to the goal of giving a straightforward presentation of the ideas. But the convoluted way of thinking is so engrained that it is difficult to shake, so much so that it appears surrounded by the much more elegant presentations in other parts of Barrett's book.


If the rest of Barrett's book wasn't so cleanly written, and the good parts of this chapter so very good, and the textbook project not on my mind, I'm not sure if any of this would have bothered me. As it stands though, it reaffirmed my faith that it is worth the effort and the pain to figure out how to present ecological psychology better.

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