In 2001 and 2002, my students and I published two papers on mental simulation in Psychological Science. I warned my students that these experiments might draw a lot of attention and possibly criticism. I was about to make full professor, so I was not worried about myself but I was worried about my students. I was particularly concerned about a backlash from traditional psycholinguists.
I was wrong. There was no backlash. Instead, other people started using our paradigm and made nice careers for themselves doing so. It stayed like this until 2008. Then a paper appeared co-authored by Mahon and Caramazza.
They called our experiments “elegant and ingenious” (thanks for that) but argued that our results did not rule out an account in which the actual work was done by abstract symbols rather than perceptual representations, with activation cascading down from abstract representations to the perceptual and action systems. (This hypothesis does not seem implausible to me and even has a certain appeal but Mahon and Caramazza didn’t offer any direct evidence to support it.)
Mahon and Caramazza used our experiments (among others) to stake out their position that cognition involves interactive activation between abstract symbols and the systems of perception and action. In their assessment, our account was too embodied.
Now there is a paper by Wilson and Golonka who state that these same experiments are not embodied enough (there is no pleasing people, is there?). They use them (and others) to advance their claim that cognition does not need mental representations. That pretty much rules out all of cognitive science (including Mahon and Caramazza) but let’s roll with it.
What evidence do Wilson and Golonka provide for their claim? They cite a book by Pfeifer and Schreier. I used this book in a seminar I taught about 10 years ago and greatly enjoyed it. The students and I were fascinated by the descriptions of little robots that could display forms of intelligent behavior purportedly without having mental representations. It is debatable whether these robots really had no mental representations but let’s roll with it.
As the students and I worked through the book, we kept wondering when it was going to address issues cognitive scientists are actually interested in, like understanding language, solving problems, and reasoning. The robots had nothing to say about this. They were mostly rummaging around, industriously collecting empty coke cans.
Once in a while over the past decade, I kept checking back to this literature but it never seemed to come closer to addressing the questions of interest to cognitive scientists.
In fact, Rodney Brooks, the father of the subsumption architectures on which these robots were based, has left the field altogether to become CEO of a company that produces the roomba, a vacuum cleaner with a subsumption architecture. It hides under your couch when you are around but comes out when nobody’s there and cleans your carpet. Very useful of course but a far cry from being able to comprehend a story, write a scientific paper, or reminisce about the past.
Wilson and Golonka discuss some other evidence in support of their claim. They describe interesting research (by others) on how an outfielder catches a fly ball. Obviously, catching a fly ball involves action and perception in the environment.
They also discuss impressive work by Thelen on the A-not-B error. Again, though, the task is very much an “in-the-world task”; it involves perception of and reaching for an object.
Most tasks that cognitive scientists are interested in do not have such strong connections with the environment. The authors, of course, are aware of this and state This is the point where standard cognitive science usually jumps in and claims that conventional meaning requires representational support.
You can hardly blame the standard cognitive scientist for wanting to jump in here because you can drive a truck through the gap in their line of argumentation.
Wilson and Golonka acknowledge that language is a tremendous step up from the other examples they have discussed but are optimistic they can take this step. I can’t see the reason for this optimism because all they provide is a very loose discussion of conventions and situation semantics. I am worried that they are underestimating how tremendous the step really is.
The authors talk about any cognitive task as solving a problem and leading to an overt response. But I can read Crime and Punishment, I can listen to it on tape, and blind people can read it using Braille. These tasks differ on the surface, but the differences are minor with respect to what cognitive scientists are most interested in in cases like this, namely the end result: a mental representation of the described situation. Reading Crime and Punishment is not the same as catching a fly ball. Calling it solving a problem seems a stretch and it does not lead to an immediately observable response.
The main problem with nonradical embodiment research, according to the authors, is the assumption that cognition is done in the head. Of course it is done in the head. Where else would it be done if you’re sitting on your couch reading Crime and Punishment?
Wilson and Golonka are critical of our 2001 experiment, saying that no task analysis was done. They could have leveled that criticism against pretty much any other cognitive experiment but it’s apparently especially problematic when it concerns ours. But do they have ideas how such an analysis ought to be performed? No. They point out that even Gibson himself (making him sound like the L. Ron Hubbard of ecological psychology) had a hard time coming up with something useful here. So they leave it at a vague critique of our experiment.
That said, I do think the authors have a good point that more attention should be given to task analysis. I just would have liked to get specifics.
The article is generally very low on specifics. Do the authors present any experiments themselves that can convince us that their approach can scale up from catching fly balls to reading Dostoyevsky or constructing an argument? No. Do they at least suggest the outlines of such experiments? Nope.
The article is a manifesto, a rehashing of old ideas that have already been shown to go nowhere (well, they’re hiding under your couch). It provides no roadmap of how we get from catching fly balls to something cognitive scientists care about. It also contains several mischaracterizations of the criticized literature. In fact, there is another recent proposal on the role of embodiment that seems a lot more promising.
That said, to each his own and I see nothing wrong with encouraging Wilson and Golonka to continue on their quest. To have real impact, though, they need an experiment: the kind of experiment that people from various theoretical persuasions will use a decade later as a reference point for framing their own theoretical claims.