Thursday, 17 August 2017

Distributed Cognition and Collaborative Skills

This post is by Alex Miller Tate (University of Birmingham), reporting from an event taking place in London at the Institute of Philosophy on 26th May 2017, entitled "The Distributed Cognitive Ecologies of Collaborative Embodied Skill".

Philosophers, psychologists, and others share an interest in how human beings act in the world. In particular, scholars are fascinated by how humans develop and then intelligently deploy complex suites of skills and abilities, successfully engaging with an equally complex and rapidly changing environment. Even more impressively, humans often coordinate their actions with others – synchronising with and complementing the actions of their peers in collaborative endeavours as varied as football games and musical performances.

This workshop, organised by John Sutton of Macquarie University, was focused around the investigation of this fascinating topic, with particular emphasis on ways in which our complex, structured, material and social environments act not as a further burden on intelligent collaborative action, but as an enabler of it. At this workshop’s heart was a coming together of work on environmentally situated cognition and collaborative action. While the workshop brought together an invariably insightful group of scholars, I shall focus on just three presentations here.

Emily Cross of Bangor University presented a number of fascinating studies that her lab had conducted on the many and subtle connections between action observation and action performance. Her lab’s work differs in one particularly important respect to other work in the area; they focus on complex rather than simple activities in their test environments. As a consequence, they are able to probe the effects of expertise and learning on action observation and vice versa, and open their investigations to the nature of involved whole-body movements, rather than small and constrained motions (which one might think are ecologically relatively rare). Specifically, her lab focuses on the forms of movement found in dance.

Emily Cross

While there were too many nuanced sets of results offered in her presentation to do justice to here, a few stood out. Firstly, her team have found evidence that sensorimotor brain regions are shaped similarly by both physical practice of complex, whole-body actions and the mere visual experience of another individual practicing the same action. This bolsters previous behavioural evidence that physical and observational rehearsal may share significantly common mechanisms. Moreover, the acquisition of expertise through weeks of learning significantly alters and sharpens activity in the brain associated with action simulation during observation, suggesting that degree and quality of action simulation is modulated by acquisition of embodied skill.

Finally, Cross and her colleagues are just beginning to unravel complex interactions between the development of expertise through physical practice, action simulation, and subjective aesthetic enjoyment of observed movements. Although there is some evidence that enjoyment increases as a function of perceived difficulty in untrained participants, early results look significantly more complex for trained dancers. All of this is grist to the mill for those who want to argue for the fundamentally embodied character of everyday acts of perception, and associated aesthetic judgments.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Morality constrains what we (implicitly) think is possible

My name is Jonathan Phillips and I earned my Ph.D. in Philosophy and Psychology at Yale in 2015. I am now a postdoc in the Moral Psychology Research Lab at Harvard. My research falls in the intersection of psychology, philosophy, and linguistics, and has focused on the psychological representation of modality, or the way our minds represent possibilities.

One incredibly important aspect of human cognition is that we are able to think not only about what is, but also what could be. This ability to represent and reason about non-actual possibilities plays a critical role in many of the judgments that have long interested philosophers and psychologists: it is essential, for example, in how we determine the causes of past events, decide whether a person acted freely, or figure out whether someone is morally responsible.

One interesting, though often overlooked, feature of these kinds of judgments is that humans seems to able to make them quickly and effortlessly. So, to the extent that they require us to represent or reason about alternative possibilities, we must not be doing it consciously or deliberatively. Instead, it seems that we must have some access to a default or implicit representation of possibility.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Autism and Responsibility

On June 7th, Ken Richman (MCPHS University, Boston) and Julian Savulescu (Oxford) hosted a small workshop on autism and moral responsibility at the University of Oxford. 

Some philosophers have argued that impaired cognitive empathy prevents autistic individuals from being fully morally responsible. Neuropsychologists working on autism, philosophers working on moral responsibility and psychiatric illness, autistic adults, and students and postdocs at the Oxford Uehiro Center for Practical Ethics came together to discuss autism and responsibility. Throughout the discussion, we focused on autistic individuals with average or higher intelligence, rather than those who also experience intellectual disability.

One of the first issues addressed was that questioning the moral responsibility of a certain group is extremely sensitive, as exempting individuals from responsibility entails doubting their moral agency, either in a specific situation or more generally. Such considerations might even be used to exclude a person from school or the workplace.

The capacities relevant to moral responsibility are generally considered to be volitional capacity (control) and understanding of the consequences and moral character of one’s actions. Both are affected by autism to some extent. However, autistic individuals are not more prone to committing crimes than the general population, and are not unusually prone to other kinds of immoral behaviour, either. My impression from the discussion was that problems arise most frequently when people are in overwhelming situations, or there can also be problems with inappropriate social behaviour, such as unintended rudeness.

It was pointed out that for most mental disorders, the disorder does not provide a blanket excuse or exemption from responsibility. Rather, what needs to be considered is how specific features of the disorder affected a specific action in order to make a case by case decision regarding excuse. For example, when making a responsibility judgment regarding an autistic child’s meltdown in a noisy situation, we need to take into account how much more stressful certain situations are for autistic children, as well as possible problems with volitional control. This implies that a global assessment of moral incapacity is inappropriate.

Under the label ‘authenticity’ we discussed approaches to moral responsibility and agency that require a morally competent agent not only to do the right thing, but to do it with the right feelings and attitudes. Examples introduced were comforting behaviour without typical feelings of empathy, and apologies without emotional appreciation of the harm done. In reaction to this, some of the participants with more experience with or of autism doubted that such descriptions, which ascribe a lack of affect to autistic individuals, are in fact accurate. It was pointed out that individuals with autism experience affective empathy and emotional contagion and primarily struggle with cognitive empathy, understanding and predicting what other people think. 

Issues are further complicated by another feature common among autistic people: alexithymia, the inability to identify and describe one’s own emotions. So it is important to note is that while the affective responses to other people’s plights may well be different, this does not mean that emotional responses are absent. Furthermore, many of us believed, contra some Strawsonian approaches, that the emotions with which individuals do the morally right thing should not feed into our moral evaluation of their actions, even if they may well influence other aspects of interpersonal relationships. 

The last point we discussed was whether autism has any effect on autonomy and people’s ability to make decisions for themselves. One frequently observed phenomenon is that parents of autistic children are often slower to let them make their own decisions because they want to protect them from ill-considered decisions arising from an inability to appreciate relevant options for action, or insufficient appreciation of the way their condition may affect the success of an action or project. In other words, there can be a struggle to balance respect with paternalistic care for autistic individuals’ welfare.

The workshop generated a very rich and interesting discussion which benefited immensely from the different perspectives that informed the conversation. 

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

How Stereotyping Leads to Misperception

In this post, Kathy Puddifoot, Research Fellow on Project PERFECT at the University of Birmingham, introduces her article, “Stereotyping: the Multifactorial View” recently published Open Access at Philosophical Topics.

Have you ever been sure that someone has made a false judgement about you because of how they perceive members of your social group? Have you ever suspected that you have made false judgement about someone else because you have applied a stereotype? Have you ever wanted to challenge someone else’s stereotyping on the basis that it will lead them to misperceive the people they stereotype? My paper identifies the conditions under which applying stereotypes about social groups leads to misperceptions like these.

One common assumption is that stereotyping only leads to misperception when it involves the application of a false stereotype. The idea is that if a stereotype accurately reflects an aspect of social reality then the application of the stereotype can only improve the chance of a correct judgement being made. Take the stereotype associating certain social groups with crime. If this stereotype reflects true crime rates then applying the stereotype will increase the chance of a person who engages in stereotyping making a correct judgement. I call this the single factor view of stereotyping.

According to another view, there are two factors that determine whether the application of a stereotype leads to misperception. The application of a stereotype increases the chance of an accurate judgement being made if the stereotype that is applied is accurate and good quality information about the individual to whom the stereotype is applied is sparse.