Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Embodied Introspection

Embodiment is hot these days in philosophy of psychology. Andy Clark, Alva Noe, Rob Wilson, and others have argued that cognition and perception are not processes confined within the brain, but rather transpire in extended brain-body-environment systems. Tactile perception, the argument goes, is not a brain process in response to stimulation of the skin; rather, it is a looping process that includes as a part one's active bodily movement and environmental exploration. Thinking about Scrabble moves can happen perhaps entirely in the brain if one visually imagines shuffling the tiles; but if shuffling the wooden tiles with one's fingers serves a similar functional role, that fingered shuffling is as much a part of Scrabble cognition as is imaginary shuffling.

Introspection, it might seem, is not embodied in the same way. After all, you can just close your eyes and introspect, no body involved, right? Introspection seems to be entirely interior -- a kind of attunement to one's internal stream of experiences, or the activity of the brain's self-monitoring systems.

Yet I think proper appreciation of the tangle of processes that drive introspective judgments points toward treating introspection as embodied. Consider two examples:

(1.) I think about what I am emotionally experiencing right now. That process involves, among other things, attending to my bodily posture and bodily sensations -- a tightness in my throat, a tingle in my cheeks, my rumpled brow. Noticing this bodily stuff contributes crucially to my introspective judgment, say, in this case the judgment that I'm feeling tense about an impending deadline. But this attention to my bodily condition or bodily experience is not merely a passive registering of that condition or experience. I actively explore my bodily condition or experience: I feel an impulse to rub my brow and to breathe deeply. This impulse is not an accidental side occurrence, disconnected from my introspective act. Rubbing my brow and breathing deeply are exploratory activities that directly contribute to the introspective result. If rubbing my brow seems to dissolve the feeling of tension up there as I continue to think about the deadline, that tilts me toward the judgment that I am not really so tense about the deadline, or at least that I am not experiencing that tension in my brow -- maybe it was just a habitual posture or remnant of an earlier but now-past emotion. If my breath catches as I rotate my shoulders back and inhale deeply, that tells me something important about my emotional-bodily condition, which informs my introspective judgment. If perception is an active, looping process that involves the body, rather than just passive reaction to stimulation of the bodily surfaces, so too is emotional introspection.

(2.) I think about how broad the field of clarity is in my vision. Do I experience a broad field (say thirty degrees) of stable visual clarity all at once (as most untutored introspectors seem to think when I first ask them)? Or is does my visual experience really involve a tiny range of clarity (one or two degrees of arc) bouncing very rapidly around an indistinct background (as some cognitive scientists say)? Crucial to reaching this judgment, I think, is prying apart attention and eye movement. First, one holds one's eyes fixed on some point and attends to the visual field outside the point of fixation. Then, one starts allowing one's eyes to move around while still attending away from the points of fixation -- for example, by attending to a region and allowing one's gaze to flit around near it but not in it. Manipulation of eye gaze is, I suggest, best conceived of as part of an integrated, exploratory introspective process rather than just a bodily precondition of introspection.

The core issue about embodiment is this: Where is it most natural or truest to the phenomena to draw the lines around a cognitive process? If we draw narrow, tight lines, we end up with many short processes with many fast input-output transitions. If we draw broad, inclusive lines, many of what would otherwise be inputs and outputs are reclassified as states within the cognitive process. Friends of embodiment prefer a liberal drawing of the lines and don't treat brain tissue as fundamentally different in kind from other sorts of structures that serve similar functional roles. My thought today is that the same issues arise, in much the same way, for introspective cognition as for other sorts of cognition, and that if we find embodiment arguments persuasive for perception and the like, then similar arguments probably apply to the case of introspection.


gregory said...

oh god, will you guys PLEASE hurry up and get with understanding the field? this brain/body-centric pov is getting not only tiresome but positively destructive to what neuroscience, excuse, neuro"science" should be about ...

forget the tenure! forget the research bucks! forget the peer-review pressures!

hang out with mystics! get out of academia! do deep meditation! open your mind to the consciousness-investigating "foreign" (yeah, but only foreign if you are a localized provincial westerner) cultures, who know sooooo much more than you do.

end of rant ...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Hm, Gregory, play nice!

Jason said...

This reminds me of Ryle's attempts to make sense of imaginings and inner reflection in Chapters 8 and 9 of *The Concept of Mind*. In fact, the whole embodied mind literature reminds me of Ryle's attempts to make sense of mental states and processes, except that with Ryle one had the sense that at least he knew he was facing an uphill battle.

thinks Schwitz really needs to read some David Foster Wallace said...

gregory: The 70s called. They want their pop-orientalism back.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Jason: Yes, I'm a fan of Ryle. He's definitely part of the background here.

@ Schwitz needs...: Yes, Wallace is on my "hope to get around to it soon" list. The more people say stuff like that, the higher he is likely to rise on that list. I'm currently immersed in transhumanism and cosmology for my "extra-curricular" reading, though....

that sounds more paracurricular in your case said...

don't wait

really, don't

and I daresay you could do with some good difficult fiction

Editor, Philosophical Plays said...

The point(s) made by Gregory ("forget the tenure", "hang out with mystics") are well taken (those points could very well have been spoken by Christianus, the philosopher-hero in my Philosophical Plays series).

But the problem is that, even if we DO want to feel free to craft non-academic-mainstream philosophical theories, I think we have to be careful, nevertheless, especially if TRUTH is on the table. Sure, we can discard, or substantially modify, mainstream theories, but at what epistemological cost? And where's the finesse?

One point I would like to contribute with is in regard to "pseudo-introspection", if I may call it that. Perhaps one could simply call it "emotion" or "the will of emotion", but the idea is that we all (presumably) "see" or experience our own "tastes" and "desires", somehow or other.

Now to the interesting stuff. In a book ("The Heart's Code") by Paul Pearsall, a psychoneuroimmunologist, some rather remarkable experiences have been documented about people who have surgically replaced some of their organs, among which the heart is one.

According to Pearsall, it seems as if one's "inner sensibilities" change when one's heart changes, at least in some cases. Not only mood shifts were reported ("...she smiles a lot more", p.89), but even more fundamental things. ("I never really was all that interested in sex....Now, I tire my husband out" p. 89)

The overall idea, I think, seems to be that the mood/desires/sensibilities of the donor person are, somehow or other, localized in the heart, and that, in the event of a surgical procedure, the person who gets the new heart will also get those sensibilities.

So this may relate to the question that Eric has brought up in a separate paper, namely the reliability of "introspection". What is it that we "see", exactly? Comments?

Best wishes!
Bo, ex UC Riverside student! :)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the reflections, Ed PP!