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From the Embodied Mind to Incorporated Objects – Interview with Giovanna Colombetti

From the Embodied Mind to Incorporated Objects – Interview with Giovanna Colombetti

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Enactivism understands the mind as a result of interaction between a living organism and its environment. Human cognition and emotions are also based on an active relationship with the world and its objects. Philosopher of cognitive sciences, Professor Giovanna Colombetti, illustrates that clothes can become a part of the lived body, and a musician and her instrument can together form emotions that would not be possible without the incorporated instrument.


What does it mean that the mind is embodied?

Among the different traditions of thinking about embodiment, I draw from enactivism1. Its main idea is that living systems, in virtue of their autonomous and adaptive organisation, are cognitive systems, i.e., they have a mind. For enactivism, life is sufficient for mind, which means that every living system is a cognitive system – and that includes very simple living systems, such as unicellular organisms. On the enactive view, because living systems have (or even better ”are”) a body, cognition is necessarily embodied, that is, realised or brought forth (”enacted”) by the organism, not just by its central nervous system or brain. Enactivists further argue that living systems, in virtue of their organisation, actively ”make sense” of their environment; they are not indifferent to their environment, merely responding to environmental stimuli, but they actively construct the environment they live in.

Enactivism also claims that, as organisms increase in complexity, so do their cognitive capacities. While the brain isn’t even required for basic forms of cognition, humans obviously have a brain and that plays a hugely important and necessary role in several forms of ”higher” cognitive capacities. But the point remains that, for enactivism, the brain is not sufficient for cognition – cognition requires the whole living organism.

Could you elaborate on what ”sense-making” means in the enactivist view?

Sense-making is a complex notion in enactivism and it is not possible to do it justice in a few words. I will try to give you the flavour of the main idea, but for a deeper understanding one needs to look at the original works by Varela, Thompson, and other current thinkers. So the way I understand it is that sense-making is primarily a phenomenological notion: it comes from the consideration that to explain the behaviour of a bacterium swimming toward higher concentrations of sugar, to use a popular example in enactivist literature, we need to posit a point of view, or perspective, on the side of the bacterium, from which it evaluates the concentration of sugar in its environment as ”good” or conducive to its survival. This is the process of sense-making: the construction (enactment) of a perspective from which the physio-chemical world acquires meaning and thus becomes a lived, meaningful environment (an Umwelt, to use Jakob von Uexküll’s famous term). Without assigning the bacterium such a perspective, we will not be able properly to understand what the bacterium, as a living system, is and does; we will miss the fundamental way in which living systems relate to the world.

You have also argued that sense-making – and thus cognition – is always affective2. Could you say a word on this?

It’s really quite simple. The thought is that, if cognition is sense-making in the way I have just explained, then it is clearly necessarily affective. By ”affective” I mean, most generally, ”not indifferent”. Affectivity, as I characterise it, denotes a basic sensitivity or receptivity to one’s own conditions and the world. To enact a world as something significant, as something that matters to oneself, is thus both cognitive and affective, at the same time: it is cognitive, in that it consists of an act of discrimination between self and what is not self; and it is affective, in that this act of discrimination is not neutral, disinterested or indifferent, but rather denotes and manifests the organism’s needs and concerns.

The Continuity of Cognition

How do you see the difference between human-like cognition and other forms of cognition or sense-making?

The enactive view, including the famous ”life-mind continuity thesis”3, recognises many different ways of being cognitive, depending on the kind of living organism you are. Like I hinted at earlier, we could say that simpler organisms have simpler minds and more complex organisms have more complex minds. Importantly, enactivists share the philosophical-anthropological view that the fact that we humans are enculturated and embedded in a system of symbols and language makes us quite special; but, for enactivism, that doesn’t entail that systems that do not have language or culture are not cognitive.

Do you think that these simpler levels of sense-making are also present in humans?

I don’t think so, and I don’t think anyone has developed that point in the enactivist literature so far. Our brain, the kind of organism we are, and our environment including culture and language preclude similarities. I think that we are very different sense-making organisms from bacteria! And the difference is not that, ”on top” of basic bacterial sense-making, we have other skills. Rather, sense-making in the human case takes a new form (or rather many new forms). In sum, what we have in common with even the simplest forms of life is only that we are precarious autonomous systems that maintain their own organisation; in our case, this organisation is realised in a much more complex way.

How do you see the relationship between the enactive account of mind and selfhood?

This is another very complex matter, which needs to be slightly simplified here. Enactivism is compatible with the idea of a minimal bodily self that, for instance, the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has defended4. According to this idea, even simple organisms have a very basic, ”core” sense of self, which does not require a concept of self or even a capacity for reflection, but involves the implicit, non-reflective sense that you are in the world and that things are meaningful for you. This idea can be illustrated with Jakob von Uexküll’s example of a tick letting itself fall on a dog that passes by. The tick, we can safely assume, does not know it has a self, but it knows, in a very basic sense of ”knowing”, the difference between itself and the dog.5 But then of course there are more complex, autobiographical and social forms of self, and the relation between these and enactivism remains largely to be explored.

Where Is the Mind?

What role does the brain play in all this? Can we someday transplant a head to another body, as science news headlines predict?

The brain and the rest of the organism continuously influence one another through extremely complex loops involving the peripheral and central nervous system, the bloodstream, and the immune system. So for a head transplant to be successful (the organism survives and is not cognitively impaired) doctors would have to do a hugely complicated work. The result would be a new organism, and with it a new person. How similar the person will be to the ”previous one” will depend partly on the body that was attached to the head, and on the way in which the brain and the rest of the organism have come to find an equilibrium that allows survival. How much of the person’s perception, memories, emotions, problem-solving capacities, etc. will have changed is an entirely empirical question and it is not for me to speculate. I would hypothesise that the new person might have different moods, if her hormonal profile has changed, for example. This will affect her personality, among other things, but also her cognitive processes, as we know that moods influence reasoning and problem-solving.

Can we talk about the location of the mind in enactivism – or is this a legitimate question?

This is a point of disagreement among enactivists. Some suggest rejecting this question on the grounds that the mind is always relational and you cannot locate relations. This could be one way to go, but I don’t think it does justice to the materialism implied by enactivism in other circumstances. If you think of the mind as material, you cannot escape the idea of the location of the mind. The mind is enacted materially, realised physically not just by the brain but by the whole organism. This process of realising or bringing forth a mind takes place as the organism interacts with the environment (which it always does), but the organism itself does have a location, and so do the parts of the environment it interacts with. So we can at least locate the material processes or vehicles that enact cognition - even though it is an empirical task to identify the contributions that various parts of the organism and the environment make to the kind of cognition that is enacted. If, on the other hand, we understand “mind” as a concept that refers to practices (as Gilbert Ryle does6, for example), then the question of the location of the mind may well dissolve. I myself think it is a plausible question to ask where the physical processes that realise the mind are located. It might be very hard to say where these processes begin and end, and to identify boundaries; perhaps we should say that the boundaries are flexible and blurred, but still we can point to where a mind is located, and where it is not.

You have also talked about incorporation7 – about how ”exterior” objects become internalised as part of one’s body. What kind of objects can be incorporated?

In principle, I think all sorts of objects can be incorporated--that is, experienced as part of one’s own lived body. The classic example involves the blind person and her cane: from the blind person’s perspective, the cane is an organ of perception which enables her to experience the world, just like her arms or eyes.8 She does not experience the cane as a physical object outside herself, rather the cane has been incorporated into her bodily self-awareness. Husserl and Merleau-Ponty already described this phenomenon and gave various examples. Importantly, you cannot really decide on the basis of the object whether or not it can be incorporated; whether something can be incorporated depends on the person’s relation with it. It does not need to be a portable object, for example, but it generally is an object the person manipulates and interacts with. Consider for instance another example provided by Merleau-Ponty, of the skilful driver and his car. When the skilful driver goes through a narrow gate, he does not need to look left and right to check where the car ends; he just goes through the gate, just as skilful walkers do not need to look where their shoulders and arms are when they go through a door!9 In this case, Merleau-Ponty would say that the car has been incorporated.

I am interested in different forms of incorporation, especially in what I call ”affective” incorporations. Consider an example of taking a drug that changes your mood: the drug is integrated within the physio-chemical system that realises your new mood, so we can talk of ”physiological” incorporation here. Or, you might incorporate objects into your ”body image”, the image you have of how your body appears to others. Clothes are a good example of this: they can become part of the body image, again changing our moods. For example, wearing a smart suit may change my mood (making me feel more confident, say) by being taken into the experience I have of how others perceive me. Or consider the phenomenon I call ”expressive incorporation”, which occurs when an object—e.g., a musical instrument—is experienced as part of my expressive body, i.e., the body that expresses and articulates my emotional feelings. We often express feelings with our bodies ”only” (like when we jump for joy), but sometimes we integrate objects into these expressive activities, and it is thanks to this integration that we come to experience specific feelings.

Future Research

The enactivist paradigm is influenced by both phenomenology and analytical traditions. What kind of questions should enactivism address in the future?

To me an exciting new question arises from recent discoveries in biology, such as the microbiome, the enormous quantity of micro-organisms that live in our organism. This discovery challenges the idea of an organism as a coherent whole. Enactivism says that living organisms create their own boundaries and enact the mind - but where and what is the organism, what are its boundaries?

A second question regards something we have not mentioned yet, namely, a strand of enactivism known as ”neurophenomenology”10. According to this approach, neuroscience should not just look at how the brain responds to stimuli (third-person data), but also inquire into the first-person perspective of research participants, and use data about their experience to interpret data about brain activity. The idea is that by training subjects to observe and talk about their experiences, scientists can identify categories of experience that would otherwise go unnoticed, and this can help understand brain activity that might otherwise look like mere ”noise”.

There have been a few neurophenomenological studies so far, but much more can be done to develop this paradigm further. For example, neurophenomenology could draw on qualitative psychological techniques to extract rich descriptions of experience from subjects, and to analyse them and use the results to interpret physiological activity. Additionally, neurophenomenologists have so far looked primarily at how first-person data can illuminate third-person data about the brain, but one could also add the body to this investigation. This would be very interesting to do with emotions, for instance. There is a longstanding debate in affective science on whether experiencing an emotion always comes with bodily feelings, and what happens in the body when people experience emotions. A neurophenomenological approach would be very useful in addressing these questions, as it would address both the participants’ first-person perspective (how do they actually experience emotions and their body in emotions, if at all?), and its relation to brain and bodily activity (what happens in the brain/body when people report bodily feelings? And when they do not?).

References & Bibliography

  • 1. Cf. Francisco J. Varela, Evan Thompson & Eleanor Rosch, The Embodied Mind. MIT-Press, Cambridge (Mass.) 1991; Evan Thompson, Mind in Life. Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind. Harvard University Press, Cambridge (Mass.) 2007.
  • 2. Giovanna Colombetti, The Feeling Body. Affective Science Meets the Enactive Mind. MIT Press, Cambridge (Mass.) 2013.
  • 3. Thompson 2007.
  • 4. Antonio Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens. Harcourt, New York 1999.
  • 5. Jakob von Uexküll, A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans. With a Theory of Meaning (Streifzüge durch die Umwelten von Tieren und Menschen, 1934). Transl. Joseph D. O’Neill. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 2010.
  • 6. Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind. Hutchinson, London 1949.
  • 7. Cf. Giovanna Colombetti, Affective Incorporation. In Phenomenology for the Twenty-First Century. Eds. J. Aaron Simmons & J. Edward Hackett. Palgrave Macmillan, London 2016, 231–248.
  • 8. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (Phénoménologie de la perception, 1945). Transl. Colin Smith. Routledge Press, London 1962.
  • 9. Ibid.
  • 10. Antoine Lutz & Evan Thompson, Neurophenomenology. Integrating Subjective Experience and Brain Dynamics in the Neuroscience of Consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies. Vol. 10, No. 9–10, 2003, 31–52.

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