What are Affordances? Top-3 most downloaded in Ecological Psychology

My VIDI-research group at the University of Amsterdam works on a project named ‘The Landscape of Affordances: Situating the Embodied Mind’.  But what are affordances exactly? Our new philosophical article (in collaboration with Julian Kiverstein) deals with this important question, amongst others. We just learned from the publisher that it features in the top-3 most downloaded articles published in Ecological Psychology in 2014. To celebrate this the publisher now offers free access to the paper, which is titled ‘A rich landscape of affordances‘.


In recent years, more and more researchers in cognitive science have embraced the notion that was originally introduced by J.J. Gibson. However, the notion of affordances is complex and unfortunately it often is used in ways that ignore its roots in Gibsonian ecological psychology (e.g. Reed, 1996 and Heft, 2001). In this conceptual article we take insights from that tradition seriously and integrate these with my own earlier philosophical work on situated normativity in Wittgenstein (Rietveld, 2008, Mind) to develop an improved definition of affordances. One that will inspire new research projects in philosophy, art and science.

Free access to article here: Rietveld, E. & Kiverstein, J. (2014). A rich landscape of affordances. Ecological Psychology 26 (4), pp. 325-352.


In a complementary paper we have argued that taking seriously the richness of the landscape of affordances has important implications for a neuroscience that recognizes the situatedness of the embodied mind. We also sketch its implications for Karl Friston’s work on the ‘anticipating brain’.

Update: These philosophical ideas on the landscape of affordances have inspired RAAAF and visual artist Barbara Visser to make an artwork titled ‘The End of Sitting: Outstanding Landscape of Affordances‘. This large spatial installation allows people to experience a novel landscape of standing affordances and move through it. It is the visual, or better artistic, complement to some of the ideas developed in our Ecological Psychology paper. One of the ambitions of the installation was to offer a large variety of standing affordances so that people would be solicited by multiple possibilities for working in different positions, ideally motivating them to switch postures every 30 minutes or so.

Updates 12/12/15: Our Ecological Psychology paper is now in their top 3 most read papers of all times online and RAAAF has been elected New Talent by New York’s Metropolis magazine for being at the forefront in the development of an architecture of affordances that could architects “create an architecture that is more human”. Harvard Design Magazine has published our article on the landscape of standing affordances we built.

New publication on self-organization and skilled intentionality

Jelle Bruineberg and I have published a new paper on self-organization and skilled intentionality. (An earlier 2008 paper on this topic can be found here.) Jelle is one of the PhD-students on VIDI-project ‘Landscape of Affordances: Situating the Embodied Mind’ at the University of Amsterdam. The paper is published in a Frontiers in Human Neuroscience special issue on the implications of Tony Chemero’s (2009) book Radical Embodied Cognitive Science. Here is the abstract and a link to the page where one can download the PDF of our paper:


Self-organization, free energy minimization, and optimal grip on a field of affordances

In this paper, we set out to develop a theoretical and conceptual framework for the new field of Radical Embodied Cognitive Neuroscience (cf. Chemero, 2009). This framework should be able to integrate insights from several relevant disciplines: theory on embodied cognition, ecological psychology, phenomenology, dynamical systems theory, and neurodynamics. We suggest that the main task of Radical Embodied Cognitive Neuroscience is to investigate the phenomenon of skilled intentionality from the perspective of the self-organization of the brain-body-environment system, while doing justice to the phenomenology of skilled action.

In previous work, we have characterized skilled intentionality as the organism’s tendency towards an optimal grip on multiple relevant affordances simultaneously (Rietveld, 2012a/b/c). Affordances are possibilities for action provided by the environment (Gibson, 1979; Chemero, 2003). In the first part of this paper, we introduce the notion of skilled intentionality and the phenomenon of responsiveness to a field of relevant affordances.

FigureRietveldBruineberg2014ISSASpdf2Figure 1: Sketch of conceptual framework to be refined (Rietveld, 2012c). Through skilled intentionality one gets a grip on a field of affordances. (Inspired by: Thompson, 2007, 2011; Chemero, 2003, 2009; Dreyfus, 2007; Tschacher & Haken, 2007; Rietveld, 2008a/b/c).

Second, we use Friston’s (2000, 2011) work on neurodynamics, but embed a very minimal version of his Free Energy Principle in the ecological niche of the animal. Thus amended, this principle is helpful for understanding the embeddedness of neurodynamics within the dynamics of the brain-body-environment system. Next, we show how we can use this adjusted principle to understand the neurodynamics of selective openness to the environment: interacting action-readiness patterns at multiple timescales contribute to the organism’s selective openness to relevant affordances.

In the final part of the paper, we emphasize the important role of metastable dynamics in both the brain and the brain-body-environment system for adequate affordance-responsiveness. We exemplify our integrative approach by presenting research (De Haan, Rietveld, Stokhof & Denys, 2013) on the impact of Deep Brain Stimulation on affordance responsiveness of OCD patients.

Upcoming invited talks Spring 2014

Over the next few weeks we will present work at several interesting and recommended events. Most are in the field of enactive or embodied cogntive science, some in the fields of art & architecture.

May 22, An Outstanding Landscape of Affordances, lecture and animation, RAAAF together with Barbara Visser, Invited by Atelier of the Chief Government Architect (Rijksbouwmeester Frits van Dongen), Ministry of Finance, The Hague.

May 26, Sitting Kills: Towards an Landscape of Standing Affordances, Grand Round, Academic Medical Center (AMC), Amsterdam.

June 20, The Landscape of Affordances: Situating the Embodied Mind, Expert Meeting Psychiatry & Philosophy, Radboud University, Nijmegen.

June 20, Expert Practice in DBS Parameter Optimization (presented by Maarten van Westen), Expert Meeting Psychiatry & Philosophy, Radboud University, Nijmegen.

June 24, Vacant NL on the Move (together with Ronald Rietveld), Kunsthal, Rotterdam. (An interview with Dutch newspaper Volkskrant can be found below.)InterviewVolkskrant2zoom230614

June 24, Vacancy Studies (presented by Arna Mackic), Strijp S, Eindhoven.

June 26, Affordances in archtectural practice, EWEP 13 symposium organized by Rob Withagen ‘Affordances and architecture: Towards an ecological approach‘, Queens University, Belfast.

July 6-14, Action readiness in a landscape of affordances (together with Jelle Bruineberg), International Summer School in Affective Sciences, Swiss NCCR Affective Sciences Center (ISSAS), Geneva University, Château de Bossey, Switzerland.


Sketch of the Field of Affordances published in Frontiers

One of my ongoing interests is visualizing the field of affordances. See for instance the Trusted Subcultures-project RAAAF presented at the Sao Paulo Biennale 2009, using social affordances to create new public domain for the centuries old water city of Amsterdam. Or, more recently, our project Outstanding Landscape of Affordances.


Another example is the Dutch Atlas of Vacancy in which we investigated the affordances (in context) of 10.000 empty public builldings in the Netherlands. For instance the possibilities for making noise: at a vacant air base or in a vacant bunker one can make sounds of 140DB without disturbing anyone.



In a new special issue on Neurophenomenology edited by Evan Thompson for Frontiers, Sanneke de Haan, Martin Stokhof, Damiaan Denys and I have now published a more abstract sketch of different fields of affordances.


Figure: Sketch of different fields of relevant affordances (De Haan, Rietveld, Stokhof & Denys, 2013)

We propose that the changed world as described by the 18 OCD patients with Deep Brain Stimulation interviewed by us at the Academic Medical Center can be fleshed out in terms of changes in their field of relevant affordances. We can distinguish three dimensions to this field: the “width” refers to the broadness of the scope of affordances that one perceives. This dimension relates to having a choice or action options. The “depth” of the field refers to the temporal aspect: one not only perceives the affordances that are immediately present here and now, but one is also pre-reflectively aware of future plans and possibilities for action: the affordances on the horizon that one is responsive to, so to speak. This temporal horizon reflects our anticipatory affordance-responsiveness. Lastly, the “height” of each of the affordances refers to the relevance or importance of the affordances that one is responsive to, i.e., to the experienced solicitation or affective allure. This dimension of relevance and salience relates to the motivational force of affordances.

The title of our (open access) article is: The phenomenology of deep brain stimulation-induced changes in OCD: An enactive affordance-based model. 

VIDI-grant awarded by Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO)

Great news: Today I learned that I’ve been awarded a VIDI-grant! This means 5 years of fundamental research in philosophy and generous NWO-funding to develop my research group. Here is a short project description:

The Landscape of Affordances: Situating the Embodied Mind

In many situations, experts at work act successfully, yet without deliberation. Architects, for example, perceive immediately the opportunities offered by the site of a new project, and intuitively improve the size of the door in one of their designs. One could label these manifestations of expert intuition as ‘higher-level’ cognition, but still these experts are just acting unreflectively. Traditionally in philosophy, so-called ‘higher’ cognitive capacities are associated more with explicit deliberation and linguistic forms of rationality than with unreflective action, but this has left unexplained the characteristic phenomenon of intuitive expertise (e.g. intuitively improving a design).


The two central ideas behind this NWO VIDI-proposal are (a) that many of these context-sensitive episodes of ‘higher’ cognition can be understood along the same lines as everyday skillful unreflective activities, such as grasping a coffee cup or riding a bike; and (b) that our surroundings contribute to skillful action and cognition in a far more fundamental way than is generally acknowledged.

My long term aim is to use these ideas to develop a novel conceptual framework for embodied or ‘enactive’ cognitive science (Thompson, 2007; Chemero, 2009). The cognition we find in expert intuition is very context-sensitive because it consists of responsiveness to multiple possibilities for action provided by our surroundings, or ‘affordances’. I argue that the notion of affordances is rich in application, so it makes sense to say both that a cup affords grasping and that a friend’s sad face affords comforting. Moreover, we are bodily responsive to a multiplicity of affordances simultaneously (Rietveld, 2012a/b). Embodied cognition amounts here to skillful responsiveness to the many affordances available in one’s surroundings; a selective responsiveness to a whole field of affordances.

This integrative, philosophical framework is innovative in showing how the increasingly influential field of embodied cognitive science has a much wider scope than previously thought. Findings thought to be exclusively valid for everyday unreflective action (or for sensorimotor behavior) can now be applied to skilled ‘higher’ cognition, or better, expert intuition (project 1). We will also show concrete, real-world applications in the domains of architecture (project 2) and psychiatry (project 3 on Deep Brain Stimulation), respectively. Interactions with renowned experts in these practices feed the development of the overall framework. Another project (4) will advance convergence with Karl Friston’s influential work on the anticipating brain, by situating the latter in the whole system ‘brain-body-landscape of affordances’.

Read more: interview with SMART Cognitive Science


Upcoming invited talks this spring 2013

I have been invited to present work at several interesting and recommended events in the field of enactive or embodied cogntive science this spring:

April 3-5, Methods in studying social cognition, Heinrich-Heine Universität, Düsseldorf

April 19, Enactive Architecture & Vacancy Studies, Architecture Academy, Amsterdam

April 22, End of year talk, Neurophenomenology & Architecture, University of Toronto

April 26, Merleau-Ponty Symposium (in Dutch), University of Amsterdam

May 6, Affordances & Sense of Space, Het Huis, Utrecht, organized by theater maker Boukje Schweigman.

June 6-7, Intersubjectivity as Interaction – In the footsteps of Merleau-Ponty, RU Nijmegen (read my abstract HyperAffordanceGrip here).

June 17-19, The Reach of Radical Embodied or Enactive Cognition, Antwerp Univerisity (contributed talk, read my abstract ‘Skilled Intentionality for “Higher” Cognition’ here).


Award and new publication

Last Friday the Dutch Psychiatry & Philosophy Foundation has awarded my chapter with a prize for the best contribution to the Dutch Handbook Psychiatry & Philosophy. In my opinion this award confirms the potential of the new field of translational embodied cognition.

Another chapter for a Cambridge University Press volume on Neuroscientific and Philosophical perspectives on Free Will has been accepted recently and is forthcoming:

De Haan, S, Rietveld, E. & Denys, D. (forthcoming), Being free by losing control: What Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder can tell us about free will. In Glannon, W. (ed.) Neuroscientific and Philosophical Perspectives on Free Will. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.