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.

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