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27 Jan 08 – Gibson, Merleau-Ponty – Perceptual Action/Embodied Agency.

27 January 2008

On this day in 1904, James J. Gibson was born. Gibson is known for his research on perception, which has been interpreted as demonstrating that perceptual qualities are not built from simple sensory inputs. Instead, they are directly sensed from the environment. Essentially, this means that we perceive through experience of the world; we are in direct interaction with the world as it is.

This should not be confused with a meditational perspective on our interaction with the environment, such as that offered by cognitive psychology. That is, Gibson was not saying that we are involved in a one-way process, wherein we process value-free information from the surrounding environment, organize it, and then act on our organization (the mediation occurring in the mind). This cognitive mediation perspective assumes a relatively passive mechanism of sensation adapted to random, chance events in the environment. It is a dualistic perspective that separates the subjective mind from the objective environment, the products of the subjective mind being mediated by the mechanisms of sensation (the mechanical registration of bits of sensory information from the environment). This is sometimes referred to as a “representational” view of sensation wherein humans are conceived of as representing the external world through a step by step process, essentially in the physical nervous system.

Gibson, instead, conceived of perception as an attribute of the human and the environment together, in holistic fashion. Perception, in this framing, is not an indirect process carried out within the individual. Instead, it is a direct interaction carried out between the individual and his/her environmental context (this is why it is often referred to as “direct realism” – a term borrowed from the Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid – or “ecological psychology” – attending to the contextual situatedness of the perceptual experience). Perception, then, is not passive; it is active and exploratory – in tune with the living meanings already pregnant in the contextual environment itself (Gibson referred to these living meanings as “affordances” – possibilities ways that the contextual environment makes itself known to the particular individual). The living meaning (or affordance) depends on the interaction that the individual is having with the contextual environment, explaining why a piece of chalk can be afforded the meaning of writing instrument or, as one of my professors in undergrad vividly demonstrated, a foodstuff (should we wittingly choose to take a chomp out of it). These affordances are not inside the mind. Instead, they are living possibilities and properties of the contextual environment itself when the contextual environment is perceived in a ways that is not dualistic, artificially separating a subjective mind from an objective reality. From Gibson’s perspective, perception is an active interchange between the active intentions of the individual and the living, meaningful possibilities (“affordances”) of the contextual environment.

Merleau-Ponty 

The French existential philosopher, Merleau-Ponty, actually preceded Gibson in developing a very similar formulation of perception. A wonderful, albeit quite difficult book to read, which presents Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy on perception is entitled, The Phenomenology of Perception. In this book, Merleau-Ponty suggests that, unlike Husserl’s perspective that “consciousness is always consciousness of something,” consciousness is perceptual consciousness; perception is of primary important to being conscious at all. From this philosophical grounding, Merleau-Ponty explores perception as the active engagement between the contextual environment and the individual, which occurs through the body. That is, the “lived body” adjusts and acts in response to the active solicitations of the contextual environment. This is conceived of almost like an active conversation between the body and the context. Much like Gibson’s later formulation of the concept of affordances, Mereleau-Ponty conceived of the things that we interact with, such as a mountain, as correlative with our bodily capacities and acquired skills, so that, for example, a mountain affords climbing. This affordance is not merely a cross-cultural phenomenon based solely on body structure, nor a body structure plus a skill all normal human beings acquire. It is an affordance that comes from experience with mountains and the acquisition of mountain-climbing skills.

Embodied Agency 

Though both positions are quite difficult to summarize in the little space I have provided here, I think the best way to conceive of them is as akin to the concept of “embodied agency.” According to the concept of embodied agency, what have been traditionally assumed to be two separate and distinct entities – mind (possessing agenctic qualities) and body (possessing deterministic qualities) – are viewed as parts of a larger system wherein the mind and body mutually constitute one another. Accordingly, the nature of the mind constitutes the nature of the body, and vice versa. This would account for the numerous empirical studies that indicate how agentic factors (e.g., choices) contribute to neurobiological change. As but one example of this, using positron-emission tomography (PET) to measure the neurological effects of certain therapeutic processes, investigations have indicated that conscious withholding of obsessive-compulsive behaviors had the same eventual effect on changes in neural activity as the recommended drug for obsessive-compulsive disorder. In other words, agency and biology interact, wherein agency is associated with changes in biology. Similarly, according to the assumption of embodied agency, biology has affects on agency. For example, the constraints of my current bodily make-up – including my body type and current cardiovascular endurance – prevent me from successfully engaging in certain actions such as running a 6 minute mile. No amount of agency on my part will change my ability with regard to accomplishing this task right now. Furthermore, the constraints of my current biology disallow me from seriously considering that option, thereby constraining my available options and, thus, my agency. Alternatively, many athletes, with appropriate body types and well developed cardiovascular endurance, certainly do have the ability to run a 6 minute mile. As such, their agency is widened, at least with respect to the choices related to this task, by their biology.

The perspective offered by embodied agency, then, means that individuals and their actions are not explainable or understandable without reference to both their biology and their agency: amounting to a truly holistic perspective. As neuroscientist Eliot Valenstein put it, “…it is impossible to understand [biological phenomena such as] consciousness and thought without considering the psychosocial context that not only shapes the content of thought, but also the physical structure of the brain.” Alternatively, as Slife & Hopkins note, agentic acts such as, “…a good deed requires a relatively sound body. Good deeds simply cannot be performed without the biological properties of a relatively healthy body.”

Hence, based on the concepts offered by Gibson, Merleau-Ponty, and the perspective of embodied agency, perception cannot be reduced to either the products of the mind or the body, alone. There is no clean distinction between subject and object. Instead, perception is considered, based on these perspectives, as a holistic, active, interactive process, involving possibilities afforded by both the living environment and the lived experience of the individual.

Fuel for thought, I guess… head to my website GivingPsychologyAway.net for more fuel for thought regarding psychology.

January 27, 2008 Posted by | In Psychology | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment