The Life & Mind Seminar Network

Upcoming COGS seminar: The mind in-between

Posted in Seminars by Tom Froese on February 15, 2010

This week’s Sussex University COGS seminar will feature our very own Ezequiel talking about:

The mind in-between: Can social interaction constitute social cognition?

Prof Ezequiel Di Paolo
(University of Basque Country, San Sebastian)

Date: Tuesday, 16th Febuary 2010
Time: 4:00 pm – 5:30 pm
Place: Pevensey I 1A7

Recent empirical work in social cognition, both in psychology and neuroscience, has gradually started to focus on situations involving various degrees of social interaction. Such situations are notably difficult to manage in controlled settings. This is one reason to account for the prevailing attention to individual cognitive mechanisms for social understanding. However, the “experimental quarantine” (Daniel Richardson’s phrase) is being lifted and the focus of empirical studies is increasingly concerned with individuals in interactive situations (e.g., joint action).

In this talk, I argue that this move must be followed by a lifting of the “conceptual quarantine” still in effect, which puts the weight of social cognitive performance solely on individual mechanisms. This perspective is traceable to the methodological individualism prevalent in cognitive science in general. It is yet another reason to account for the widespread conception of social cognition as a detached observation of social situations and exceptionally as a form of participation. The properties of the interaction dynamics are relegated to the role of informational input to individual mechanisms.

In order to conceive of the possibility of social interaction being itself part of the mechanisms of social cognition, it is necessary first to provide a definition of the term able to capture the intuitive notion of engagement. Such definitions are surprisingly rare in the literature. I argue that the enactive definition of social interaction achieves this objective. Following this, the possible roles that interaction could play in particular cases are evaluated according to a scale of increasing involvement by introducing distinctions between contextual factors, enabling conditions and constitutive processes. I discuss existence proofs for all of these options (thus answering the title question positively).

The argument carries minimal and maximal implications. At the very least, if the interaction process is admitted to play in some cases a role beyond the contextual, this implies that individual mechanisms (e.g., contingency detection modules, mirror neurons) must be re-conceptualised as mechanisms-in-interaction, and their functional role re-assessed. I discuss evidence that this shift is slowly taking place for the case of mirror neurons. Maximally, if interaction is admitted to sometimes constitute social cognition this opens the door for a broadening of the spectrum of explanations and calls for a program aimed at assessing the contributions of individual and social mechanisms not only for social cognition, but for cognition in general.

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