The Life & Mind Seminar Network

Enaction and autism

Posted in General, Resources by Hanne De Jaegher on March 31, 2013

(This is also relevant to the AISB’13 symposiums on Enaction and Reconceptualizing Mental Health. Sorry to miss them!)

De Jaegher H (2013). Embodiment and sense-making in autismFrontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, 7(15)

Most current theories see autism as a combination of social, communicative, and cognitive deficits, like in a hampered capacity to read other people’s minds. Lately, however, there is a growing awareness that autism is also characterized by different ways of perceiving and moving, as well as particular emotional-affective aspects. These, for a long time all but ignored in autism research, are receiving increasing attention. For instance, a recent special issue of Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience focuses on movement and perception in autism. However, most theories to date, whether they deal with cognitive, communicative, or embodied aspects of autism, treat them in a piecemeal fashion – different subaspects of movement, emotion, perception, cognition are studied in isolation from each other.

What is needed is a framework that can coherently bring together the cognitive, social, embodied, affective, and experiential aspects of autism. Only this will help us understand why people with autism move, perceive, and understand the world in the way they do.

I believe participatory sense-making can be such a framework. Looking at autism through the lens of the enactive approach to cognition, we can use two of its main concepts: sense-making and participatory sense-making. Sense-making is the relation that lies at the core of all forms of cognition and affect. It links the cognizer’s self-organization and self-maintenance, embodiment, affect, and experience, and makes up the way in which she perceives and gives meaning to her world. Participatory sense-making describes how people make sense of each other and of the world together. With it, we investigate the inter-individual coordination of sense-making as it happens in various forms in and outside of social interactions.

An enactive approach conjectures that people with autism make sense in different ways than non-autistics do, both individually and socially, because they are differently embodied and situated. Support for this idea can be found in the study of perception and movement in autism. There is evidence for hypo- and hypersensitivity to sounds, difficulties with the timing, coordination, and integration of movements and perceptions, painfulness of certain stimuli, muscle tone differences, rigid posture, motor planning problems, etc. An enactive account allows to make precise connections between particular sensorimotor patterns and the way a person relates to his world in terms of what it means for him. On such a perspective, for instance, echolalia — previously treated as unwelcome, meaningless behaviour that should be eliminated — can be shown to have particular significance in the interactional context in which it occurs.

Embodiment, sense-making, and participatory sense-making continually co-determine each other over the course of development. If movement difficulties are core to autism, and movement is basic to how we make sense of the world and of others, then the way people with autism move is an essential part of how they make sense of their physical and social world, and should be understood as such. Therefore, contrary to traditional views, an enactive account sees both autistic and non-autistic sense-making as intrinsically valid and significant ways of dealing with the world. The autistic and non-autistic worlds may then be brought together, not by one-sided, normative adjustment of one to the other, but by understanding the differences and similarities between how they are constituted in perception and movement, and building bridges on this basis.

See also the special issue of Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience: Autism: The Movement Perspective.

Some relevant papers in the special issue:

Becchio C & Castiello U (2012). Visuomotor resonance in autism spectrum disordersFrontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, 6(110)

Donnellan A, Hill DA & Leary MR (2013). Rethinking autism: implications of sensory and movement differences for understanding and supportFrontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, 6(124)

Marsh KL, Isenhower RW, Richardson MJ, Helt M, Verbalis AD, Schmidt RC & Fein D (2013). Autism and social disconnection in interpersonal rockingFrontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, 7(4)

Robledo J, Donnellan AM & Strandt-Conroy K (2012). An exploration of sensory and movement differences from the perspective of individuals with autismFrontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, 6(107)

AVANT Interview

Posted in General by Ezequiel on January 8, 2013

Hanne De Jaegher and I have been interviewed on our work on enactivism by the open access journal AVANT Volume III, Issue 2/2012 (October-December), ISSN: 2082-6710.

You can read the interview here and Tom Froese’s introduction here.

Several other interesting things in this issue. It can be downloaded as a whole.

New paper: Enactivism is not interactionism

Posted in Resources by Ezequiel on January 3, 2013

A new short commentary paper to welcome the New Year. Open access.

De Jaegher H and Di Paolo E (2013) Enactivism is not interactionism. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 6:345. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2012.00345

Branches of the social enactivism tree

Posted in General, Resources by Ezequiel on August 12, 2012

Some exciting recent work making use of enactive ideas such as participatory sense-making. Not written by the usual suspects.

Applications, extensions, criticisms…

Gestural sense-making: hand gestures as intersubjective linguistic enactments
Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 2011, DOI: 10.1007/s11097-011-9244-9
Elena Cuffari

The ubiquitous human practice of spontaneously gesturing while speaking demonstrates the embodiment, embeddedness, and sociality of cognition. The present essay takes gestural practice to be a paradigmatic example of a more general claim: human cognition is social insofar as our embedded, intelligent, and interacting bodies select and construct meaning in a way that is intersubjectively constrained and defeasible. Spontaneous co-speech gesture is markedly interesting because it at once confirms embodied aspects of linguistic meaning-making that formalist and linguistic turn-type philosophical approaches fail to appreciate, and it also forefronts intersubjectivity as an inherent and inherently normative dimension of communicative action. Co-speech hand gestures, as linguistically meaningful speech acts, demonstrate both sedimentation and spontaneity (in the sense of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s dialectic of linguistic expression (2002)), or features of convention and nonconvention in a Gricean sense (1989). Yet neither pragmatic nor classic phenomenological approaches to communication can accommodate the practice of co-speech hand gesturing without some rehabilitation and reorientation. Pragmatic criteria of intersubjectivity, normativity, and rationality need to confront the non-propositional and nonverbal meaning-making of embodied encounters. Phenomenological treatments of expression and intersubjectivity must consider the normative nature of high-order social practices like language use. Reciprocally critical exchanges between these traditions and gesture studies yield an improved philosophy that treats language as a multi-modal medium for collaborative meaning achievement. The proper paradigm for these discussions is found in enactive approaches to social cognition. Co-speech hand gestures are first and foremost emergent elements of social interaction, not the external whirring of an isolated internal consciousness. In contrast to current literature that frequently presents gestures as uncontrollable bodily upsurge or infallible imagistic phenomenon that drives and dances with verbal or “linguistic” convention (McNeill 1992, 2005), I suggest that we study gestures as dynamic, embodied, and shared tools for collaborative sense-making.

Keywords  Gesture – Language – Intersubjectivity – Normativity – Convention – Enaction

Narrative, meaning, interpretation: an enactivist approach

Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences
Volume 11, Number 3 (2012), 367-384, DOI: 10.1007/s11097-011-9216-0

Marco Caracciolo

After establishing its roots in basic forms of sensorimotor coupling between an organism and its environment, the new wave in cognitive science known as “enactivism” has turned to higher-level cognition, in an attempt to prove that even socioculturally mediated meaning-making processes can be accounted for in enactivist terms. My article tries to bolster this case by focusing on how the production and interpretation of stories can shape the value landscape of those who engage with them. First, it builds on the idea that narrative plays a key role in expressing the values held by a society, in order to argue that the interpretation of stories cannot be understood in abstraction from the background of storytelling in which we are always already involved. Second, it presents interpretation as an example of what Di Paolo et al. (2010) have called in their recent enactivist manifesto a “joint process of sensemaking”: just like in face-to-face interaction, the recipient of the story collaborates with the authorial point of view, generating meaning. Third, it traces the meaning brought into the world by interpretation to the activation and, potentially, the restructuring of the background of the recipients of the story.

Keywords  Narrative – Sensemaking – Interpretation – Enaction

On the role of social interaction in social cognition: a mechanistic alternative to enactivism

Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 2011, DOI: 10.1007/s11097-011-9209-z

Mitchell Herschbach


Researchers in the enactivist tradition have recently argued that social interaction can constitute social cognition, rather than simply serve as the context for social cognition. They contend that a focus on social interaction corrects the overemphasis on mechanisms inside the individual in the explanation of social cognition. I critically assess enactivism’s claims about the explanatory role of social interaction in social cognition. After sketching the enactivist approach to cognition in general and social cognition in particular, I identify problems with an enactivist taxonomy of roles for social interaction in the explanation of social cognition (contextual, enabling, and constitutive). In particular, I show that this enactivist taxonomy does not clearly distinguish between enabling conditions and constitutive elements, which would make them in danger of committing the coupling-constitution fallacy found in some attempts to extend cognition. I explore resources enactivism has to more clearly demarcate constitutive parts of a cognitive system, but identify problems in applying them to some of the main cases of social cognition enactivists characterize as being constituted by social interaction. I offer the mechanistic approach to explanation as an alternative that captures much of what enactivists want to say about the relations between social and individual levels, but views social interactions from the perspective of embedded cognition rather than as being constitutive of social cognition.

Keywords  Social cognition – Social interaction – Enactivism – Mechanism – Explanation – Constitution – Extended cognition – Embedded cognition

Vulnerability to psychosis, I-thou intersubjectivity and the praecox-feeling

Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 2010, DOI: 10.1007/s11097-010-9173-z

Somogy Varga

Psychotic and prodromal states are characterized by distortions of intersubjectivity, and a number of psychopathologists see in the concrete I-You frame of the clinical encounter the manifestation of such impairment. Rümke has coined the term of ‘praecox-feeling’, designated to describe a feeling of unease emanating in the interviewer that reflects the detachment of the patient and the failure of an ‘affective exchange.’ While the reliability of the praecox-feeling as a diagnostic tool has since been established, the explanation and theoretical framing of the phenomena is still lacking. By drawing on enactivist approaches to social cognition, the paper will attempt to provide such an explanation. This is relevant, since such an explanation could contribute to a more precise understanding of the phenomena in question and possibly add to our knowledge regarding the link between experiential vulnerability to psychosis and disturbed I-Thou intersubjectivity.

Keywords  Psychosis – Praecox-feeling – Second-person – Intersubjectivity – Enactivism

Dynamic Embodied Cognition

Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 2011, DOI: 10.1007/s11097-011-9223-1

Leon C. de Bruin and Lena Kästner

In this article, we investigate the merits of an enactive view of cognition for the contemporary debate about social cognition. If enactivism is to be a genuine alternative to classic cognitivism, it should be able to bridge the “cognitive gap”, i.e. provide us with a convincing account of those higher forms of cognition that have traditionally been the focus of its cognitivist opponents. We show that, when it comes to social cognition, current articulations of enactivism are—despite their celebrated successes in explaining some cases of social interaction—not yet up to the task. This is because they (1) do not pay sufficient attention to the role of offline processing or “decoupling”, and (2) obscure the cognitive gap by overemphasizing the role of phenomenology. We argue that the main challenge for the enactive view will be to acknowledge the importance of both coupled (online) and decoupled (offline) processes for basic and advanced forms of (social) cognition. To meet this challenge, we articulate a dynamic embodied view of cognition. We illustrate the fruitfulness of this approach by recourse to recent findings on false belief understanding.

Keywords  Social cognition – Enactivism – Embodied cognition – Cognitive gap – False belief understanding

Unlikely allies: embodied social cognition and the intentional stance

Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 2011, DOI: 10.1007/s11097-011-9218-y

Tadeusz Wieslaw Zawidzki

I argue that proponents of embodied social cognition (ESC) can usefully supplement their views if they enlist the help of an unlikely ally: Daniel Dennett. On Dennett’s view, human social cognition involves adopting the intentional stance (IS), i.e., assuming that an interpretive target’s behavior is an optimally rational attempt to fulfill some desire relative to her beliefs. Characterized this way, proponents of ESC would reject any alliance with Dennett. However, for Dennett, to attribute mental states from the intentional stance is not to attribute concrete, unobservable mental causes of behavior. Once this is appreciated, the kinship between IS—understood as a model of our quotidian interpretive practices—and ESC is apparent: both assume that quotidian interpretation involves tracking abstract, observable, behavioral patterns, not attributing unobservable, concrete, mental causes, i.e., both assume social cognition is possible without metapsychology. I argue that this affinity constitutes an opportunity: proponents of ESC can use IS as a characterization of the subpersonal basis for social cognition. In the process, I make my interpretation of IS more precise and relate it to current empirical literature in developmental psychology.

Keywords  Embodied social cognition – Metapsychology – The intentional stance – Dennett – Gallagher – Hutto – Quotidian interpretation

Comment: Empathy and Participation—A Response to Fritz Breithaupt’s Three-Person Model of Empathy

Emotion Review 2012 vol. 4 no. 1 94-95, doi: 10.1177/1754073911421391

Jan Georg Söffner
Fritz Breithaupt’s “Three-Person Model of Empathy” (2012) offers a brilliant approach to relate empathy to side-taking. By thereby grounding empathy in subjective observation though, it becomes difficult to focus on how empathy interferes with phenomena of shared and embedded activity. This comment therefore raises the question of how Breithaupt’s theory of empathy can be related to phenomena of participatory sense-making and second-person interaction.

Keywords:   empathy, participatory sense-making, second-person interaction, sympathy

The Interactive Brain Hypothesis

Posted in General, Resources by Ezequiel on June 7, 2012

A new paper is now available exploring the implications of participatory sense-making for social neuroscience.

The Interactive Brain Hypothesis

Ezequiel Di Paolo & Hanne De Jaegher

Abstract. Enactive approaches foreground the role of interpersonal interaction in explanations of social understanding. This motivates, in combination with a recent interest in neuroscientific studies involving actual interactions, the question of how interactive processes relate to neural mechanisms involved in social understanding. We introduce the Interactive Brain Hypothesis (IBH) in order to help map the spectrum of possible relations between social interaction and neural processes. The hypothesis states that interactive experience and skills play enabling roles in both the development and current function of social brain mechanisms, even in cases where social understanding happens in the absence of immediate interaction. We examine the plausibility of this hypothesis against developmental and neurobiological evidence and contrast it with the widespread assumption that mindreading is crucial to all social cognition. We describe the elements of social interaction that bear most directly on this hypothesis and discuss the empirical possibilities open to social neuroscience. We propose that the link between coordination dynamics and social understanding can be best grasped by studying transitions between states of coordination. These transitions form part of the self-organization of interaction processes that characterize the dynamics of social engagement. The patterns and synergies of this self-organization help explain how individuals understand each other. Various possibilities for role-taking emerge during interaction, determining a spectrum of participation. This view contrasts sharply with the observational stance that has guided research in social neuroscience until recently. We also introduce the concept of readiness to interact to describe the practices and dispositions that are summoned in situations of social significance (even if not interactive). This latter idea links interactive factors to more classical observational scenarios.

Download your free PDF here:


Di Paolo E and De Jaegher H (2012) The interactive brain hypothesis. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 6:163. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2012.00163