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)

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

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