intersubjectivity from embodied simulation

July 5, 2007

I have had interests towards intersubjectivity as a phenomenon for quite some time.
Reading the works of Gallese i found interesting explanations that relate intersubjectivity with mirroring systems of our brain, and simulation processes:

The mirror matching system: Ashared manifold for intersubjectivity
Vittorio Gallese, Pier Francesco Ferrari, and Maria Alessandra Umiltà

Simulation theory in fact holds that we understand others’ thoughts by pretendingto be in their “mental shoes,” and by using our own mind/body as a model for the minds of others (Gallese & Goldman 1998; Goldman 1989; Gordon 1986; Harris 1989).

Preliminary results suggest that a mirror matching system could be at the basis of our capacity to perceive in a meaningful way, not only the actions, but also the sensations and the emotions of others (see Gallese 2001).

In conclusion, these recent findings suggest that a neural matching system is present also in a variety of apparently non-motor-related human brain structures. Thus, different simulation mechanisms are applied in different domains, being sustained by a mirror-matching, dual-mode of operation (action-driven and perception-driven) of given brain structures. We propose that such simulation mechanisms may constitute altogether a shared manifold of intersubjectivity (see Gallese 2001).

Subitted to JAPA
Vittorio Gallese / Paolo Migone / Morris N. Eagle*

Such personal body-related experiential knowledge enables our intentional attunement with others, which in turn constitutes a shared manifold of intersubjectivity.

This we-centric space allows us to understand the actions performed by others, and to decode the emotions and sensations they experience. When observing others we do not just see an action, an emotion, or a sensation. Side by side with the sensory description of the observed social stimuli, internal representations of the body states associated with these actions, emotions, and sensations are evoked in the observer, as if he/she would be doing a similar action or experiencing a similar emotion or sensation.

Fonagy & Target (1996a, 1996b, 2000) have shown within the context of their studies on self reflective function, the ability on the part of the mother to think and react as correctly as possible to the infant’s mental state (his/her intentions, affect states, etc.) will allow the infant to build the ability to understand his/her own mental states as well as those of others (see also Fonagy et al., 2002).

This is how Wood et al., 1976 originally described what scaffolding is…comprehending mutually each other’s intentions and mindset.

The shared blended space enables the social bootstrapping of cognitive and affective development because it provides an incredibly powerful tool to detect and incorporate coherence, regularity, and predictability in the course of the interactions of the individual with the environment. The shared space is paralleled by perspectival spaces defined by the establishment of the capacity to distinguish self from other, as long as self-control develops.

The shared intersubjective space doesn’t disappear. It progressively acquires a different role: to provide the self with the capacity to simultaneously entertain self-other identity and difference. Once the crucial bonds with the world of others are established, this space carries over to the adult conceptual faculty of socially mapping sameness and difference (ì am a different subject).

Given the shared sub-personal neural mapping between what is acted and what is perceived constituted by mirror neurons the action model can also be used to predict the consequences of actions performed by others. Both predictions (of our actions and of others’ actions) are instantiations of embodied simulation, that is, modeling processes.

Embodied simulation automatically establishes a direct experiential link between agent and observer, in that both are underpinned by the same neural substrate.

Can a machine be an agent?

The agent parameter must be filled.
Indeed, not all kinds of agents will do. The brain imaging experiment on communicative actions shows that only stimuli consistent with or closely related to the observeris’ behavioral repertoire are effective in activating the mirror neuron system for actions (Buccino et al., 2004).

It has been proposed that simulation process may constitute a basic level of experiential understanding, a level that does not entail the explicit use of any theory or declarative representation (see Gallese et al., 2004; Gallese, 2004, 2005).

Our seemingly effortless capacity to conceive of the acting bodies inhabiting our social world as persons like us depends on the constitution of a shared meaningful interpersonal space. This shared manifold (see Gallese, 2001, 2003a, 2003b, 2004, 2005) can be characterized at the functional level as embodied simulation, a specific mechanism, likely constituting a basic functional feature by means of which our brain/body system models its interactions with the world.

When we confront the intentional behavior of others, embodied simulation generates a specific
phenomenal state of intentional attunement. This phenomenal state generates a peculiar quality of familiarity with other individuals, produced by the collapse of the others’ ́intentions into the observers’ ones.

The gap between the two perspectives is bridged by the way the intentional relation is functionally mapped at the neural-body level. Any intentional relation can be mapped as a relation between a subject and an object.

It might well be the case that embodied simulation scaffolds the propositional, language-mediated mechanism.

Simulation is a functional process that possesses a certain representational content, typically focusing on possible states of its target object.

I still struggle with the problem what is the source of intersubjectivity if we cannot perceive the actor directly. The theoretical studies about what neural processes take place when i look at the objects and artifacts around without the actor’s presence and interaction with them seem to be out of my knowing..

forms of intersubjectivity

But yet, here is the image what i constructed about a year ago when searching and thinking about intersubjectivity. It seems to me some of the ‘artifact’s knowledge and intentions’ are missing from the picture of embodied simulation.

There are studies from neuropsychology about the transfer from one kind of information (eg. sound, images of facial expressions) into the intentional activation of mirror neurons. For example if the monkey hears someone to crack the nut, it can assume that there is some food around..or if someone looks at the images of facial expressions the observer would be experiencing a small dose of the emotion corresponding to the observed person’s facial expression (Ekman, 1993, 1998; Ekman & Davidson, 1994). And then mirror neurons get activated. Do artifacts in action (either cognitive or manual application) trigger the mirror neurons?

Supporting the theory of ecological narratives with the mirroring studies would need some neuroimaging proof.

Anatole Fuksas is pointing to some possible sources. I would like to know more about the studies of silent reading in relation to activating inner action with mirror neurons.

Flöel, A. – Ellger, T. – Breitenstein, C. – Knecht, S. 2003
Language perception activates the hand motor cortex: implications for motor theories of speech perception, in «European Journal of Neuroscience»18: 3: 704-708.

The theory predicts that listening to the ‘gestures’ that compose spoken language should activate an extended articulatory and manual action-perception network. To examine this hypothesis, we assessed the effects of language on cortical excitability of the hand muscle representation by transcranial magnetic stimulation. We found the hand motor system to be activated by linguistic tasks, most notably pure linguistic perception, but not by auditory or visuospatial processing.

I could not access full paper so it is a bit unclear, but it does not say they used narrative written texts.

Watkins, K. E. – Strafella, A. P. – Paus, T. 2003
Seeing and hearing speech excites the motor system involved in speech production, in «Neuropsychologia» 41: 989-994.

In this experiment the size of the motor-evoked potentials was compared under the following conditions: listening to speech, listening to non-verbal sounds, viewing speech-related lip movements, and viewing eye and brow movements.
Thus, text reading was not tested.

Watkins, K. E. – Paus, T. 2004
Modulation of motor excitability during speech perception: the role of Broca’s area, in «Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience» 16:6: 978-987.

During auditory speech perception, there is increased excitability of motor system underlying speech production and that this increase is significantly correlated with activity in the posterior part of the left inferior frontal gyrus (Broca’s area).

Again, it does not support the ideas of reading text and mirror neuron activation.

Then, action-related knowledge can be retrieved not only by visual or auditory perception, but even by language, that is by sentences actually describing actions (Watkins and colleagues 2003, Flöel and colleagues 2003, Watkins and Paus 2004, Tettamanti and colleagues 2005).
Indeed, the mediated perceptions of narrative actions might induce motor facilitation, triggering action potential as the planning, the observation or the the auditory clues associated to given actions do.
Since mediated visual stimuli actually trigger ideomotor actions, some similar degree of ideomotricity may be entailed by the textual processing of narratives, both through direct listening to stories verbalized aloud and internal verbalization after silent reading. If so, textual perception and narrative action might share a common coding mechanism, as perception and action do. That is, recognition of narrative action through the pragmatical flow of the text should be supported by the activity of a mirror matching mechanism.

The Ecological Theory of the Novel mantains that perception and action are tightly connected through the narrative flow of the novel. The description of the setting features verbs, nouns and adjectives actually referring to perceptive events, sensory-related properties and body part-specific affordances of items in order to trigger action potential. Narrative action, entailed by motor, sensory and action-related verbs referring to actual affordance, exerts the potential entailed by the described items. Since references to states of mind, emotions, evaluations are seldom independent from perceptual and action-related events, a general network may subserve processing of both body part-specific and general aspecific events, effectors, attributes.

What is the neural mechanism of semiotic processes? Basically, there is similar kind of perspective awareness happening. However, beyond perspective awareness the person who sees the others or some people in action with objects, must also have its own intentional structure – clear grasp of own and unfamiliar differences. Can we see the same intentional structure in written narratives or even narrative images?



One comment

  1. […] were talking at Mauri’s place, could concepts like ‘photosynthesis’ be easily embodied and activated directly through sensory-motor path, without the activation of symbolic schemata […]

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