Archive for July, 2007


Environmental awareness paper

July 10, 2007

The mirror-neurons approach (see Gallese, 2000, and other studies) triggered recently some good ideas how to build up the awareness paper in environmental education.

The working title is:
Conceptualizing awareness in environmental education: an example of knowing about air-related problems

The main idea would be demonstrating how environmental literacy development has been exploiting the knowledge-related conceptual awareness conception, while there are studies from dynamic systems about situation awareness , and the studies about mirror neurons of the embodied simulation of actions and emotions perceived by other people which suggest towards activity related awareness.

I would claim that as environmental problems are very complex and multi-perspective, and the latter activity-centered awareness conception is more relevant, and it should not be forgotten.

Current situation in teaching environmental behaviours relies heavily on taught conceptual knowledge and behaviours, while it has been demonstrated that in real activities people do not behave accordingly. They have real problems in being aware of the situation in general sense, which is in most cases the real cause of dilemma type of problems. Thus, it is necessary to teach awareness not as a knowledge-based conception only, but simulated activities in dynamic problem-solving cases (role-plays, investigations, analysis of newspapers) should be organised as well. I think it is necessary to integrate this activity-related awareness into the environmental literacy model.

The empirical data were collected by Eneken Metsalu, the master student under my supervision. There were students’ questionnaires and teachers’ interviews about teaching methods. The separate factor analysis with certain questionnaire items enabled to find the conceptual awareness about four air-related problem issues. Next the factors were classified into nice hierachical clusters that integrated social-awareness components; task-and process awareness components; and contextual knowledge awareness + task- and process awareness components.
K-means clustering and subsequent discriminant analysis showed that also people could be clusered into the same kind of types.

awareness types1

The most interesting was that if the students learned with active methods outdoors they were significantly belonging into the cluster of only task- and process awareness (2).
If they did active learning where posters were developed and brainstorming sessions were carried out, they had only social and contextual awareness (1).
Only the students who got traditional lecturing were having both the task- and process, social and and contextual awareness (3), supposedly because these awareness components were clearly elaborated by their teacher.

paper is published in SEI Science Education International


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?



embodied simulation and activity theory

July 4, 2007

Anatole pointed out that there are some aspects of cognition related to awareness caused by mirror-neurons the Activity Theory might consider.

The basic ideas in Activity theory relate ‘people who want to reach some goals’ with their ‘mediating tools for realising activities’ necessary to ‘reach the goal’. Mediating tools can be cognitive (eg. language, gestures, content of narrative artifacts or pictures etc.) or material artifacts (tools, objects etc.).

This article suggests cognitive relationships between perception – motorical action/language – goal.

What i find interesting is that in the paper they differentiate between two kinds of neurons – some react on action potentials (affordances) and some react on actions. The latter has been related to social cognition.

My understanding of affordances sees them as the emergent constraints in the activity system dependent of various system components and interactions. However, affordances can also be potentially embedded into mediating tools due to cultural use of language or due to culturally defined activity potentials objectified in artifacts and tools. Which part of mirroring systems is responsible of just defining affordances of objects for certain actions and which part requires the actual seeing of certain actions of interest on others? Both are part of the activity system’s functioning.

It is not clearly articulated in the paper but ‘context’ and ‘culture’ play a major role in the activation of mirror-neurons. Activity theory is explaining several aspects of the activity systems which could be in relation to mirroring.

mirror context

Actions embedded in contexts, compared with the other two conditions, yielded a significant signal increase (Iacoboni et al., 2005).

For example scaffolding (that is based on the comprehension of each others goals) and the interpersonal zone of proximal development would be well explained by the mirroring systems.

My question is: How does (does it?) mirroring happen in mediated spaces where we cannot see the others, but we can see the consequences of actions on software, articulated responses etc.?

Does mirroring get activated if we read a book?

Also, how does mirroring influence certain kind of learning in authentic settings?

Does mirroring influence how our value systems develop and what kinds of actions we perceive as relevant ones (eg. environmentalism), and does it also have to do with what we selectively become aware of if the situation is multiperspective (dilemmas).



Volume 1
Mechanisms of Imitation and Imitation in Animals
Susan Hurley and Nick Chater, Editors
MIT Press
Chapter 2.
Understanding Others: Imitation, Language, Empathy
Marco Iacoboni

Minimal neural architecture for imitation: This architecture comprises a brain region that codes an early visual description of the action to be imitated, a second region that codes the detailed motor specification of the action to be copied, and a third region that codes the goal of the imitated action.

Neural mechanisms implementing imitation are also used for other forms of human communication, such as language. Functional similarities between the structure of actions and the structure of language as it unfolds during conversation reinforce this notion. We come to understand others via imitation, and imitation shares functional mechanisms with language and empathy.

The two types of neurons on maquaces are called canonical and mirror. Both types fire when the monkey executes goal-directed actions, such as grasping, holding, tearing, manipulating. Some of these neurons fire for precision grip, when the monkey grasps small objects like a raisin, and some other neurons fire for whole- hand grasp, when the monkey grasps bigger objects, such as an apple. When it comes to their visual properties, canonical neurons that fire when the monkey grasps a small object with a precision grip, respond also to the sight of small objects graspable with precision grip but not to the sight of bigger objects graspable with, say, a whole-hand grip. Note that these visual responses are obtained when the monkey does not reach and grasp the object; the simple sight of the object is sufficient to activate canonical neurons.

In other words, canonical neurons seem to be coding the affordance of an object, the pragmatic aspect of how-to-grab-that-thing, rather than its semantic content.

In contrast, mirror neurons do not fire at the sight of an object but will fire at the sight of a whole action. If it is a mirror neuron, will fire at the sight of another individual grasping an object, but will not fire at the sight of the object alone and will not fire at the sight of a pantomime of a grasp in absence of the object.

There was a convincing anatomical correspondence between the areas identified in the human brain as having mirror properties, and the macaque mirror areas.

The study shows a modulation of activity in inferior frontal mirror areas during imitation of goal-oriented action, with greater activity during goal-oriented imitation compared to non goal-oriented imitation (Koski et al., 2002).

It has been shown that mirror neurons in the macaque fire not only at the sight of an action, but also at the sound of an action (i.e., breaking a peanut) in the dark (Kohler et al., 2002). These data suggest two things: first, mirror neurons have auditory access necessary to implement speech perception.
Second, they enable a multimodal representation of action that is not linked to
the visual channel only.
This may facilitate learning of speech sounds via imitation.

How does one go from a relatively simple action recognition system to the complex symbolic levels reached by human language?

A type of answer (very vague, admittedly) to this question, provided by others elsewhere (Rizzolatti & Arbib, 1998), is that ‘gestures may be a primitive form of grammar’. The problem with both question and answer is that they accept a view of language as a phenomenon that can be essentially reduced to formal constructs such as grammar.

A salient feature of typical conversations that is ignored by traditional linguists is turn-taking. The average transition space from one speaker to another is less than 0.2 seconds, and longer pauses are immediately perceived as violations of temporal norms, even by young children.
Eye-gaze, body torque, rhythm attunement and simultaneous gesture are part of a social interaction (rather than a “software program” as classical cognitivism advocates) critically dependent on the motor system’s facility for temporal orientation and sequence organization and, I propose, also dependent on (and plausibly even deriving from) the action recognition or mirror system.


There are some other important aspects from other sources.

The hypothesis is that the motor system, through its mirror neurons, is involved in perceiving speech, and that through evolution, the “motor resonance”generated by the mirror neurons has been diverted from its original function to serve the needs of language.
Intentional communication requires one individual who is transmitting information and a second who is paying attention to receive it.


Neural mechanisms mediating between the multi-level personal experience we entertain of our lived body, and the implicit certainties we simultaneously hold about others:
Such personal and body-related experiential knowledge enables us to understand the actions performed by others, and to directly decode the emotions and sensations they experience.

A common functional mechanism embodied simulation is the basis of both body awareness and basic forms of social understanding:
– unconscious modeling of our acting body in space
– our awareness of the lived body and of the objects that the world contains


The fact that mirror-neuron activity is impaired in autistic children
fueled the speculation about the importance of mirror-neurons for
social cognition.


This system of neurons allows the brains in humans (and primates) to
perform its highest tasks including learning, imitating and
The mirror neuron system allows for the ability to create
an image of the internal state of another’s mind.

Vittorio Gallese (2000)
The Inner Sense of Action
Agency and Motor Representations
Journal of Consciousness Studies

When describing correlations between neurons and behaviour we are forced to select a foundational perspective defining the broader context in which our investigation is supposed to be framed.

My personal view of this ‘broader context’ is that brain functions can be accounted for only by considering the dynamic interplay that occurs between the biological agent as a whole, and the ‘external world’ (see also Jarvilehto, 1998).

Any attempt to characterize brain functions as the outcome of encoding devices whose final product is a symbolic ‘language’ totally remote from the acting body is bound to fail.

Ungerleider and Mishkin (1982) have influentially proposed that the dorsal pathway should function to analyze the spatial relationships among objects, while the ventral pathway should code their identity. This model posits that vision is ‘implemented’ along two parallel routes: the where and what pathways.

From the early nineties this model has been questioned by an equally influential— and partly alternative—one (Milner and Goodale 1995; see also Gallese et al., 1999 for a critical discussion of it). In Milner and Goodale’s view (1995) the dorsal pathway is involved in the sensorimotor ‘on-line’ control of action (the where becomes how), while the ventral pathway is maintained (pretty much in accord with Ungerleider and Mishkin) to be the privileged site for the semantic description of objects.

Both models, although with substantial differences, posit a strict dichotomy between regions of the brain supposed to control the doing of things, and other ones supposed to know what things really are.

In the next sections I will address the relationship between action and perception quite differently from the tenets of classical cognitivism and neuroscience. This perspective will show the impossibility of drawing a sharp line between acting and perceiving. Furthermore, this account of sensorimotor processes will enable us to formulate some new hypotheses about how our brain is capable of re-presenting the world as phenomenally experienced.

The notion of representation needs to be freed from its abstract connotation — typical of the representational–computational account of the mind—and has to be relocated within a naturalistic perspective.
This new account of representation stresses its pre-conceptual and pre-linguistic roots. What does it precisely mean to define representation in control terms? It means to underline its relational—and therefore intentional—character.

The achievement of different goals turns those very same movements into different actions. What relationship exists between the motor system, movements and actions? Until not so many years ago the motor system was conceived as a mere movement controller. However, recent
neurophysiological findings convey a totally different picture: the motor system controls actions.

It is more plausible to postulate that the objects whose observation triggers the neurons’ response are analyzed in relational terms. Object observation, even within a behavioural context not specifically requiring an active interaction on the side of the observer, determines the activation of the motor program that would be required were the observer actively interacting with the object. To observe objects is therefore equivalent to automatically evoking the most suitable motor program required to interact with them.

What I am proposing here is that to be phenomenally conscious of the meaning of a given object depends also on the unconscious simulation of actions directed to that object.

In humans, the development of language allows a new way of categorizing objects by means of their naming. By receiving a verbal description of an object one can infer its category without the need of acting on it. However, ‘to receive a verbal description of an object’, if one looks closer at it, could still be a way of experiencing this object, by involving the internal simulation of an action directed to that object.

What then really constitutes the meaning of an observed and internally represented object? A purely pictorial description of its shape, size and colour features, or rather also its intentional value? The pictorial description only gains its full, interesting meaning by being transiently bound to an individual first-person perspective on the level of conscious experience, by becoming the object-component of a much bigger, comprehensive picture.

Peri-personal space is by definition a motor space, its outer limits being defined by the working space of different body effectors such as the head or the arms. In fact, what is relevant to the neurons of these brain sectors is the location, with respect to the body, of ‘something’ that will become the target of a purposeful action. Again, we see that even space is inherently, intrinsically dependent on the dynamic relationship between agent and environment. Even more suggestive that this perspective is right are the data by Iriki and co-workers (1996).

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making affordances visible

July 3, 2007

Anatole has just indicated to the artist Mark Jenkins who is trying to make space around us more interactive, by pointing out to some of its potential affordances.

bad boy affordance

“I may be pulled down” affordance, definitely culture-related…
or “stop it right away naughty kid?”

The artist himself says:
“Interfacing street sculpture in public space creates an installation environment that turns regular space into art space. Signs and people and everything around a street sculpture—they all become part of it.

“I think my point is that visual outliers are what’s needed to keep the environment stimulating”.

So, Mark has an idea to make some of the culturally defined possible affordances of objects visual so that the space became an activity space.


ecology of narratives

July 2, 2007

Few days ago i got an interesting email from Anatole Pierre Fuksas who writes a weblog called The Ecology of the Novel – which is his future book. Sitting in Vancouver airport I finally had time to read his interesting ideas.

I have selected few sentences which i find interesting:

A novel basically exists as an ecological feature. In that very moment (of reading) the novel start acting as a plastic organism susceptible to both textual or/and conceptual variation.

Some thoughts about it.
First thing what is intriguing is ecology concept. If to think, any ecological system is sustainable only due to these many aspects. In books and in all written narratives these many aspects are brought to living if we tell these narrations to us during reading, which brings in people with their different contexts.
So the reader makes the systems ecological?
Can the readers also make this ecology of novel out of balance or too vulnerable (if to think of the processes in real ecosystems).

It seems as if novels (and not only, actually all our written memory) is some kind of mediated ecological memory system what we bring into living. And we need to keep it in variations so that it was ecological.

Another though is that in science, this multiple narrations is somewhat resticted deliberately. Does it mean that it reduces the ecological system of scientific narratives, makes it less durable…

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.

That is why the novel relies on a plastic narrative network connecting body part-related references and a modal, general-aspecific ones, pragmatically integrating perception, action, states of mind and emotions into the same vocabulary.

Reading this part made me think of what the activity theory and activity systems are somewhat missing – this states of mind and interpretational part what has so much role in interpreting the texts in hand.

Definition of ecology: Ecology is the study of the interactions between living organisms and their biotic and abiotic environments.

What is mediated ecology of meanings?

Seems my plane to Amsterdam is about to get me on board.. so i will leave the question in the air for myself.