This week we’re reading
Agnes and Michael will be presenting work and plans at this event next week; abstracts below. Good luck, have fun!
An ecologically-inspired real-time visual feedback training system to support novel vowel production
During infancy, the explosion of possibilities afforded by increasing control over language resources are paradoxically accompanied by a significant narrowing of flexibility when it comes to the building blocks of speech itself. Powerful perceptual biases are at play before we can produce words, directing attention towards a native phonology which ultimately constrains the sounds that come to auditorily define us in the world. For these reasons, second language learners struggle to develop novel accents without influence from their native tongue and demonstrate poor perceptual discriminability and categorisation of non-native sounds (Best, 1995; Flege, 1995).
Augmented feedback systems employed for speech-training frequently include rich anatomical, or abstract acoustic feedback which fail to appreciate the tight coupling of perception and action, yielding displays that are difficult to interpret and use. This talk considers the motivation and design for a feedback system providing real-time information on novel speech-sound production along task- relevant perceptual dimensions.
An ecological approach characterises the linguistic entities to be learned as vocal tract gestures (e.g. Fowler, 1986) and proposes that the learning process involves both action execution and exposure to relevant perceptual control information. This feedback is a simple 2D visual display in which speakers’ productions are represented by a continuously moving dot which they must drive towards a target, taking advantage of the mapping between tongue position and vowel formants.
With small periods of training, augmented access to speech gesture information is fast and effective at driving and stabilising production. Crucially, these gains hold in the presence and absence of feedback. This work acts as a proof-of-concept of the power of the ecological approach to increase our theoretical and practical understanding of speech-sound acquisition.
The co-evolution of language and object throwing in hominins
Language has a multiplicity of uses for humans today and many causes have been posited for its origin, e.g. tool use, information transmission, social interaction, abstract thought. In 1982, the neurophysiologist WH Calvin proposed a novel hypothesis for the origin of language capacity in hominins: Morphological adaptations for arboreal living in ancient apes were exapted for object throwing and led to the emergence of hominins as an action-at-a-distance predator. Throwing accurately however requires precise timing in the coordination of various effectors, placing a strong selective pressure for multiple morphological changes including more neurons and increased encephalisation. These timing requirements are similar to those required for speech and Calvin hypothesised that the neural mechanisms which supported this timing in throwing were then exapted for language.
Calvin’s hypothesis has never been experimentally tested in humans. Multiple recent strands of paleoanthropological, archaeological, genetic, linguistic and psychological research indicates both language and throwing are more ancient than previously thought. Moreover, evidence for throwing behaviours often predates evidence for language. Many researchers are understandably sceptical of the potential pitfalls of such investigations, especially the creation of just-so stories. However, if language is viewed as an embodied activity rather than a mental process, then both speaking and throwing can be viewed as the activities of organisms and become open to investigation in a similar manner to any other behaviour.
This talk will explain Calvin’s hypothesis, highlight recent language and throwing evolution research, make a case for its investigation and outline a specific experimental method combining linguistics and movement science.
We’ll be reading this in two weeks
The University of Leeds is hosting an EPS conference entitled ‘Accelerating the impact of research into sensorimotor learning’‘Accelerating the impact of research into sensorimotor learning’ and the CIA Lab is well represented (at the very least we’ll be clearly perceptible 🙂
Agnes and Dan are presenting posters of their dissertation research on acquiring novel speech sounds and the behavioural dynamics of learning novel coordinations, respectively.
Andrew will give a talk on why taking an ecological approach seriously helps both research and practice
Taking An Ecological Approach to Research and Practice (slides)
The first step towards integrating science and practice is to create a common frame of reference so that we are asking the same kinds of questions. An increasingly common way to study sensorimotor development and control is the ecological, dynamical systems approach, and there is growing interest in applying this approach beyond the lab and into clinical and sporting practice. This approach is a surprisingly radically different way of thinking about our field, however, so my goal for this talk is to sketch that mindset out, using some recent empirical work to illustrate the bigger ideas.
The key elements are as follows. The form of our movements emerges in real time as we interact with the demands of the task we are facing; each behaviour is the result of an extended, embodied perception-action mechanism. The key components we need to be able to science are the task, our embodiment and, critically, the perceptual information about each of these that enables us to tie the whole package together. Modern ecological psychology describes the world in terms of dynamical systems theory and works to identify how these dynamics produce the rich perceptual information about themselves that shape our activity in the world.
I will summarise this ecological task dynamics framework and point to some useful research and theory, with the goal of sparking a conversation about how the ecological approach can shape and inform both your research and practice.
Sabrina presented an invited talk this week at the Computation & Representation in Cognitive Science conference at the University of Sussex
Ecological representations: Can the ‘R’ word fit in a Gibsonian framework?
There is widespread agreement that an ecological approach to explaining behaviour is at odds with a computational approach. Often, this opposition is also framed in terms of representations such that ecological approaches are meant to be necessarily non-representational. The perceived lack of fit between ecological explanations and computational / representational explanations may be accounted for by two facts. One, cognitive scientists tend to adopt an unnecessarily narrow view of computation (compared to the wider scientific community). Two, the motivation for invoking representations in an explanation is unfairly reduced to solving a problem of poverty of stimulus, which is anathema to ecological explanations. We argue that the concept of representation is amenable to an ecological approach, as long as it is built upon a foundation of ecological information. Ecological representations do not fill out impoverished sensory experiences. Their usefulness comes entirely from the extent to which they preserve spatiotemporal structure in information variables specifying biologically and psychologically relevant properties of the environment. Their job is to provide a mechanism by which behaviour can complement relevant properties of the environment in the absence of immediate perceptual access to those properties. Because the structure of ecological representations is determined by the structure of ecological information (which is formally definable), ecological representations are amenable to empirical investigation, making their existence an empirical, rather than theoretical matter.