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03 October 2017

Ecological Psychology: Overcoming the Metaphor of the Brain-Computer

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When perceiving the objects that surround us, we attend to their different properties, such as their size, color, or form. Although it may not seem obvious at first, we also look at other properties that are fundamental to our interaction with them and are related to our bodily abilities. For example, when perceiving an everyday object (such as a cup, for example) we attend to its color or size, but we also directly perceive what we can do with that object (if we can grab it or throw it).

Ecological psychology: what it is

Such properties were defined as ‘affordances’ or possibilities for action and were scientifically studied by the American psychologist J. J. Gibson. Gibson developed a whole scientific discipline that had the objective of studying the perception and use of the affordances of our surroundings, and he called this discipline ecological psychology. Hence, affordances are the opportunities for action present in our environment and the main object of study of ecological psychology.

Besides being a new object of perception in the study of our psychology, ecological psychology is a discipline whose theoretical principles challenge traditional cognitive science. Traditional cognitive science was based on the idea that the mind worked in a similar way to a computer, where the mental aspect was defined by the processing of information that occurred in our brains. In this image of the mental aspect perception was relegated to being a mere passive process separate from action and the action was simply a reaction driven by brain processing. Thus, cognition was purely processing information at the brain level in order to form representations of the external world.

How do we know our environment?

Conversely, ecological psychology believes that this computer metaphor is not a good explanation of how we know our environment. Instead of making internal copies of our environment and acting according to them, as if we were a computer, what we do is actively explore our environment to find elements that guide us in performing one action or another. This is how all animals act. These elements that guide us when carrying out certain actions are a type of special information, known as ecological information. This information we detect is specific information to perform certain actions and that arises from the combination between our activity and the elements of the environment. By detecting this information in, for example, our visual field, its very detection already shows us what actions we can take. For example, if when running we see that an object is gradually approaching because it expands in the center of our visual field (thanks to the ecological informational variable known as ‘contact time’), right at that time we directly perceive what actions we can do (dodge, grab, jump, or even collide with it).

Affordances are the opportunities for action present in our environment and the main object of study of ecological psychology / Image: OpenMind

Those actions that we can carry out are the affordances that are offered to us in that situation. This means that we directly perceive the affordances that surround us without the need to resort to brain processes of processing information or mental representations: we find everything we need to know to explain our actions in analyzing the dynamic relationship between our exploratory activity as an organism and the elements of the environment, and it is on this scale (the ecological scale, the level of interaction between organism and environment) where we can find a more embodied, localized, temporal and natural explanation of how we perceive and act, without the need to postulate internal elements as mental representations.

Manuel Heras

Universidad Alberto Hurtado (Chile)

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