Interaction dynamics & autonomy in social cognition

Project report

Marie Curie IEF  FP7-PEOPLE-2009-IEF-253883
Hanne De Jaegher, August 2010–July 2012, Dept. of Logic & Philosophy of Science, University of the Basque Country

Research on social cognition investigates how we understand and navigate our social world, how we understand others, and how we understand the world together with others. Most of this research today — whether in cognitive science, psychology, or neuroscience — focuses heavily on the individual mechanisms needed to figure out others’ mental states. The classical metaphor of cognition as a form of computational information processing plays a great role in this view, and research questions are often a version of ‘how does the brain compute what others think, want, and feel?’

This traditional view over-emphasises the individual person and underplays the role of processes of interindividual relation and interaction. Is it not the case that we often feel that how we connect with someone makes a difference to how we understand them? Is it not the case that we sometimes cannot exactly say which person had which idea, e.g. about what to cook for dinner or where to go on holiday, but that the idea emerged between us, and often we cannot pinpoint one single ‘author’ of the idea?

The classical view has given little importance to such questions or the interactions people engage in with others (the processes of connecting, or the social dynamics). Interactions as processes are seen as no more than inputs to the brain’s computations, or as merely where the results of these interpretations get executed. Interactions are not seen as directly influencing the way we make sense of and with each other.

The INDYNAUTS project has taken an alternative departure point. It has investigated social cognition by starting from the idea that social interaction processes as such, and not only individual brains, can play a central role in social understanding. It has researched how interaction processes can influence and even determine how we makes sense of each other and of the world together (this is the concept of participatory sense-making).

The central question investigated in this project has been: What is the role of interaction dynamics in social cognition?

That interaction dynamics play a role in social cognition is an unsurprising idea in sociology, as well as some areas of psychology, psychiatry, cognitive science, and philosophy. And recently, it has started to be researched more and more in neuroscience, psychology, and simulation modeling.

INDYNAUTS has extended the original theoretical framework of participatory sense-making. It contains a set of conceptual tools that have direct relevance for empirical work in clinical and developmental psychology, linguistics, psychiatry, simulation modeling, communication technology, and neuroscience.

The project investigated three core questions:

– Can interaction processes enable or even constitute social cognition?

– How do individuals change through interaction?

– What is the function of individual mechanisms in the context of interaction? How does what we know about individual mechanisms of social cognition change in light of the study of social interaction processes?

The project’s conceptual framework uses an operational notion of autonomy developed in enactive theories of biological and cognitive organization. The main claim is that social interaction processes can act as a mechanism that modulates and transforms individual cognition, autonomy and agency.

The investigations have led to the following results:

1. The proposal and elucidation of a spectrum of explanations of social cognition ranging from individual-dominant to interaction-dominant (De Jaegher, Di Paolo & Gallagher 2010).

2. The development of an explanatory distinction between the different roles (contextual, enabling, and constitutive) that interaction dynamics and individual factors can play in cognition (De Jaegher, Di Paolo & Gallagher 2010).

3. A defense of the claim that intentions are not fixed and ready-made inside individuals, but can be modulated and transformed in interactions (De Jaegher 2010; De Jaegher & Fuchs 2010; Fuchs & De Jaegher 2010; De Haan, De Jaegher, Fuchs & Mayer 2011)

4. The proposal that interaction processes can acquire a form of systemic autonomy (De Jaegher, Di Paolo & Gallagher 2010; Di Paolo, Rohde & De Jaegher 2010).

5. A mapping of the interplay between individual (organismic, sensorimotor) and interactional autonomy (Di Paolo, Rohde & De Jaegher 2010).

6. As regards the larger socio-cultural, historical, and institutional context in which interactions are embedded, development of the proposal that socio-cultural norms are not ready-made, but are always also negotiated in interaction (De Jaegher, 2013).

7. The proposal of a novel Interactive Brain Hypothesis, which conjectures that individual neural mechanisms are shaped – literally – by social interactions (De Jaegher, Di Paolo, and Gallagher 2010; Di Paolo & De Jaegher 2012).

Through these contributions, this new model of social cognition proposes that the interaction does proper explanatory work. This has consequences for theory, modelling and experiments, and extends the range of explanations and hypotheses in social cognitive science, as well our understanding of interventions like psychotherapy, consultancy, and our grasp of psychopathologies like autism and schizophrenia.

Wider (socio-economic) impacts:

– A better understanding of autism (De Jaegher H (2013). Embodiment and sense-making in autismFrontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, 7(15)). International collaborations have been put into place in order to translate the theoretical proposal into interventions with people with autism, and to assess embodied therapies of autism.

– PRISMA-TESIS Projects: International collaboration to develop a research method to investigate “what it is like to interact”, i.e. the experience of interaction, and how this relates to making sense of each other and of the world together (participatory sense-making). The method can be used to train young researchers as well as health professionals, teaching them how to use their own experience in the investigation of intersubjectivity and in treatment. More information here.

Marie Curie ITN TESIS: Towards an Embodied Science of Intersubjectivity, (FP7-PEOPLE-2010-ITN, 264828) March 2011 – February 2015, coordinated at the University of Heidelberg, Dept. of Psychiatry (Prof. Thomas Fuchs) and the University of the Basque Country, Dept. of Logic and Philosophy of Science (Prof. Ezequiel Di Paolo). The rationale for this project is in part based on work developed for and in INDYNAUTS. The project provides training to the next generation of researchers in the theory and methods of embodied intersubjectivity research. Within the framework of this project, a summer school was organized in San Sebastián, 14-18 May 2012, “Embodying Intersubjectivity Research”. The summer school’s website is here: