Walter J. Freeman (1998) The Necessity for Partitioning Organism From Environment. Psycoloquy: 9(81) Efference Knowledge (7)

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PSYCOLOQUY (ISSN 1055-0143) is sponsored by the American Psychological Association (APA).
Psycoloquy 9(81): The Necessity for Partitioning Organism From Environment

Commentary on Jarvilehto on Efference-Knowledge

Walter J. Freeman
Division of Neurobiology
Dept of Molecular & Cell Biology,
University of California
Berkeley CA 94720 USA


Modeling perception and behavior as an organism-environment system is a powerful step toward replicating intelligent behavior with machines. An equally important step is to explain the genesis of intention through nonlinear brain dynamics as necessary before the organism engages the environment. This implies the existence of a perceptual barrier between brains. Its nature was first described by Thomas Aquinas, then by David Hume, and its existence has now been shown by electrophysiological imaging. The nature of its operation has been revealed by dynamical analysis of the sensory cortices of animals trained to discriminate between reinforced and unreinforced conditioned stimuli.


afference, artificial life, efference, epistemology, evolution, Gibson, knowledge, motor theory, movement, perception, receptors, robotics, sensation, sensorimotor systems, situatedness
1. The subject-object dichotomy has plagued Western civilization for millennia. The primacy of the individual emerged in full flower in the Golden Age of Greek philosophy as a foundational principle, when Plato likened the body to a chariot and the soul to the driver using the twin horses of reason and passion to control it. Descartes in the Age of the Machine expressed it in the metaphor of the soul piloting the body as its boat under the credo: Cogito, ergo sum. Under the aegis of a mathematical theory of the mind he cemented two myths into place. One myth is the existence of absolute truths in the universe, the Platonic ideals that the individual subjective mind through reason aspires to by contemplating the imperfect copies in the material world. The other myth is the ideal of the individual describing the world through objective experimentation as it truly exists for all time, independently of personal biases, emotional colorings, and cultural contexts. At the close of the 19th Century on the threshold of the First World War came the bombastic finale by William Ernest Henley, "Invictus":

    "Out of the night that covers me,
     Black as the Pit from pole to pole, ...
     I am the master of my fate;
     I am the captain of my soul."

2. Well, it didn't quite work out like that. Progress became regress, and millions marched into oblivion, taking a large part of Western civilization with them. Still, the vision lives on into the Age of Nuclear Annihilation: subject versus object, ideal forms versus messy reality, individual man subjugating himself, his neighbors and his environment to his awesome will.

3. Jarvilehto (1998) offers a new vision. He expresses a modest goal, but he is after very large game indeed. By postulating an organism-environment system he abolishes the subject-object distinction. Information is no longer conceived as flowing into the subject, providing the raw materials from which reason must extract the ideals, as engineers do by designing filters, and statisticians do by calculating the first four moments of empirical distributions. Instead of coming through passive information processing, perception in his view occurs through action, which expands the horizon of the combined system by reorganization and differentiation. Part of the action is through efferent control of receptors, but more is through the positioning of the body and its receptors with respect to the context of the environment, which requires a unification of the actor with the circumstances of the action. The Irish poet Yeats expressed this insight in his question: "Who can tell the dancer from the dance?" Jarvilehto shows through his ingenious Gedankenexperiment that "unequivocal coding of environmental information is difficult, if not impossible at all levels of the nervous system".

4. Jarvilehto's insight is a welcome updating of a tradition that extends back to the exclusionary difference between the Platonic and Aristotelian views of perception (Freeman, 1997). Plato held that it was passive; his cave dwellers merely viewed shadows on the wall. Aristotle conceived it as active, transitive initially with cutting, thrusting and burning, then intransitive with apprehending and conceptualizing. The crucial importance of action in the work of perception has been the bedrock of pragmatism since it first appeared in the writings of Charles Pearce and William James, and the concept has flourished in diverse contexts, including the views on education of John Dewey (1914), the concepts of cognitive development of Jean Piaget (1930), particularly as expanded by Thelen and Smith (1994) using dynamic systems theory, the structuring of the "intentional arc" as Merleau-Ponty (1945) described it, Gestalt theory, and its further elaboration in the ecopsychology of J J Gibson (1979), in which things are perceived by virtue of what they offer in the way of uses for actions, that is, their "affordances." This dynamic conception has proved to be crucial for the design of semi-autonomous robots as described by Jun Tani (1996, 1998), Andy Clark (1996), and Horst Hendriks-Jansen (1996). Taga (1994) devised the most effective model of bipedal locomotion to date by incorporating the environment as an integral part of the machine system.

5. I think that the greatest utility of the concept of an organism-environment system lies and will continue to lie in the design of autonomous robots and the modeling and interpretation of behaviors as seen from the outside by a third party. More problematic is its use in the understanding of perception as it is explored by neurophysiological observations, and as it is experienced by individuals. I say this for two reasons.

6. My first reason comes from my conclusion, drawn from studies of perception in animals through observing and measuring the spatial patterns of EEG activity in the primary receiving areas for vision, audition, somesthesis, and olfaction during the performance of discriminations between pairs of conditioned stimuli, one reinforced and the other not. In particular, I measured the spatial pattern of amplitude modulation (AM) of the common carrier wave form of the EEG in each of these areas on repeated trials after training had resulted in formation of conditioned reflexes. I found that the spatial patterns did not conform to the stimuli but instead to the history of experience and the present context, both of the environment and of the subjects' bodies in terms of their affective states under neurohumoral controls (Freeman, 1992; Barrie et al. 1996; Skarda and Freeman 1987). I found further anatomical and physiological evidence that these spatial AM patterns are the closest observable cortical state variable to access the effective output of the primary sensory areas. I concluded that these AM patterns constitute the meanings of stimuli for the animals, that they are unique to each animal, owing to the unique make-up and history of each animal, and that they are neural operators, not representations.

7. Granting that in these experiments the animals are forming an interactive system with their environments, which includes myself as the manipulator and observer, I find it necessary to break the system into two parts, owing to the disjunction or barrier between the infinite complexity of the inner world of each subject and the still greater infinity of the world we cohabit. This distinction does not re-invoke the subject-object dichotomy, because the assimilation of each subject to the shared world does not require the postulate of ideal forms in or above the world that must be discovered or constructed as ideal forms in the mind. The first clear statement of this view was by St. Thomas Aquinas in his Treatise on Man, a section of his Summa Theologica (1272). He distinguished between the forms in matter that are unique and unknowable in their granularity and particularity, and the forms in the intellect that are constructed by the imagination through generalization and abstraction, and that become the contents of knowledge. He described the process of perception as assimilation ("adequatio" = the sufficient approximation) of the self by its actions of stretching forth ("intendere") into the surround, but always maintaining the integrity and unity of the self. Four centuries later David Hume (1739) adopted a similar view for similar reasons under the school of Nominalism, which held that concepts and ideas belong in minds, not in matter. This was the reason that he designated Causality as a property of humans; he defended this principle by showing that inferences about causes are based in our experiences of constancy and temporal order of events in the world, not by access to a theory of matter. This is another instance of the demise of Cartesian dualism (see also Cartwright, 1989).

8. My second reason for holding that recognition of organism-environment unity must be tempered by recognition of the barrier between the parts of the system is the primacy of intention in the act of perception. Aquinas introduced the term to describe the process of acting to acquire knowledge, but for various historical reasons the term "intentionality" was coopted and perverted by analytic philosophers into their forlorn attempt to bridge the subject-object gulf (Freeman, in press). In essence, perception begins with emergence in the actor of an intent, goal, purpose, and desire for some future state. How does that come about? Here is the great barrier to widespread acceptance by the bioscientific community of the doctrines of pragmatists, Gestaltists, existentialists, and ecopsychologists: the lack of a suitable model for the occurrence of physiological patterns in perceiving brains before the actions have been taken to realize by assimilation those patterns as new patterns in the sensory receiving areas.

9. The new techniques that have made it possible for us to create adequate models of intentionality are nonlinear dynamics and the theory of chaos applied to complex systems, and the new computer technologies that make possible the imaging of brain activity such as AM patterns in the brains of normally behaving humans and animals. The unity of organism-environment as presaged by Merleau-Ponty's (1945) concept of "maximum grip" is one essential step to move beyond stimulus-response determinism and situated cognitivist representationalism. The next step is to explain the genesis of meaning structure in brains in the face of the barrier between each brain and every other, the clearest evidence for which is our inability ever to experience the qualia of others, merely to share by talking them over.


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Jarvilehto, T. (1998d) Efferent influences on receptors in knowledge formation. PSYCOLOQUY 9(41)

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