I am interested in how researchers in cognitive science formulate and answer questions about how we act in the world. I am also interested in how cognitive science can be used to inform design in cities and the built environment.
My work focuses on embodied approaches in cognitive science, including ecological psychology, dynamic systems theory, and enactivism. These approaches have typically been used to analyse how actors perform well-defined perception-action tasks, such as catching balls or steering a vehicle round a bend. My work explores how this task-based type of explanation can be reconciled with the study of complex human behaviors involving language. At the same time I am exploring how the theoretical insights of embodied approaches can inform the design of usable infrastrastructure in cities.
I previously worked on these topics during my PhD research at the University of Edinburgh (completed 2015) and during a Marie Curie postdoctoral fellowship (in the psychology department at the University of Cincinnati and at the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London, 2016-2019).
The main question that I am interested in is: How would cognitive science work if it were based on a mutualist understanding of animals and environments instead of on the computational metaphor of the mind? My efforts to address this have led me to focus on three topics: 1) How do cognitive scientists go about asking questions? 2) How is it possible to unify enquiry within the cognitive sciences? Specifically, how can the mind be understood in terms that are compatible with the logic of the life sciences, and with the logic of the social sciences? And, 3) How can cognitive science produce explanations that are relevant to real world problems? The kinds of real world problems I have been interested in are around usability and design in cities.
Explanation in embodied cognitive science
My interest in this question has been in the context of research on the cognitive science of interaction, which I have pursued within the ecological framework developed by the 20th century psychologist James J. Gibson. Gibsonian psychology is unusual in that it has sought to provide explanations not in terms of brain activity within the individual, but in terms of behavioral tasks that occur between an animal and its environment. These behavioral tasks are not natural kinds but units of analysis defined by the researcher for pragmatic purposes. Tasks are repeatable, identifiable patterns of behavior with a start and end point, e.g. braking a vehicle to a stop, or running to catch a ball. Identifying a task enables a researcher to ask tractable questions without worrying about the animal’s entire life history all at once. I have been exploring the scope and limitations of this type of explanation, and possibilities for extending this type of explanation into ‘higher’ cognitive activities involving language.
Unification in the cognitive sciences
Cognitive science is by definition an interdisciplinary enterprise. Its practitioners, though, have tended to restrict themselves to a fairly narrow set of research questions informed by methodological individualism, generally searching for representational or neural substrates of some behavior within an individual. I believe that cognitive science needs to be informed by evolutionary thinking. Put another way, the logic of the mind sciences should be situated within the logic of the life sciences. Specifically, cognitive science should be informed by the kind of extended evolutionary thinking that recognizes the basic importance of organism–environment mutuality, which is in tension with the idea of methodological individualism. A mutualist approach offers a particularly useful way of thinking about behavior in multi-actor settings: if multiple actors have access to a single shared environment, then many of the traditional problems concerning other minds simply dissolve.
An appealing quality of task-based embodied cognition explanations is that they are already applicable to the real world because the thing being studied is already a real world phenomenon. One area where cognitive science explanations can be fruitfully applied to the real world is in design and usability. My work explores how Gibsonian thinking can be applied to the design of infrastructure in cities.
Baggs, E., Raja, V., & Anderson, M. L. (in press). Culture in the world shapes culture in the head (and vice-versa) [commentary and book review of Cognitive Gadgets by Cecelia Heyes]. Behavioral and Brain Sciences.
Baggs, E. & Chemero, A. (2018). Radical embodiment in two directions. Synthese. doi: 10.1007/s11229-018-02020-9
Baggs, E. (2018). A psychology of the in between? Constructivist Foundations, 13(3): 395–397. http://constructivist.info/13/3/395
Baggs, E. (2017). Book Review: Evolving Enactivism: Basic Minds Meet Content. Frontiers in Psychology, 8:1947. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01947
Baggs, E. (2015). A radical empiricist theory of speaking: linguistic meaning without conventions. Ecological Psychology, 27(3):251–264. doi: 10.1080/10407413.2015.1068655
Baggs, E. and Chemero, A. (2019). The third sense of environment. In Wagman, J. B. and Blau, J. J. C., editors, Perception as Information Detection: Reflections on Gibson’s Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Taylor & Francis, New York, NY. [Preprint available at https://dx.doi.org/10.17605/OSF.IO/SXMRZ].
Baggs, E., Chemero, A., & Penn, A. (2019) Designing cities for humans. Proceedings of the 12th International Space Syntax Symposium. Beijing, July 2019
Baggs, E. (2017) Against the group actor assumption in joint action research. Proceedings of the Cognitive Science Society, London, UK, July 2017
Baggs, E. (2014) The task-oriented approach in psychology: A solution to Fodor’s problem. Proceedings of the Cognitive Science Society, Quebec City,, July 2014
Project Title: The interactive brain in urban space
Project Page: (under construction)
Primary Investigator: Edward Baggs
Other Project Members: Michael Anderson, Jason Gilliland (geography)
Brief Description: The project aims to explore how recent advances in the philosophy of cognitive science can enable a constructive dialogue between cognitive science and urban design. The project has two strands. The first is theoretical and is concerned with understanding how space is conceived in studies of human and animal wayfinding. The second is design-oriented and is concerned with exploring how an embodied approach to cognitive science can generate design principles for improving the usability of urban infrastructure.
Fall 2018, Evidence and enquiry, Department of Psychology, University College London (seminar leader)