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Review of Prinz

Action Science: Foundations of an Emerging Discipline

Wolfgang Prinz, Miriam Beisert, and Arvid Herwig, Editors
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2013
456 pp., illus. 43. Trade, $65.00
ISBN: 9780262018555.

Reviewed by Ian Verstegen

Cognitive science, triumphant until recently, can now be seen to have had one large lacuna: its neglect of action. The Behaviorism it supplanted, with its mazes and jumping stands, at least had an implausible theory of action while the cognitivists reflected on, well, cognitions. The reentry of action into psychological research, in some cases associated with an anti-representationalist emphasis on the coupling of the organism in its environment, has inspired several approaches, all collected in this book. The aim of the editors – led by the elder statesman of action research, Wolfgang Prinz – is precisely to offer a neutral space within which to consider the various schools: a “forum for comparing them with each other” (2). Although Prinz himself is associated with a representational approach, he admirably creates a platform for a productive dialogue.

The editors of Action Science sketch out a clear understanding of the issues facing the psychological study of action: what is an action? How do we parse the “continuous stream of ongoing behavior” (2)? If we define actions in terms of their goals, we have to understand if they are “in-the-mind” or simply descriptive and procedural. Next, are they within “perceptual range” or do they necessitate “a situational change” (4)? In relating perception to action, is the link arbitrary (mapping), as in many laboratory experiments, or similarity-based (matching). While Prinz and co-editors favor the latter variety, they note that such a position requires some kind of additional translation: either sensory entries can be translated into motor language, motor entries can be translated into sensory language, or both can be translated into a neutral language.

The papers that make up the volume fall into the six categories representing a majority of action research. In “Control and Learning,” the authors “agree that actions are controlled by mental representations” (22) and focus on processes of action planning and motor learning. David Rosenbaum’s chapter is distinguished for its clear historical contextualization of the problem. Herbert Heuer and Sandra Sülzenbrück consider the interesting question of whether tool use exists in an embodied neural representation. Bernard Hommel shows how “self” and “other” are perceptually encoded in action.

In the next section, “Ecological Approaches,” the practitioners generally “avoid the notion of mental representations.” Long-time follower of J. J. Gibson, Michael Turvey offers a tour de force of the coupling of action to the environment, seeking to see just how much can be explained before positing further cognitive resources. Dennis Proffitt and Sally Linkenauger on the other hand reflect a new, “new look” approach that argues that purpose, state of mind and emotion scale our perception of the environment. These nonperceptual factors attune us to, and can enhance our experience of, the visual world.

The section on “Neurocognitive Mechanisms” focuses on how ideas of actions can be translated into a motor format. Following the well-known paradigm of mirror neurons, Giacomo Rizzolatti and Corrado Sinigaglia, enlighten how we have access to actions done by others. The utility of mirror encoding in the brain is the potential for action. It becomes the biological mechanism for common coding in the mind. Glyn Humphreys switches to the problem of attention and noting past cognitivist treatment of processing limitations in attention, suggests a dynamic view of attention combining object and action selection. When attending to stimuli, subjects are particularly sensitive to the action potential of them; action becomes a form of “predictive coding” of the environment.

In the section on “Development,” Von Hofsten notes the proclivities in play for the developing neonate to initiate actions to understand the world, its own movements, and the social world. This “predictive control” is also reflected in the chapter by Andrew Meltzoff and collaborators, who see a prelinguistic supramodal representation of action at work that allows for imitation, even before language.

This “supramodal” model suggests the Prinz model of dual coding, as does Cecilia Heyes’ preference for a conceptual basis of imitation, in the next section on “Social Action.” Although Heyes believes this basis is composed of long-term sensorimotor associations, she sees her approach as compatible with Prinz’s ideomotor theory. Janeen Loehr and her colleagues uniquely reflect on “entrainment,” when people are aligned in time. They can possess in these cases “shared representations,” based probably on oscillatory dynamics.

In the last section on “Cognition and Volition,” Chambon and Patrick Harggard ask where the sense of agency arises in the intention-action-effect chain. Noting that for ideomotor theory actions are givens, they instead look to premotor behavior, when action selection processes help assign responsibility. Markus Kiefer and Lawrence Barsalou look at how the conceptual system is “grounded” by sensory modality, the body and the physical environment. Finally, Thomas Goschke investigates the relation of intentions to actions and shows how intentions are internal constraints on actions. At the end of the Introduction, Prinz, Beisert, and Herwig leave it to the field and the reader to pursue either unification of division of the field (p. 27). Whatever the choice, the book becomes an ideal map in the endeavor. 

Last Updated 7 November 2013

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