Doing Your Mind

Research, comments and musings about active minds.

Social Affordances and Spontaneous Action

Myself and my wife went to a concert a couple of weeks ago – it was the annual tour of the National Symphony Orchestra, with a performance that began with a Beethoven symphony (No.2) and finished with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. That makes for a good night by my standards, despite the fact that we lost a Tchaikovsky violin concerto due to the soloist, Nicola Bennedetti, being ill.

In the silences between movements of the symphony though, I noticed something rather interesting (if not exactly surprising).  People coughed. In fact, they coughed quite a lot. I did a bit myself.

Not exactly what you’d call an earth-shattering observation, but when you bear in mind that people didn’t typically cough during the performance itself, I think it suggests something very interesting about supposedly spontaneous action.

Coughing is something that normally comes upon us. Certainly we can and do cough deliberately, but a lot of the time we just find ourselves needing to cough, or in fact just find ourselves coughing. It’s spontaneous.

Was all the coughing in the silences between movements deliberate? Resisted for the duration of the music, pent up, fought, until with the fading of the last few notes finally given release? Though I’m sure there were some people in the concert hall doing just that, to claim that they all were (or even a majority of them) sounds odd to me.

Coughing, experienced as spontaneous, was at least partly organised by the opportunities available to the concert-goers – the silences between movements were affordances for coughing in a socially acceptable manner. This is suggestive to me that even what appear to be passive experiences, sudden unplanned reactions or other forms of behaviour that appear at first glance to be acontextual might in fact be embedded in the web of skills the person has, and is deploying at any given time (and these will include skills with social or cultural aspects).

I made a similar suggestion to this in my D.Phil. thesis, in response to a point raised by the neuroscientist Jeffrey Gray at a workshop some years ago. Arguing against sensorimotor accounts of perception, he pointed out that some things that we experience are not driven by motor actions, but appear to be just foisted upon us. He gave the example of the need to urinate – not something we typically check with a shuffle of our hips across a seat, for example, or a quick press on our bellies. We simply “become aware”. The chair of the session (my supervisor, Ron Chrisley, if memory serves correctly), asked whether Gray had timed his question deliberately for greatest effect –  late in the discussion of a talk, and the break for lunch was imminent. It was made in jest, but was quite an important point. Why is that we become most aware of the need to pee just at the end of a long session, or at the end of a film at the cinema, for example?

The skill of controlling bladder function, and things like coughing, are not just bodily,  but social skills, and both their learning and their exercise are dependent on social context.

Some interesting ramifications for an enactive take on things, methinks. And also some research possibilities (if we could somehow wire concert hall seats with microphones for sound, and survey concert-goers for their experiences of coughing….)

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