Multisensory integration in Mallorca
It can be difficult at the best of times to make my non-academic friends believe that conferences are not simply junkets in which a bunch of academics get together, have a few beers and put our feet up. This is compounded somewhat when the meeting in question is an euCognition network meeting being held in Palma de Mallorca.
The meeting was an interesting one, though, with a number of useful talks on the theme of multisensory integration. Now, on this issue I take my lead more from William James than anyone else, and that is that most of the research gets the question backwards:
Most books start with sensations and proceed synthetically, constructing each higher stage from the one below it. But this is abandoning the empirical method of investigation. No one ever had a simple sensation by itself. Consciousness, from our natal day, is a teeming multiplicity of objects and relations, and what we call single sensations are results of discriminative attention, pushed often to a very high degree.
(James, 1890/1950, p.224)
The most interesting talk from my point of view was that of Jeroen Smeets, in which he examined a host of research indicating a surprising apparent lack of integration of knowledge or ability based around the same perceptual modality. It would appear, if his interpretation of the research is accurate, that we have quite separate capacities for understanding speed, position, distance and so on, rather than a single integrated representation of space (either of the peripersonal or extended variety).
This fits perfectly with a point of view in which capacities for perception are deeply interconnected with particular forms of goal-directed action, and run rather counter to ideas about the development of abstract and generic representations of space, an idea that I’ve written about and which I got to talk about briefly at the meeting.
The general idea that modes of perception are structured more by goal-directed actions than by simple physiological bases. The simple physiological explanation for separate modalities seemed to be more or less assumed by most of those presenting on the topic of integration, but the questions after my talk were more intrigued than offended. Where criticisms were made they were bang on – the kind of dynamic account of modalities that I’ve argued for depends utterly on an unexplicated understanding of the idea of “skill” – a topic I’ve been working on for a while now and one I think must be top of the priority list of a good number of people working in the more active conceptions cognition.