Piaget, dynamical systems, and how do we learn to perceive something new

Following our recent work on formalizing some aspects of the sensorimotor approach to perception – in particular the notion of sensorimotor contingencies – using dynamical systems theory, we have continued along similar lines and tackled the question of how we ever learn to perceive something new.

The sensorimotor approach proposes that perception is constituted by the possession (and depending on the interpretation, also the enactment) of skilful mastery of sensorimotor regularities, so that in order to perceive something as soft, one must already know how and where one should apply pressure to it. The question that emerges is how do we ever learn to perceive something new if, according to this approach, perception requires already having a sort of sensorimotor mastery. In this way, that which we know how to perceive is perceivable, but that which we don’t know how to perceive could never be perceived because why would we develop new forms of mastery in order to perceive something that we don’t even know it’s there?

The problem has a solution once we admit that the notions of mastery and skill can have degrees. At a subpersonal level it is possible then to build a theory that establishes how we progressively form new sensorimotor capabilities as much as a response to internal norms as through the guidance of the world. An example of such a theory is Piaget’s theory of equilibration.

fnhum-08-00551-g001Our recent paper:

Di Paolo EA, Barandiaran XE, Beaton M and Buhrmann T (2014) Learning to perceive in the sensorimotor approach: Piaget’s theory of equilibration interpreted dynamically. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 8:551. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00551

offers a reformulation of Piaget’s theory in the language of dynamical systems theory, which allows us to establish a strict compatibility with our previous formalization of sensorimotor contingencies.

We these developments it is now possible to start thinking of more operational notions of mastery, thus contributing to various debates in embodied cognitive science. We see mastery in non-representational terms, as a progression of dynamical relations of equilibration with the world (including the world of others, although this is not directly addressed in this paper).