questions about information-processing theories of body-knowledge

cognitive science, embodiment, introspection, symptom reports

Cognitive science explains mind and brain in terms of computation, information-processing, and representationalism: the ability of a cognitive system to change internal microstructure so as to correspond with important features of the internal or external world. One could do worse than to sum up the cognitivist model of the mind as “computations over representations”, in which features of the world or body are coded by the brain as symbols.

Whatever merits this “cognitivist” research program may have for models of syntactical production, the consolidation of short-term memories into long-term, the recognition of familiar faces, logical problem-solving, and other phenomena, I suspect that critical aspects of how people have knowledge of their bodies are not adequately accounted for by cognitivist approaches. I maintain that a careful analysis of the evidence reveals cognitive science has a flawed approach to modeling how well people know what is happening inside their bodies, and what mental and biological processes underlay this knowledge.

There are many aspects of psychological life that have never been the focus of cognitive science, and this absence is at it’s foundation the Cartesian rift at the heart of objective models that depict mind as machine. People experience a world of meaning framed by temporality and grounded in the lived body, but cognitive science focuses on a subpersonal realm of symbols, algorithms, information processing, representation, where mind is reduced to computation. To the extent that this approach yields results, it should be pursued, but cognition outstrips what cognitivism can model. There are aspects of cognition that are characterized by the existential questions, embodied experience, consciousness, meaning, and other phenomena, but it is precisely these that objectivistic, Cartesian cognitive science has not, for the most part, tried to explain. The difference is that of between worlds, like the gap between music grasped as experienced and meaningful, compared to music understood as a system that can be analyzed through abstract system-centered objectivistic modeling. It is true that science is typically understood in the latter terms, but neurophenomenology aims at a dialog between psychological life as experienced and cognition understood as a mechanism produced by te brain. There is not an immediate move toward reduction nor a premature assumption that embodied experience can be automatically modeled as a byproduct of systems.

In everyday life, and especially in conditions of sickness or disease, people notice aspects, qualities, and states of their bodies, and seek to get information about and from their bodies. Getting information about body-state can involve perception of a symptom, focused attention or introspection toward specific body regions or parts, remembering the way one’s body felt previously and comparing this to a current assessment, attempting to verbally express feelings about the way one’s body seems, paying close attention to a body part that is usually indistinct or in the background but suddenly is painful, and many other similar activities. Consider the following examples:

• a subject in a clinical trial of a medical device is asked whether or not they notice anything unusual or different about the way their body feels, and if so, to rate how much on a numeric scale;

• a person taking psychiatric medication for depression tells their psychiatrist about adverse side effects, such as a decline in libido, and an inability to grieve the loss of a loved one while at a funeral;

• someone who is drinking alcohol may calibrate their intake based on the memory of nausea from previous episodes of over-consumption;

• an obese woman is reported by American media to have been shocked upon finding she was in labor and on the verge of giving birth, having no previous knowledge of her pregnancy.

• a person who is being massaged, when asked to describe the sensation, reports a mixture of significant pleasure and mild pain when pressure is applied to very specific regions of their upper-back

In these and in similar cases, individuals involved are sensing, perceiving, remembering, and judging about their symptoms, body states, feelings, and sensations, and in some examples, reporting their experience to others. These are cognitive phenomena, but can ideas derived from symbolic logic and representationalist epistemology suffice to explain them? I would argue that there are a number of open questions about the utility of information-processing theories of body-knowledge.

Are the introspective reports, assessments, and statements generated by people about their body-state generally accurate, or not? What mechanisms account for the accuracy, or lack thereof?

To what extent do legacy concepts from cognitive science or information-processing models help or hinder the development of an understanding of how people access information and gain knowledge about their bodies?

How are we to understand the meaning(s) of the term “information” used to explain how and how well people know their own mental and physiological states? What is the relationship of “information” in the sense of physiological or biological systems to consciously reportable sensation, such that a person is getting information about their body state?

Are there many kinds of “information” involved in these models of internal state perception or “body cognition” found in clinical neurology, medicine, experimental psychology, and theoretical cognitive neuroscience? Or is there but one type of “information”, with different qualities or aspects that are described or measured in different ways?


How accurate are people at knowing what is happening inside their bodies?

cognitive science, embodiment, interoception, introspection, neurophenomenology, symptom reports, visceral perception

Were people utterly inaccurate at judging their body state and reporting on it, clinical medicine would be deprived of a critical tool.  Evidence has accumulated that in certain circumstances, some people are evidently able to access information about the physiological processes inside of their bodies, and to report on it.  Experiments seem to demonstrate that some people are relatively accurate perceivers of symptoms or physiological state (Jones and Hollandsworth, 1981), (Adam, 1998), and that subjects can be ranked into good or poor estimators of internal state; for instance, with perceivers of heart rate (Schandry, 1981).

When we are actually aware of specific processes inside our bodies and can state this verbally, it would seem that in some fashion unconscious information (or unconscious “information”) has generated or has been transformed into knowledge. However, there is contradictory evidence about accuracy of symptom perception: how good people really are at perceiving various physiological states, and how accurate symptom-reports or other verbal-reports actually are. Many studies have yielded data consistent with the idea that people are not particularly good at accurately reporting on their symptoms or physiological states (Pennebaker, 1982). It is worth pointing out the assertion that people are generally inaccurate about knowing about physiological processes in their bodies reformulates the principle that humans lack epistemological privilege concerning introspective or verbally reported data. In considering the question: are we are likely to be in error when we report on the contents of what is in our minds, or not, it is critical to appreciate the persuasive interpretation of experiments written up in papers such as “Telling More than We Can Know” by the psychologists Robert Nisbett and Timothy Wilson (1977), which seems to show how introspection-based retroactive judgments can are in error.  This category of research typically features subjects placed in circumstances where their choices are influenced by variables controlled by experimenters, and who give explanations for their choosing that display incorrect “folk psychological” constructions. Nisbett and Wilson’s analysis can properly interpreted as to cast doubt on the ability of people to know the causes of our behavior and “higher order” information-processing, and can be summed up with their statement that people may possess “little ability to report accurately on their cognitive processes” (p. 246).

However, I assert that this valuable critique of retrospective judgments has been improperly extrapolated to support a broad skepticism about introspection, what I shall call the “received view” or the “overly skeptical view”, which I might sum-up as the belief that introspective data should generally be regarded with skepticism. As has been noted by careful researchers on introspection, (Schwitzgebel, 2006), this more general rejection of introspection certainly goes beyond what Nisbett and Wilson argued: while they do indeed assert that the evidence of numerous studies shows people are poor at using verbal report-based introspection to the cognitive process behind our judging and deciding, they do not support a general disdain for introspective data. Rather, they state that instead of arguing that introspective reports should simply be discredited, while people do not have introspective access to the cognitive processes, they do have such access to the contents of their cognitions. For instance, Nisbett and Wilson (pg. 255) state that introspection can yield forms of knowledge: knowledge about cognitive content, as an everyday person:

“…knows what his current sensations are and what almost all psychologists and philosophers would assert to be “knowledge” at least quantitatively superior to that of observers concerning his emotions, evaluations, and plans”

Furthermore, the “received view” that introspective reports are to be generally regarded with suspicion is in tension with the clinical use of patient introspection, as well as the high accuracy ratings sometimes displayed in experiments where subjects are asked to evaluate their own physiology. Therefore, while showing appropriate regard for data suggesting limits on introspective access to cognitive information (indeed I will suggest that models of body-knowledge should account for this data), I will nonetheless highlight certain clinical and experimental data that support the following assertion, which  contradicts the view that introspective data should be generally regarded with skepticism:

There exist cognitive processes that allow people to access internal body-state or physiological information in a way that enables fairly, or even highly, accurate verbal reports.  Insofar as this is true, people evidently have some degree of epistemologically privileged access to internal body state or interoceptive information. This relative privilege allows for knowledge of the body, as distinct from mere beliefs.

However, if this is true, some accounting of to what degree or how true it is, with which mitigating conditions, and with what reference to underlying cognitive and neurophysiological mechanisms would be necessary.  For that matter, even if true, demarcating the explanatory power of this principle relative to data adequately explained by the “received view” or “overly skeptical view” is of critical importance. It may be that only special or rare abilities are at issue here, and that the people who have privileged access to their internal physiological information are outliers.

more on the status of introspection in psychology and in neuroscience

cognitive science, introspection

An index of the status of introspection within psychology comes from Medin, Markman, and Ross (2004) in the textbook Cognitive Psychology, which notes (pg.20) that:

Although introspection is not an infallible window to the mind, psychological research is leading to principles that suggest when verbal reports are likely to accurately reflect thinking

These perspectives all can be said to implicitly or explicitly challenge what I shall call the “received view” or the “overly skeptical view”, which is an interpretation of the Nisbett and Wilson work that goes beyond what those authors’ famous paper actually said. While it is the case that the “Telling More than we can Know” Nisbett and Wilson paper argued persuasively that introspection-based reports of subjects asked to retrospect on the causes of their behavior are generally not accurate, these authors made a point of not dismissing the value of introspection and verbal reporting on the contents of cognition one is aware of , such as sensation or perception and “private facts”. But the “received view” of their research all too often neglects or ignores the more nuanced and balanced view about introspection of the authors, as well as that of other cognitive scientists who carefully investigated the issues involved, such as Anders Ericsson and Herbert Simon (1993).   This is an important concept: see Eric Schwitzgebel’s excellent take on the “Nisbett-Wilson myth“.

What is the most important concept to take away from the controversies about introspection? Probably it is that insofar as researchers want to be able to take advantage of all possible tools and data sources to make sense of the complex, enigmatic processes characterizing body knowledge, they should follow the example set by many physicians and some experimentalists, and be willing to get data by asking subjects or patients for their observations on body state. But here I will go one step further, and assert that the accuracy, or lack of accuracy, of verbal report data relative to other data, can serve as that which must be explained by a comprehensive and robust model of personal or self-reportable knowledge of the body. Doing so would require experiments where verbally reported data might be compared to, and possibly integrated with, data from external sources, such as from brain measurement: “neurophenomenology” in operationalized form.

One such effort came from a trio of researchers interested in assessing whether introspective data on pain had measurable neural correlates (Coghill, McHaffie, Yen, 2003, pg. 8538):

Using psychophysical ratings to define pain sensitivity and functional magnetic resonance imaging to assess brain activity, we found that highly sensitive individuals exhibited more frequent and more robust pain-induced activation of the primary somatosensory cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, and prefrontal cortex than did insensitive individuals. By identifying objective neural correlates of subjective differences, these findings validate the utility of introspection and subjective reporting as a means of communicating a first-person experience

This forward-looking research in effect turns behaviorism on its head: instead of verbal reports being rejected or at best tolerated within the overall context of strict objectivity, the very phenomenon the model seeks to explain is “subjective”!

Verbal report data: psychologists may be skeptical, but clinicians are more practical

clinical neurophenomenology, cognitive science, introspection, medicine, symptom reports

Cognitive neuroscience and psychology needs to account for  verbal report data from people about their body states. In perceptual psychology and psychophysics experiments, in cognitive studies of human problem-solving, in clinical trials of drug efficacy and safety, in phenomenological-psychological investigations into the thematics of body experience, researchers routinely ask subjects or patients to answer questions. This is so common that its significance is perhaps under-appreciated. Science, at least in a narrow sense,  is conventionally understood to be based on objectively observable facts, not subjective opinions. But certain phenomena can not only be observed from the outside, as part of a system, but can also be reported on by people from the inside, as perceived or experiential events.

This regular use of the human self-reporting capacity is more remarkable in the light of intellectual history.  “Orthodox” cognitive science developed in the era of behaviorist dominance, and inherited certain skepticism about the trustworthiness of verbal reports, which are viewed as being sources of data, but not “privileged.” This stance indicates a rejection of older philosophical and psychological traditions that emphasized the use of introspection. Nonetheless, even in the time of behaviorist hegemony, psychologists still asked subjects questions in perception experiments, and clinicians have always used patient assessments to gain insight (Nahmias, 2002). While certain path-breaking cognitive scientists and psychologists explored the nature of introspection, and worked out the circumstances in which verbal reports could be authoritative and true accounts of aspects of cognitive processes (Erickson and Simon, 1991), (Ericsson, Chase, and Simon, 1979), the results of other widely cited experiments have been interpreted to denigrate introspective data, especially that of Nisbett and Wilson’s (1977) “Telling More than we can know” paper. Their research has been interpreted to indicate, for instance, that subjects made demonstrably inaccurate judgments about their underlying mental states because human beings apparently have little or no direct introspective access to the underlying cognitive processes of the mind (pg. 233):

The accuracy of subjective reports is so poor as to suggest that any introspective access that may exist is not sufficient to produce generally correct or reliable reports.”

The interpretation of their data featured assertions that are now influential:  subjects lack  introspective access to the causal relationship between stimuli controlled by the experimenter and the verbal reports they produce. They are unable to accurately report which stimuli affected their responses. Rather, these verbal reports of effects of stimuli are based on unvalidated belief (such as naïve “folk psychological” theories about the causal connections between the stimuli and their response). Furthermore, if the reports on stimulus-response relationships are correct, it is because their naïve theories happen to be correct, and not because introspection gave them any privileged access to information. The upshot can be summarized as: subjects in situations with variables controlled by scientists make introspective judgments about why they behave in a particular manner or think a certain way, they state this explanation verbally to an experimenter, who can show the explanation to be false: (pg. 243)

“In order to test subject ability to report influences on their associative behavior, we had 81 male introductory psychology students memorize a list of word pairs. Some of these word pairs were intended to generate associative processes that would elicit certain target words in a word association task to be performed at a later point in the experiment. For example, subjects memorized the word pair “ocean-moon” with the expectation that when they were later asked to name a detergent, they would be more likely to give the target “Tide” than would subjects who had not previously been exposed to the word pairs….Immediately following the word association task, subjects were asked in open-ended form why they thought they had given each of their responses in the word association task. Despite the fact that nearly all subjects could recall nearly all of the words pairs, subjects almost never mentioned a word pair cue as a reason for giving a particular target response. Instead subjects focused on some distinctive feature of the target (“Tide is the best-known detergent”), some personal meaning of it (“My mother uses tide”), or an affective reaction to it (“I like the Tide box”).

The influence of this research has had the practical effect of renewing suspicions among psychologists and other researchers about introspective data, even if such methods continue to be used (Jack and Roepstorff, 2003) and despite the balanced view of Nisbett and Wilson where introspection has some utility regarding “sensations and/or private facts”, which takes into consideration the longtime use of introspective data as a method in psychology. Cognitive scientists, psychologists, physicians, and others can adopt their pragmatic distinction between the contents of cognition, such as sensations and emotions which can indeed be known and verbally reported, and the underlying causes, the information-processing or cognitive processes, which remain epistemologically inscrutable to introspection.

Yet while clinical medicine often regards introspective data with caution, it nonetheless uses it pragmatically. For instance, the standard neuropsychology text Clinical Neuropsychology (Heilman and Valenstein, 2003) states (pg.5)

at times, patients’ observations of their own mental state may not only be helpful but necessary.”

This implies that it is a standard clinical methodology to use introspective data, and that patients have some useful access to their own minds.

This data-collection method of asking subjects and patients for self-reports is routinely used, according to psychologist Arthur Stone (Stone, 2000) (pg. 297):

“In both clinical practice and in research, the primary method of obtaining information about physical symptomology is through self-reports. Every day, thousands upon thousands of health care providers ask their patients to describe how they are generally feeling and too discuss specific symptoms. Patients present their doctors with panoply of global states (“I feel lousy,” “I am fatigued,” “I don’t feel right”) to very concrete descriptions (“I have a sharp pain in my right knee that is worse on awakening”). Information from these interviews, along with various medical tests, provides the basis for treatment and for the evaluation of its efficacy. In medical research, information of the same sort is obtained with questionnaires and structured interviews. These data-collection methods may provide a more systematic way of gathering physical symptom information, but regardless of the mode of data collection, the information is self-reported. Thus, reports of physical symptoms may be considered the mainstay of medical practice and research”

the legacy of Cartesian “objectivity” makes it hard to understand patient verbal reports

clinical neurophenomenology, embodiment, introspection, medicine, symptom reports

Psychiatrist Allan Beveridge (2002) hones in on a facet of the patient-physician relationship relevant to neurophenomenology: the over-adoption in medicine of the scientific attitude of objectivity towards phenomena. While entirely appropriate in the many research contexts, this may make understanding the personal body-knowledge of the patient more difficult (pg. 101):

In the mental state examination, a standard method of describing the clinical encounter is to contrast the patient’s supposedly ‘subjective’ account with the doctor’s ‘objective’ description. In this model, the doctor is granted a privileged position: the clinician’s perspective is taken to be superior to that of the patient. The doctor’s objective approach is considered neutral, scientific and representing the truth of the matter. In contrast, the patient’s subjective report is regarded as unreliable, distorted and potentially false. The lowly status of the subjective perspective is further emphasized by the frequent use of the accompanying prefix, merely. On reflection, this dichotomy is an extraordinary one. It is held that the doctor is an authority on the patient’s inner experiences. The doctor knows more about how the patient is thinking and feeling than the patient him-/herself

This “scientific” medical stance towards patient subjective reporting is consistent with the Cartesian heritage of the sciences of the mind. The implications, hidden or unexamined commitments should be critically examined if the verbal reports about patient body-states are to be better grasped by science and medicine. To the extent cognitive science, psychology, neuroscience, and medical fields uncritically base their methodologies on unexamined premises, certain problems may appear just due to the very choices of what is considered “data”. The relegation of patient verbal reports to the category of “merely subjective” allows for Cartesian assumptions about cognition to create difficulties at the outset of any research project attempting to model personal knowledge of the body. It may be that the very categories of subject and object, or scientific knowledge vs. subjective or “folk psychological” naïve theories of the body, present foundational problems for understanding how neurophysiological processes relate to verbally reportable knowledge of the body. But as a practical matter, health care professionals must simply cope with patient statements as one more data source (Ersser and Atkins, 2000, pg. 68):

Clinical decisions involve information of a necessary type and quality. Professionals take account of both objective and subjective data during the clinical assessment process to decide on a patient’s health care need and care plan. The difficulty lies in professionals understanding how best to reconcile their objective perspective with that of the patient, when formulating clinical judgments

Before a doctor revives technical training, he or she is a person with experiences of health and sickness. The verbal reports of patients are interpreted by professionals with their own history of embodiment. To what extent does their personal body knowledge consciously or unconsciously affect their clinical intuition about the accuracy of patient verbal reports? Does expert knowledge of the body gained from studying anatomy and physiology allow for better knowledge of one’s own body? Such questions point to our current rather murky understanding of embodied cognition, underscoring the need for models capturing richer, more subtle aspects of experience, cognition, and brain.

symptom verbal reports and existential-physiological discrepancy

clinical neurophenomenology, interoception, introspection, medicine, symptom reports, visceral perception

While the anatomical basis of how nerve projections enable perception of the body is rather well known, physicians confront situations where patient verbal reporting about symptoms does not match models based on neurophysiological mechanisms. For instance, the Merck Manual Medical Library (2009) states:

“Painful stimuli from thoracic organs can produce discomfort      described as pressure, gas, burning, aching, and sometimes sharp pain. Because the sensation is visceral in origin, many patients deny they are having pain and insist it is merely discomfort”

The Mayo Clinic Heart Book (Gersh, 2000) describes the concept of uncomfortable feeling of thumping inside the chest known as palpitations, but does so from the point of view of patients (pg. 38):

“Although the apparent cause of the thumping in the chest would seem to be the heartbeat, this is not always the case. Some people have a normal heart rate during their palpitations. Presumably, they are either anxious or experiencing chest wall twitching that is mistaken for heartbeats”

Situations where the “folk physiological” (see Churchland, 1989, for a description of expert knowledge vs. folk beliefs) understanding of the body is apparently falsified by science can be labeled examples of existential-physiological discrepancy (Laughlin, McManus, D’Aquili, 1990). Mismatches between body-as-experienced compared to the “objective body” of scientific medicine and physiology (including the feeling of “phantom limbs” by amputees) are based on the idea that people may often have very limited “true” access to physiological processes. A more commonly presented variant or subset of this principle is the idea of “referred pain”, where the region causing understood to be causing the pain is spatially removed from the area where the patient senses it.

The Merck Manual (2009) gives an example: sometimes pain felt in one area of the body does not accurately represent where the problem is, because the pain is referred there from another area. Pain can be referred because signals from several areas of the body often travel through the same nerve pathways in the spinal cord and brain. For example, pain from a heart attack may be felt in the neck, jaws, arms, or abdomen. Pain from a gallbladder attack may be felt in the back of the shoulder.