Swarm and Fuzzy

Stigmergy gets a bit of a mention in Newsweek.

Swarms often work by “stigmergy,” a term coined by French biologist Pierre-Paul Grassé in 1959 to describe termite behavior. He defined it as “the stimulation of workers by the performance they have achieved.” It has come to mean a mark left in the environment. Think of stigmergic marks as road signs: A termite makes a ball of mud laced with pheromones (chemicals that affect behavior through smell) and puts it down. The next mud-ball-making termite that happens along smells the first, makes its own ball and adds it to the pile. Millions of balls later, a hollow mud spire stands 8 feet tall, as outlandish as the towers of Turkey’s Cappadocia region—a magnificent termite-apartment complex.

Each individual in a swarm acts seemingly at random—scientists term this “stochastic”—yet as a group a swarm is amazingly focused, coherent and logical.

Translating nature to math can be staggeringly difficult.

Check out a preview of Francis Heylighen’s paper for Ted and my forthcoming Human Stigmergy: Theoretical Developments and New Applications, Studies in Applied Philosophy, Epistemology and Rational Ethics. Springer.



Critical neuroscience and socially extended minds

Another paper by Shaun this time coauthored with Jan Slaby (check out Jan’s website – lot’s of good stuff here). 

The concept of a socially extended mind suggests that our cognitive processes are extended not simply by the various tools and technologies we use, but by other minds in our intersubjective interactions, and more systematically by institutions that, like tools and technologies, enable and sometimes constitute our cognitive processes. In this paper we explore the potential of this concept to facilitate the development of a critical neuroscience. We first explicate the concept of cognitive institution and show how it builds on a more enactive version of the extended mind. We then turn to the idea that science itself is a good example of a cognitive institution that through various practices and rules shapes our cognitive activity so as to constitute a certain type of knowledge, packaged with relevant skills and techniques. Building on this idea, we focus on neuroscience, its cultural impact, and the various institutional entanglements that complicate its influence on reframing conceptions of self and subjectivity, and defining what questions count as important and what kind of answers will be valued. Our intent is to show that by understanding neuroscience as a cognitive institution – that is, as a set of practices that help us to think and solve problems within a specific domain – we gain a critical perspective on what neuroscience accomplishes.


Bounded Rationality Updated

Special issue of Mind & Society. (H/T to Francesco Di Iorio)

From April 8th to 10th 2013, the Herbert Simon Society held its first General Conference in New York. About fifty researchers from different countries and working in different areas attended the event. The conference focused on three topics which were identified as particularly relevant in the development of Simonian thought: duality of mind, creativity and alternative theories to rational expectations. A first Herbert Simon Honorary Lecture by Gerd Gigerenzer opened the conference. Gerg Gigerenzer was later elected as Chairman of the Herbert Simon Society. Joseph Stiglitz closed the conference with the second Herbert Simon Honorary Lecture.

The Herbert A. Simon Society brings together economists, social and cognitive scientists engaged in critical issues such as bounded rationality, problem solving, simulation of human thought and creativity. In particular, it gathers some of the most important economists who try to reformulate economic theory by starting from some of the non-neoclassical micro-foundations that have been developed in recent years. The Simon Society shares many interests with other Associations working on Behavioural Economics, Economic and Cognitive Social Psychology and Artificial Intelligence.

This special issue collects some of the most interesting papers presented at the conference. Katherine Simon Frank, Herbert Simon’s daughter, made some welcoming remarks and talked about her father. In describing his way of being a parent, Kathie highlights some important aspects of Herbert Simon’s intellectual nature, such as his openness, his willingness to understand the world and debate with no preconceptions. This is also one of the goals of the Herbert Simon Society.

Distributed Cognition and Extended Mind Theory

The superb Rob Rupert contribution to the superb Byron Kaldis edited volume.


It may seem natural to think of the mind as a stream of conscious experience occurring squarely behind the eyes, or perhaps as some single, persisting subject of these experiences, hovering in the center of the skull. The past hundred years of scientific thinking about the mind have challenged this view in a variety of ways. The most recent challenge, and the most striking to date, rests partly on the distributed nature of cognition – the fact that intelligent behavior emerges from the interaction of a variety of elements, some of which may be spatially removed from the locus of behavior. From such distributed models of cognition, many authors have inferred the extended-mind thesis, the claim that the mind itself spreads into the world beyond the boundary of the human organism. Distributed cognitive models have had direct impact on, and to some extent have been inspired by, research in the social sciences. Studies of insect behavior, for instance, form a bridge between the interests of cognitive scientists and matters to do with group-level behavior: large numbers of social insects, each of which “mindlessly” follows such simple information-processing rules as “drop my ball of mud where the pheromonal concentration is the strongest,” design elaborate nests. This illustrates both how intelligent-looking results can arise from a distributed – and one might think fairly unintelligent – process and also how their emergence might be social in nature: environmental conditions induce various sub-populations to play different roles in the life of the insect colony. Some robustly cognitive, human social processes also seem amenable to distributed theorizing: contemporary scientific results, in particle physics, for 2 example, often involve the contribution of hundreds, or even thousands, of individuals and instruments; here, each individual exercises a rich set of her own cognitive resources while playing a role in a much larger, highly structured enterprise. An intermediate case might be the modeling of traffic patterns: individual humans can reason in flexible and complex ways about driving and routes of travel, but, constrained by the presence of other automobiles and surrounding infrastructure, drivers’ contributions to traffic flow, and the resulting traffic patterns, have much in common with large-scale behavioral patterns of social insects. The remainder of this entry consists of three sections. Section II describes distributed cognitive modeling and the extended-mind thesis in more detail. Section III reviews critical reactions to the extended-mind thesis. Finally, Section IV briefly discusses fruitful areas of ongoing research on distributed cognition and the extended mind.