What is it about?

An important thrust of cognitive science is the study human thought and reason. The catch is that scientists are not mind readers. Distinct actions must be registered as proxies for distinct thoughts. In laboratory studies, research participants often press different response buttons to indicate different choices in response to various prompts. Typically, accuracy and response time, the time required for each response, is measured. This study prompted 128 participants to press each of two buttons randomly, as if they represented the outcomes of a sequence of many “fair coin” flips. On each trial, a question mark appeared, and the participant decided which button to press. Statistical analyses revealed patterns consistent with nonlinear and chaotic dynamics. Complex, chaotic dynamics contain subtle repeating, and “fractal” or nested self-similar patterns distinguishing them from pure randomness. These patterns arise from the ongoing demands of coordinating and interleaving the button presses across trials. That is, the participants fingers behave like coupled oscillators. In this way, the dynamic fluctuations in the body’s inertia and momentum influence ongoing cognitive activities, such as seeking to avoid patterns, in this task. Thus, button sequences consistent with a chaotic equation’s attractors were favored relative to other sequences. Likewise, previous studies demonstrated how stability in cognition, in turn, stabilizes and even accelerates bodily actions.

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Why is it important?

Questions about mind-body interaction, the relationship between thinking and matter, represents a long-standing puzzle in the cognitive, social, and behavioral sciences. The issue is not just a philosophical curiosity. It influences cultural and scientific traditions, such as the Western cultural preference for rational thought over emotions and intuitions. Historically, logical rules were viewed as universally valid, by virtue of their independence from earthly or human circumstances. For instance, this belief motivated the adoption of binary messaging to potential alien life forms on the Voyager spacecraft. More recently, cognitive scientists point to the circumstances of human existence, the facts of our bodies, and our lives as terrestrial beings, subject to natural and biological forces like gravity or hunger, as the root human communication and understanding. Logic is now viewed as abstracted from the details of embodiment, sufficiently devoid of context to allow for truth tables and logics that are impervious circumstances.


In contrast to natural intelligence, artificial intelligence (AI) systems rely on disembodied logical rules and associations scoured from vast data troves, basing their decisions on rankings derived from probability theory. Machine learning systems often require back-end human workers to disambiguate, train, and classify circumstances in which AI systems freeze, err, or otherwise fail. The discovery that humans exploit distinct, even chaotic dynamics in arriving at decisions means that contemporary AI frameworks lack important dimensions of natural intelligence. Apparently, human intelligence is distinct from engineered decision and recognition systems. Human intelligence evolved. It exploits universal physical and biological principles, allowing intelligent action to emerge holistically in coordinative relationships between mind, body, and environmental circumstances unfold. Thus, AI systems facilitating human-machine collaboration will likely be more robust in facing the unexpected than machine-only AI systems

John G Holden

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This page is a summary of: Embodied nonlinear dynamics of cognitive performance., Journal of Experimental Psychology General, November 2022, American Psychological Association (APA), DOI: 10.1037/xge0001319.
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