Toward an Embodied, Embedded Predictive Processing Account

Author: Elmarie Venter1
1 Institute for Philosophy II, Ruhr University Bochum, Bochum, Germany.
Conference/Journal: Front Psychol
Date published: 2021 Jan 29
Other: Volume ID: 12 , Pages: 543076 , Special Notes: doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.543076. , Word Count: 553

In this paper, I argue for an embodied, embedded approach to predictive processing and thus align the framework with situated cognition. The recent popularity of theories conceiving of the brain as a predictive organ has given rise to two broad camps in the literature that I call free energy enactivism and cognitivist predictive processing. The two approaches vary in scope and methodology. The scope of cognitivist predictive processing is narrow and restricts cognition to brain processes and structures; it does not consider the body-beyond-brain and the environment as constituents of cognitive processes. Free energy enactivism, on the other hand, includes all self-organizing systems that minimize free energy (including non-living systems) and thus does not offer any unique explanations for more complex cognitive phenomena that are unique to human cognition. Furthermore, because of its strong commitment to the mind-life continuity thesis, it does not provide an explanation of what distinguishes more sophisticated cognitive systems from simple systems. The account that I develop in this paper rejects both of these radical extremes. Instead, I propose a compromise that highlights the necessary components of predictive processing by making use of a mechanistic methodology of explanation. The starting point of the argument in this paper is that despite the interchangeable use of the terms, prediction error minimization and the free energy principle are not identical. But this distinction does not need to disrupt the status quo of the literature if we consider an alternative approach: Embodied, Embedded Predictive Processing (EEPP). EEPP accommodates the free energy principle, as argued for by free energy enactivism, but it also allows for mental representations in its explanation of cognition. Furthermore, EEPP explains how prediction error minimization is realized but, unlike cognitivist PP, it allocates a constitutive role to the body in cognition. Despite highlighting concerns regarding cognitivist PP, I do not wish to discredit the role of the neural domain or representations as free energy enactivism does. Neural structures and processes undeniably contribute to the minimization of prediction error but the role of the body is equally important. On my account, prediction error minimization and free energy minimization are deeply dependent on the body of an agent, such that the body-beyond-brain plays a constitutive role in cognitive processing. I suggest that the body plays three constitutive roles in prediction error minimization: The body regulates cognitive activity, ensuring that cognition and action are intricately linked. The body acts as distributor in the sense that it carries some of the cognitive load by fulfilling the function of minimizing prediction error. Finally, the body serves to constrain the information that is processed by an agent. In fulfilling these three roles, the agent and environment enter into a bidirectional relation through influencing and modeling the structure of the other. This connects EEPP to the free energy principle because the whole embodied agent minimizes free energy in virtue of being a model of its econiche. This grants the body a constitutive role as part of the collection of mechanisms that minimize prediction error and free energy. The body can only fulfill its role when embedded in an environment, of which it is a model. In this sense, EEPP offers the most promising alternative to cognitivist predictive processing and free energy enactivism.

Keywords: embodiment; free energy; mechanistic explanation; prediction error; predictive processing.

PMID: 33584461 PMCID: PMC7879985 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.543076