Perception, action, cognition...
...and the fluctuations that blend them together
Research Problem (or "How could a milkshake act like a computer?")
My work is an attempt to explore the statistical physics underpinning the coordination of perception, action, and cognition. We have some fairly strong intuitions that this coordination has something to do with the brain. Recent theories of cognition treat the brain as a computer that picks up information, stores it in a hard drive, and puts it out in a motor command or a conscious thought. The theories will vary as to how literal the metaphor is, but they agree that the brain takes raw sense data, filters it down to "what to care about," and converts it into "what to do."
The computer that you're using to read this page runs on a silicon-based microprocessor, metal wiring all soldered into place, and plastic casing. The brain is mostly water, fat, and sugar. So is a milkshake. However, we do not typically consult a tall, cool, chocolate milkshake with whipped cream and a cherry on top for its deep thoughts. The question I would like an answer to is: How could a milkshake act like a computer?
General Hypothesis (or "it's not the ingredients; it's how they mix.")
Coordination is the emergent property of a complex system. Complex systems are not to be confused with complicated systems. Complexity is a state of interaction-dominance, context-sensitivity, and self-organization. Said without hyphens: The coordination of perception, action, and cognition is not easily solved in terms of specialized modules and central processors. The interactions of many parts across many scales conspire to produce intelligent behaviors depending on the current demands and constraints. Complex-systems theory constitutes a growing approach in the physical and biological sciences that offers new tools for probing these interactions and for predicting the emergence of structure.
My work investigates these interactions in terms of fluctuations in perception, action, and cognition. Fluctuations may seem "noisy" and meaningless at first glance, but on closer inspection, they may also bear an intricate temporal structure crucial for the flow of information through a biological organism. For instance, fluctuations in action during exploratory behaviors can predict changes in perceptual and cognitive performance. The more we understand the kinds of fluctuations that support coordination among perception, action, and cognition, the sooner we may understand what might allow a milkshake to fool us into thinking it is a computer.