Behavior is as much about environment as it is about cognition

Over at TalkingBrains, Greg Hickok points to a review on embodied cognition that has several neat examples of how distinct behavior arises just by placing an agent in the correct environment:

Robots with two sensors situated at 45 degree angles on the robot’s “head” and a simple program to avoid obstacles detected by the sensors will after a while tidy a room full of randomly distributed cubes into neat piles:


Female crickets need to find male crickets to breed with. Females prefer to breed with males who produce the loudest songs… Female crickets have a pair of eardrums, one on each front leg, which are connected to each other via a tube. It so happens that the eardrums connect to a small number of interneurons that control turning; female crickets always turn in the direction specified by the more active interneuron. Within a species of cricket, these interneurons have a typical activation decay rate. This means that their pattern of activation is maximized by sounds with a particular frequency. Male cricket songs are tuned to this frequency, and the net result is that, with no explicit computation or comparison required, the female cricket can orient toward the male of her own species producing the loudest song. The analysis of task resources indicates that the cricket solves the problem by having a particular body (eardrum configuration and interneuron connections) and by living in a particular environment (where male crickets have songs of particular frequencies).

(Emphasis added.)

This, of course, is a perfect example of why we need ethology in order to understand the nervous system – behaviors only make sense in the context of the ecology that they operate in!


3 thoughts on “Behavior is as much about environment as it is about cognition

  1. Actually my work showed that in real ecological conditions, she doesn’t necessarily get to the loudest song. She usually gets to what was loudest where she began and that not always. The most you can say is she mostly gets to a calling male.

    And also that’s exactly what you expect based on the underlying ‘algorithm’, ie hearing capabilities and auditory orientation behaviour.

    And there is a comparison of the sound evoked spiking between the left and right side which underlies the decision of direction to turn. These are not decisions made at the same ganglion, they ascend up to the ‘brain’ and then back down again. Gerry Pollack spent a while trying to figure out exactly what was being compared, whether it was just the number or the latency of spikes. As I remember it came down to number.

    So no, crickets aren’t a good example of embodied cognition.

  2. Actually, thinking about Hedwigs later work, somethings work locally, over the stepping cycle. But other things like pattern recognition work through the brain. So I should perhaps qualify the second statement with that.

  3. I have wondered about this. Mental illnesses like schizophrenia might not manifest if we place the subject under the right environment.

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