| Reframing the question of the perception’s role in cognition |
How is perception, the processing our physical experiences in the world, related to cognition? It seems like this should be a relatively straightforward question. In truth, the question is complicated by the question of how we define cognition. While there is no universal definition, there are plenty of theories to describe it. Many of the major themes among these theories are reflections of advances in science, technology, and art that provided us with new metaphors for imagining what is possible. These themes give us different perspectives from which to study cognition. To contextualize the various ways of understanding cognition’s relationship(s) with perception, we can consider three themes in terms of the questions they inspire.
Abstract Cognition: Is cognition a product/process/property of our brains? How is it like a computer system? What are its functions as an information processing system based on the operations on abstract symbols?
Situated Cognition: Is cognition a product/process/property of our relationships? How is it like an ecological system? What are its functions as a network of relationships among people, places, and things interacting across time?
Embodied Cognition: Is cognition a product/process/property of our bodies? How is it like a virtual simulation? What are its functions as a synthesis of our physical experiences with the world?
Although not representative of any specific theory as described here, these themes map to a continuum based on their implicit interpretation of the relationship between cognition and perception. At the far end of abstract cognition, perception is a completely separate process. At the opposite end of embodied cognition, there is no real distinction between the two. While most theories live somewhere in the middle, there is an oppositional tension created by the extremes.
All of these relationships and the ways we think about them are transformed if we imagine the themes corresponding to multiple levels of an emergent cognitive system. From this frame of reference, we can differentiate among abstract (conceptual), situated (associative), and embodied (perceptual) cognition as distinct levels of processing while also understanding how cognition fundamentally emerges from perception.