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Towards an Embodied Science of InterSubjectivity

Final Report Summary - TESIS (Towards an Embodied Science of InterSubjectivity)

Over the past decades, research on the problem of social cognition in philosophy, psychology and neuroscience has typically adopted a 3rd-person perspective: The problem was understood as the question how we figure out other minds, relying only on detached observation of other people's intentional states, which were assumed to be hidden, private and internal. The proposed answers relied only on how the perceived indirect manifestations of other people's mental states are processed by individual cognitive or brain mechanisms.

These internalist assumptions in social cognition research are now beginning to shift. Embodied and interactive concepts, based on mutual bodily resonance, coordination of expressions and gestures and participatory sense-making through reciprocal interactions have gained increasing influence in the social cognitive sciences. In the meantime, there are also more and better tools to explore the role of interactive phenomena and interpersonal histories in conjunction with individual processes. This interactive expansion of the conceptual and methodological toolkit for investigating social cognition has enabled an expansion into wider research questions. These include acting and perceiving together, verbal and non-verbal engagement, joint meaning-making and collective action, negotiation and conflict, material mediation of social interaction, contextual engagement with socio-cultural norms, structures and roles as well as the psychopathological disturbances of social cognition and interaction.

Based on the common ground of the concept of embodied and enactive intersubjectivity, the Marie Curie ITN “TESIS” has investigated these major issues in actual interactions, where participants’ intentions are literally embodied in their neural activity, posture, actions, and even in the surrounding cultural artefacts. Integrating approaches from psychology, neuroscience, psychopathology, philosophy, and cognitive science the network has generated innovative findings, among others:

(1) Phenomenological and social cognitive science projects demonstrated how the embodied and enactive paradigm may contribute to current debates in social cognition and challenge core principles of the Theory of Mind paradigm, in particular through clarifying the modes of coupling between self and other in face-to-face encounters through bodily resonance and empathy.
(2) Developmental psychology and neuroscience projects investigated interactional patterns through studies of infants’ understanding of intentions directed at them, studies on the role of neural mirroring mechanisms in interactive contexts, on the constitution of intentional objects in interaction and supportive of collective creativity, and on the role of cultural factors and collective action in shaping the human mind.
(3) Psychiatric and psychosomatic projects demonstrated the differential role of disturbances of basic self-awareness, social cognition and intersubjectivity in schizophrenia, autism and somotoform disorders; moreover, they successfully applied body-oriented therapies in controlled trials to these disorders.
(4) Finally, philosophy of mind, hermeneutic and neuroscience projects developed an embodied account of play as a self-structuring activity based on participatory sensorimotor engagements with the world and examined an embodied approach to aesthetic experience and dramatic acting, including the neurobiological underpinnings of these interactive experiences.

In sum, the interdisciplinary research approaches applied in TESIS significantly contributed to novel state of the art knowledge on social cognition, interaction and the constitution of the shared cultural world in the involved disciplines. Moreover, it implemented a new structure of interdisciplinary postgraduate education, one which by itself created the interactive experiences between participants necessary for an embodied and enactive approach to the sciences of human sociality.