Self-Organization and the Origins of Agency
Philosophers and scientists have for centuries explored the mysteries of self -awareness. What causes the emergence of “I” as a distinct entity with individual thoughts, intentions and physical capacities?
“We humans tend to believe we are agents, masters and mistresses of our fate, that our deeds and desires are our destiny,” writes neuroscientist J.A. Scott Kelso, PhD. Because scientific basis for that belief has been lacking, he says, our notion of “the self as a causal agent remains a ghost in the machine awaiting exorcism. ” But the main feature of self-organizing systems, he explains, is that they are self-less: no internal or external entity organizes them. So how does the self as a causal agent emerge?
Ironically, Dr. Kelso suggests, the first expression of the extraordinary quality of agency in human infants takes the form of phase transition, the most fundamental form of self-organization in natural systems. The mechanism involved is positive feedback, a ubiquitous process in nature, economies and societies in which systems amplify each other’s output so that A produces more B which produces more A. Dr. Kelso’s insights come from mathematical modeling and a new look at studies of babies.
Dr. Kelso founded the Center for Complex Systems and Brain Sciences at Florida Atlantic University, where he holds the Glenwood and Martha Creech Eminent Scholar Chair in Science and is also professor of complex systems and brain sciences, psychology, biological sciences and biomedical sciences. He is considered the originator of Coordination Dynamics (CD), a theoretical and empirical framework grounded in concepts of self-organization in physics, chemistry and biology and the mathematical tools of nonlinear dynamical systems. Processes studied in CD include moving, perceiving, thinking, feeling, learning, remembering, developing and aging.
In a new paper in Trends in Cognitive Science, Dr. Kelso writes that “the birth of agency is due to a eureka-like pattern forming phase transition in which the infant suddenly realizes that it can make things happen in the world.” Scientists from many fields have pondered the roots of agency, which Dr. Kelso says means deliberate action taken toward an end. He notes the observations and inquiries of Charles Darwin and physicist Edwin Schrodinger, one of the architects of quantum mechanics, who explored the physical basis of life and our sense of being a separate self. He quotes philosopher and evolutionary biologist Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, who believes physical movement is “the mother of all cognition” and the source of agency and selfhood.
Dr. Kelso describes studies in which researchers tied ribbons around the ankles of three and four month old babies, then attached the ribbons to mobiles over their cribs. When the babies kicked, the mobiles moved, creating sights and sounds they liked. A positive feedback loop was triggered. When the baby realized mobile movement was the result of kicking, and that the baby itself could cause the movement, its kicking rate was amplified. The kicking rate of babies with the ankle ribbon increased three or four times more than the kick rate of babies who were presented with the same stimulation but could not make the mobile move. These studies measured the movements of the babies but not the movements of the mobiles.
Looking through a lens of Coordination Dynamics, Dr. Kelso writes, the baby is coupled with the world, and agency arises when the baby has the “aha experience” of realizing it is causing change. In a mathematical model of the research, which includes the baby, its actions and its environment, he explains, this “aha experience” refers to a bifurcation in a coupled dynamical system. The coupled dynamics refers to the coordinated relation between the baby’s movements and the kinesthetic, visual, auditory and emotional consequences they produce. Bifurcation happens when a system shows an abrupt but lasting change in typical behavior or function. And bifurcations, he explains, are the mathematical equivalent of phase transitions.
“The pairing of movement and motion, motor and sensory, action and perception, matter and mind, typically treated as separate, becomes a meaningful unified experience,” Dr. Kelso writes. “Awareness of their intimate relation is the basis of conscious agency. Just as two cells exchange matter through the joint action of stimulus and inhibitions to form a simple biological structure, so the baby and the mobile form a coupled dynamical system.”
“The causal influence that the baby exerts on the world, “ Dr. Kelso writes, “is the source of what we call ‘I’.”
See a YouTube lecture on coordination by Dr. Kelso here and read the paper here. .