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Cognitive penetration: nowhere or everywhere? Either way you should probably wear protection



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Over the past three decades there has been growing consensus that our experiences are not isolated forms that emerge unscathed from the influences of our beliefs, motivations and desires. Rather, they are penetrated by these cognitive or so-called ‘top-down’ effects to the point where the traditional boundaries between cognition and perception are called into question. This revolutionary proposal threatens to turn the traditional, encapsulated notion of how the mind and body are organized, upside-down.

Such a radical position does not escape scrutiny. A recent article published in Brain and Behavioural Sciences (BBS) provides a rollicking intervention that attempts to derail the ‘cognitive penetration’ train (Firestone and Scholl, 2015). In their article, Firestone and Scholl highlight 6 pitfalls that undermine cognitive penetration of perception, specifically: the necessary absence of an effect, judgement effect, response bias, low-level differences, peripheral attention effects and memory effects. They propose that a failure to account for these pitfalls in past, present and future investigation, undermines any claim that perceptual processing is directly altered by cognition. Instead, each pitfall stumbled upon indicates an indirect effect of cognition, occurring prior to or subsequent to perceptual processing. As is BBS’s style, the opportunity to respond to their articles evoked passionate responses from over 103 authors; the result is a tour de force that looks to shape the very questions we ask as scientists, clinicians and embodied beings. Although a recommended read, it is looooong, so here I attempt to skim off the important bits in relation to pain:

The lofty discussion of whether perception is cognitively influenced has immediate relevance to the experience of pain. In fact, our current understanding of pain seems to dance between the very boundaries up for discussion, providing a perfect platform to challenge the traditional segregations of perception, cognition and action. We have become accustomed to thinking of pain as an experience inseparable from our attention, our memories and our motivations; ‘top-down’ effects are readily considered ubiquitous in the experience of pain.

Firestone and Scholl, however, conclude in their paper that ‘it is eminently plausible that there are no ‘top-down’ effects of cognition on perception’. They take this position based on the failing of numerous experiments, which specifically consider ‘top-down’ effects, such as beliefs and current bodily state, in relation to alterations in how we perceive the external world.

A significant body of literature that falls foul of the Firestone and Scholl (F+S) pitfalls is work conducted under the Economy of Action Hypothesis (Proffitt, 2006). According to this theory, the way in which we perceive our external world – space, distance and gradient – is sculpted by our ability to act within that world. For example, walkers wearing heavy backpacks overestimate the gradient of a slope in comparison to unencumbered controls. This work has called for the dissolution of the traditional boundaries between perception, cognition and action. However, methodological limitations, which do not establish distinction between direct perceptual processing change and indirect pre- or post-perceptual change, have plagued the translation of these findings. In this vein, we sought to rigorously test the Economy of Action hypothesis in a group of patients experiencing chronic pain (Tabor et al, 2016). Taking into account F+S’s pitfalls, we compared people experiencing persistent pain with pain-free controls in their ability to judge the distance to a series of cones, which they were told they would have to walk to. According to the Economy of Action hypothesis, individuals experiencing pain associated with walking would over-estimate the distance to the cones. Yet, we were unable to demonstrate such an effect; we found no significant differences between pain and non-pain groups. In addition, even distance estimations within the pain group, comparing those that anticipated an increase in pain on walking with those who did not, were not significantly different. On the face of it these results should have had us frantically waving our null finding above our heads as we skipped across the well-defined boundary into the isolated, modular encapsulated world; the cognitive penetration mess behind us.

But no. That seemed callous and premature.

Above all else, our investigation prompted the need for refinement in our investigation into the effects of cognition on perception; to hone our behavioural methods in order to match the revolutionary change in landscape that currently faces cognitive science (Clark, 2013). We found ourselves possessors of crude tools, investigating a tangled skein of nuances that reflect an experience insufficiently understood because of the traditional boundaries enforced upon it. From this perspective I was able to observe my own, as well as Firestone and Scholl’s grand omission. In not extending our scope beyond visual perception, we failed to account for the body in relation to cognitive penetrability. When considering our rich bodily experiences, contextually-relevant and evolutionarily-determined, the notion of cleaving cognition from such inferential perception seems misjudged and futile.  Thus, I see Firestone and Scholl’s manuscript not as an obituary for cognitive penetration, but as a challenge to behavioural scientists who strive to make sense of an experience that is neither cognition nor perception. But before I become a refined behavioural scientist, a crude warning: penetration is coming, it’s best to be protected.

To see Abby’s poster on this work please click here

About Abby Tabor

Abby Tabor BiM

Abby is a lecturer in Rehabilitation at the University of Bath.  She likes coffee and the sound her bike makes when she back pedals. She dislikes hairdryers and hoovers. One of her favourite films is Amelie.
As an early career researcher, she is currently investigating the mechanisms underlying the establishment of bodily limits. 


Clark, A. (2013). Whatever next? Predictive brains, situated agents, and the future of cognitive science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences36(03), 181-204. doi.org/10.1017/s0140525x12000477

Firestone, C., & Scholl, B. J. (2015). Cognition does not affect perception: Evaluating the evidence for ‘top-down’ effectsBehavioral and brain sciences, 1-72. doi.org/10.1017/s0140525x15000965

Proffitt, D. R. (2006). Embodied perception and the economy of action. Perspectives on psychological science1(2), 110-122. doi: 0.1111/j.1745-6916.2006.00008.x

Tabor A, O’Daly O, Gregory RW, Jacobs C, Travers W, Thacker MA, Moseley GL. (2016) Perceptual Inference in Chronic Pain: An Investigation into the Economy of Action hypothesis. Clinical Journal of Pain. 32(7):588-93. doi: 10.1097/AJP.0000000000000305.

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