The Meaning of Actions - Theme, Pufendorf IAS

Project: Network

Research areas and keywords

UKÄ subject classification

  • Engineering and Technology
  • Social Sciences


Theme at the Pufendorf Institute for Advanced Studies

Layman's description

The Meaning of Actions: Motor Functions, Intentions and the Brain.

1. The overall goal of the project is to study how actions and intentions are represented in the human brain. The standard view of actions is that they are driven by goals or intentions in combination with beliefs. Yet, the relations between actions and goals are deeply problematic. Theoretical and empirical results show that actions are sometimes not driven by goals at all or by goals that are quite different from what we imagine.

2. We have an intuitive conviction that most common actions are guided by our intentions, but this is probably to some extent an illusion. A phenomenon called choice blindness has been discovered that can be used to investigate the cognitive architecture of intention and cognitive control. Choice blindness is the failure to detect mismatches between intention and outcome in simple decision tasks.

As a first main line of the project, we pursue the studies of such illusions further, since they can reveal the mechanisms of how we ascribe intentions for actions to ourselves and to others. In this context, the wider social context of action will also be considered. Humans seem to be alone in forming joint intentions in the sense that the intentional actions of one individual are coordinated with those of another individual. Such alignments allow humans to achieve more advanced forms of cooperation than other animals.

3. Joint intentions are also basic for human communication. Human language is to large extent a question of coordinating our inner models of the world. Linguistically, there is a strong connection between actions and verbs. Therefore, the coordination of action can be studied by how the brain handles verbs. Brain imaging studies show that when verbs relating to the movements of body parts are interpreted by a listener, the corresponding areas of the motor cortex are activated.

A second central theme of the project is how actions are represented in language. We will start out from a model of the semantics of verbs based on conceptual spaces. This model will be tied to neurological models of how
verbs are processed.

4. Another way to investigate how actions are represented in the brain is to design robots that can interact with humans. To do this, it is necessary for the robot to understand the goals and intentions of the humans. Since
commands to the robots involve verbs, a semantic model of the meaning of verbs is a sine qua non for successful communication.

A third research venue concerns mental simulations of actions and their possible use in robotics. Currently, great efforts are made to develop companion robots. So far the research has focussed on technology, making the robots perform actions such as taking things out of a refrigerator. In the future, a central part of a robot’s social capacity will be its ability to read the intentions of its user.

To accomplish this we need a better understanding of how actions are controlled in humans. We will investigate the requirements of a robot architecture for the perception of human intentional movements. We will also look at movements that communicate an intention to act, in particular, in the context of human-robot communication.

5. The subject area of the project is highly interdisciplinary, involving researchers from psychology, cognitive science, computer science, rehabilitation engineering and neuroscience. The project runs from September 2011
to April 2012. The project leaders are professor Christian Balkenius and professor Peter Gärdenfors.
Effective start/end date2011/08/112012/08/12