Abeba Birhane: Cognitive science, dialogism and care?

Abeba Birhane is researching cognitive science at University College Dublin. She tweets and blogs about embodied cognition and the enactive approach to cognitive science, which is how I came across her work, when Marco shared a link to her post on Aeon. Abeba’s interest in a more relational understanding of personhood and dialogical approaches informed by the likes of Bakhtin, could bring a useful perspective to understanding the enabling conditions for community-led Opencare. While her work is not specific to the field of care, there are clear connections between the field of her research and how we think about a person and the challenges around health that OpenCare is wrestling with. The extent to which our Cartesian mindset goes unquestioned can be seen in the way which our health and social care systems have developed and our responses to solving the big challenges in public health that have faced society.

Abeba interests lie in the problematic conceptions of selfhood that arise from the influence of Descartes on psychology, the modern mind and ways of understanding our place in the world. She draws on Ubuntu and African philosophy for richer conceptions of the self and on the work of Bakhtin. Bakhtin’s study of philosophy led him to develop the concept of dialogism - a concept that went on to influence fields beyond language and communication. European social psychologists have applied Bakhtin’s work to the study of human social experience, preferring it as a more dynamic alternative to Cartesian dualism. Abeba’s research interests lie in the emerging fields of embodied and enactive cognition, which are similarly finding greater potential in dialogic models of the self. She is researching the ways in which our personhood is "always on the move, is relational and communal”. Sharing these insights may contribute to a sense of what a relational health and social care system might look like. Where patients are no longer treated as self-contained units in need of some form or intervention within conduit models of service delivery and greater health is generated through greater interconnection with others, with community and society.

I’m hoping Abeba will post some thoughts and that conversations will develop that will provide insights as to the assumptions our current care systems are founded on - conversations that may continue as part of the open sessions at the Open Village in October. What happens when we explore and shift our assumptions, when we work consciously with these, beyond designing care interventions and health apps confined by the boundaries those assumptions create?

I would surely hope Abeba joins us here and in Brussels for the event…
Reading your post reminds me how I lost my habit of reading academic writings - her style and method of inquiry looks like it’s more theoretical and philosopical than empirical, am I wrong?

Has she, or perhaps you, seen care interventions feeding into this high level thinking and viceversa? I am wondering how people who are deep in the trenches might apply the thinking rather than inform it - thinking of @michael_dunn or @bernard here…

Otherwise, thanks for the post, you’re definitely on a mission of diving deeper Gehan, just as you promised <3

I saw this and it did make me happy. This strange idea of community having its first primordial moment when people are conscious together. story . language. metaphor. that great moment when people understand each other or the awkward moment when you don’t. empathy and social anxiety changing peoples mind. perhaps cornerstones of the cognitive revolution.

what is more attested to is the key role of story. part of a way of changing the software of our minds. here is something i would like to know your thoughts on. i have been told about trauma something that disrupts the stories we tell ourselves about our lives. often replaying it like a broken record. man’s search for meaning by victor frankl talks about the will to meaning being a key factor in the likelihood of people surviving or recover from the Holocaust. Could community stories be part of showing that collective resilience?
could new understandings of cognition and research into artificial intelligence make us more sympathetic as we get a better understanding of how difficult for everyone to be conscious at all?

This is at the heart of what we are exploring, isn’t it?

One of the cultural shocks I experienced when moving back to Europe was how people related to their homes. In Sweden the home is a closed off thing. One of its key attributes is serving as a fort and highly controlled environment entry to which has to be negotiated in advance and only for specific people, especially around meals. My parents home served as a social hangout place with people dropping by all the time at any time of the day, often without pre-warning, at most a call asking if we were in. Midnight, noon…didn’t matter, when people showed up you would welcome them with tea and cookies or food if it was mealtime.

I believe that experimenting with cultural concepts of “home” as a place and set of interactions that take place in it is central towards understanding and reshaping that relationships between selves. One’s own as well as the ones physically manifested in other bodies… very much looking forward to meeting Abeba :slight_smile:


Also, food has been a key discussion in the context of opencare. Check out this thread on how different food cultures facilitate care. @pavlos is looking at something related to how we see ourselves in relationship to the earth and soil in his work on transforming food systems in post-crisis Greece if I’ve understood his work correctly?

Hi Noemi,

Thank you. Yes, you are right - my work is theoretical and philosophical but my aim in the long term is to extend it to the experimental, or at least develop a clear methodological path as to how such theories and philosophical foundations could be cashed out in empirical work; hopefully dynamical modelling.

As to your question about experience of care intervention feeding into theoretical thinking, no, I don’t really have much first hand experience. However, I am familiar that theories of dialogical and embodied cognition are applied in clinical (therapy) and educational (the idea of Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) for ex, which is all about relationships and disconnectedness) settings.


Indeed, Michael! Moving away from the notion of the person as independent , fixed and autonomous (aka Cartesian) and towards the notion of cognition as contextual, in continual change and something essentially embedded in a web of relations is exactly the type of cognitive science I aspire to do. And this in a way is challenging as for most of Western intellectual history Cartesian thinking has been dominant and it has influenced and shaped almost all aspects of our thinking be it the way we think about ourselves or the way we conduct our experiments.

And yes, as far as I am concerned this new (ish) understanding of cognition is making progress in many fields - from robotics ( the principles of embodied cognition underlie Boston Dynamics’s Big Dog) to psychology.


Exactly! Understanding and accounting for relationships which are the fabrics of our being is at the heart of it all. And also acknowledging change, fluidity, uncertainty and openness changes the way we view self-hood or communities. But of course, uncertainty makes it difficult to pin things down and experiment whether you are doing academic work or implementing policies but I wholeheartedly believe we are better of with a relativity changing and uncertain science that is true to nature than the illusion of control and fixity.

Wow, @Abeba, super-interesting. I am only superficially familiar with embodiment theory etc. But, as a network scientist, I am comfortable with the idea that complicated phenomena like the self might emerge from a great many much simpler parts interacting. I guess other people out there close feedback loops, by locking each one of us in a web of relationship with others that is super-important to survival and reproduction: so, human introduce to each other an evolutionary advantage in being able to negotiate (rather than just fight-or-flight) and even collaborate with one another, for example exchanging information. Evolution might have come up with self-awareness as device to increase fitness along the way.

However, a biologist-cum-science fiction writer called Peter Watts has been popularising very interesting, fringe theoretical biology papers that posit that: (a) you can imagine intelligence without self-awareness (in fact we are even building it, in the form of AI); (b) self-awareness is costly to mantain (cortex and neocortex tissue sucking up glucose to maintain continuity of the homunculus behind our eyes); © because of (b), an intelligent but not self-aware lifeform, if it were to emerge, would eventually outcompete self-aware ones. That does not invalidate your argument, of course.