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AGENTS OF EMBODIMENT

Our embodied perception described above is equally responsible for our perception of other bodies as intentional beings, namely agents of intended actions. This again is connected with our body schema described by Gallese (2005). Our social coexistence demands that we are able to interpret the goals and intentions of the other bodies we share our environment with. This is a useful survival skill that we are able to achieve by relying once more on the simulation model we use to perceive our own movement and space. In other words, when we see someone performing an action our respective motor schema is activated as if we are the ones performing this action (Gibbs 2005, 35). By this translation of third-person observation to first-person perspective, we can apply to this action the goals and intentions we associate with this particular motor schema (Gallese 2005, 35). In this capacity, we perceive the embodied agents around us not simply as bodies performing actions but, as Gibbs contends, as: “volitional agents capable of entertaining, similarly to us, an agentive intentional relation to the world” (35-36). As such the other body becomes more than a representational system of behaviors, it becomes a person; or in phenomenological terms, the other does not merely have a body but they are a body, namely an “embodied subjectivity” (Zahavi 2007, 72).

Research has shown that humans and humanoids possess bimodal neurons called mirror neurons which help them perceive the actions of others as their own actions and thus understand them: “Action observation causes in the observer the automatic simulated re-enactment of the same action” (Gallese 2005, 32). This is true not only when humans perceive the actions of others but also their emotional responses: “We are not alienated from the actions, emotions, and sensations of others, because we entertain a much richer and affectively nuanced perspective of what other individuals do, experience, and feel” (31). For example, there is a common activation in our brains related to pain, disgust, touch, and fear when we both feel the emotions and see others experiencing them (Morrison and Ziemke 2005, 76). What is of particular importance for the current argument is that based on neuroimaging studies the brain area related to spatial cognition “did not differ between viewing agents in the real and virtual worlds” (Ziemke 2005, 74). That means that even though real and virtual worlds activate different networks of the brain, probably because of the “differences in the visual realism of the scenes” (74), our perception of others as embodied agents of enactment and emotional reactions does not differentiate between materialities.

Still, our brain system exhibits more intricate nuances. An fMRI study performed by Buccino et al. (2004) found that the mirror system responses of human participants did not differ significantly when they watched other humans, dogs, and monkeys biting food. Different networks were activated when the same subjects observed the objects performing activities that were species-specific: talking, barking, and lip-smacking respectively. It seems that our human brains tend to understand embodiment based on tasks that they have associated with their own embodiment, tasks that they perform with their own body. Biting food for a dog and a monkey is a motor-scheme similar to how humans bite their food. On the other hand, humans do not bark nor smack their lips.

Hence, we recognize as embodied an agent that manipulates their bodies in a fashion similar to ours, no matter if this agent shares our ontology or not. We perceive them as such because this is how we can relate to them, by bringing along our own perception and consciousness, which are bound by our embodiment and physicality. It is in this capacity that I can perceive the consciousness of the others. In Merleau-Ponty’s words: “The other consciousness can be deduced only if the emotional expressions of others are compared and identified with mine, and precise correlations recognized between my physical behavior and my ‘psychic events’” (1962, 410). How this transformation works depends on our biology, culture, and personal experience (Gibbs 2005). It is highly influenced by the degree of expertise of the subject on the performed action. Familiarity helps people translate bodily movements and emotional responses of others better (Gallese 2005). The general direction is, however, that we are far more likely to anthropomorphize other agents than the other way around (Basu and Dickstein 2018; Turner 2017; Roffe and Stark 2015). We simply look for agents that resemble us everywhere because this is how we perceive our world. It is much easier for us; it is perception in the first instance.

Understandably, realism plays an important factor in facilitating our perception of designed others as embodied agents. Rigid movement of a robot arm causes less identification with one’s own arm movement (Morrison and Ziemke 2005, 77). Morrison and Ziemke make that connection to videogames: “It is intuitively obvious that the realism of display would play a part in the extent to which the user becomes engaged in the game world” (2005, 77). At the same time, not only does our perception influence virtual agents but virtual agents influence our perception (77). In the same fashion that our body can be augmented and/or added upon by tools, our constant exposure to virtuality can broaden our perception to include manifestations of embodiment that go beyond our physical world. In the same vein that typography created the typographic man of McLuhan (2011), virtuality may create the virtual human.

 
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