My academic interests fall at the confluence of non-Cartesian cognitive science, philosophy of mind, cultural psychology, developmental neuroscience, philosophy of science, and philosophy of perception. Specifically, my research to date falls into five main areas, all of live interest in philosophy of mind and cognition:
(i) multisensory perception and the senses;
(ii). embodied and situated cognition;
(iii). cultural learning and evolution of cognition;
(iv). sport psychology;
(v). free will.
In my PhD thesis (awarded without corrections on February 25th, 2016), entitled “Plasticity, Learning, and Cognition: an integrative approach to sensory substitution devices and embodied, enculturated skills”, I developed a novel theoretical framework for the study and integration of plasticity, learning, and cognition. I took sensory substitution devices (SSDs), which allow blind people to experience sensory inputs by transforming images into tactile or auditory stimuli, as my paradigmatic case studies. I investigated the capacity of our brains to functionally and anatomically change following SSD usage and looked at how training with an SSD can lead to increasingly proceduralized skills and expertise.
SSDs aim to replace the functions of an impaired sensory modality (e.g., sight) by providing its user the environmental information normally gathered by another sensory modality (e.g., touch or audition). In collaboration with Professor Andy Clark FBA, FRSE (Sussex) and Associate Professor Julian Kiverstein (Amsterdam), we argued that persistent SSD usage delivers a new mode of perception that is not reducible to that of any single existing sense or any combinations of existing senses. Instead, under certain circumstances a given cortical brain region – e.g., sensory cortex – can exhibit functional plasticity and support novel perceptual processing irrespective of the nature of the sensory inputs that are being sent to it (Kiverstein et al. 2013, Oxford University Press, and Kiverstein et al. 2015, Oxford University Press).
This research led me to explore links between SSD usage and synaesthesia. Synaesthesia is commonly defined as a condition in which stimulation in one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to associated experiences in a second, unstimulated pathway. For example, in grapheme-colour synaesthesia individual letters of the alphabet or numbers are experienced as having distinctive or specific colours. I argued that intensive SSD usage can lead to an artificially-induced form of synaesthesia (Farina 2013, Biology and Philosophy). This work revealed the exciting possibility of studying non-developmental forms of the condition including whether synaesthesia may be induced by posthypnotic suggestion or hallucination.
In subsequent work in collaboration with Malika Auvray (EHESS, Paris), we further refined my original model and investigated conceptually whether these non-developmental forms of synaesthesia could be counted as genuine expressions of the condition (Auvray & Farina, 2017, Oxford University Press). This collaboration has brought new precision to my original proposal and has opened up new vistas for empirical and theoretical research, which I am currently exploring in another collaboration with Steph Singer and BitterSuite UK (http://www.bittersuite.org.uk/).
Steph and I were recently awarded a grant (2018-2019) by Kings College Cultural Institute (approx value £5000) for the realisation of a multisensory play (Without Touch), which was featured in Arts in Mind Festival in London in June 2018. The multi-sensory work investigated the long-term impact of lack of touch and its connection to loneliness. We recently sent a paper, which summarises our findings to *********. The paper is currently under review and expands on the short piece we published at the end of 2018 in Prospect Magazine https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/science-and-technology/touching-distance-could-this-be-the-answer-to-our-loneliness-epidemic). In the long term we aim to bring onboard neuroscientists and organise a bigger multisensory performance, scheduled for June 2019, which could be used as a platform to explore the relation between touch and loneliness more scientifically. The project, on which I am the academic lead, also involves external collaborators (e.g. Prof David Owes [Concordia]).
My work on sensory substitution also inspired the writing on two more papers in which I provide an argument against Goldinger et al.’s ‘poverty of embodied cognition’ (under review in *******) and take sensory substitution devices as a paradigmatic case study for the extended mind thesis (under review in *******).
My attention to the nature of plasticity and learning in the specific context of sensory substitution has led to broader insights about the nature of learning in humans, with a paper in the prestigious British Journal for the Philosophy of Science (Farina 2016). In this paper I offered an original and synthetic alternative framework (neo-neuroconstructivism), which overcomes difficulties of a previous-unresolved stand-off in the theoretical literature and incorporates recent neuroscientific work on the plasticity of brain and cognition in adult as well as in child development. This framework is a promising new approach to understanding human learning processes throughout the lifespan. It has important consequences for understanding how human agents engage in cultural learning and how this, in turn, influences human cultural evolution. This framework thus has the potential to clarify what has led to the uniqueness of human societies.
I propose to use this framework as a stepping stone for a new theory of cultural learning, which innovatively merges scientific work on the psychological mechanisms of learning with explorations of the historical contexts supporting the functions performed by such mechanisms. Influenced by new models of the evolution of human cognition, developed most notably by Professor Cecilia Heyes, Professor Kim Sterelny, and Professor Michael Tomasello, I aim to add extra detailed attention to the historical specificities of the varieties of cultural learning observed in humans.
Specifically, my new model -developed as a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at King’s College London- elucidates how cultural learning occurs in our species, by integrating accounts that have been traditionally formulated in separate fields, namely: (1) a historical analysis (Hacking 2004, Harvard University Press; Wimsatt 2013, MIT Press; Yasnitsky 2014, Cambridge University Press) of the properties of cultural phenomena and cultural agents (such as context-specificity, scaffolded structure, and transmissibility); and (2) a psychological and epistemological account of the core mechanisms involved in cultural learning (such as imitation, instruction, and cooperation).
The addition of an historical perspective to the study of the psychological mechanisms underlying cultural learning is inspired by earlier work in cultural psychology conducted by Soviet researchers (Vygotsky 1980, Harvard University Press; Luria 1976, Harvard University Press;) and constitutes an important innovation for the field. This added perspective is what makes my new model different and more inclusive (hence better suited to explain human cultural evolution) than competitive accounts (Heyes 2012, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B; Sterelny 2012, MIT Press; Tomasello 1990, Harvard University Press; Donald 1991, Harvard University Press).
I already have laid the groundwork for success in this project through collaborations with my mentors at King’s College, Professor David Papineau and at the Institute of Philosophy, Professor Nicholas Shea. I also edited (2016: invited by Professor Duncan Pritchard FRSE) the entry ‘Culture and Cognition’ for the Oxford Bibliographies Online and developed (under review in *******) an original taxonomy of the various distinctive forms of phenotypic [neural, cognitive, and cultural] plasticity, which play a diverse array of roles in philosophy and the cognitive sciences.
In addition to my research on sensory substitution, embodied skills, synaesthesia, cultural learning and evolution of cognition, I have also been working (in collaboration with Professor Alberto Cei, Rome) on a series of papers in the field of sport psychology. In the first of these papers (2018, MIT Press) we developed a multidimensional model of talent identification. In the second contribution (Routledge 2019), we looked at the role and function of self-talk and concentration in football. We are currently working on a third paper, which tries to answer the question of whether experts are made or born.
Finally, in collaboration with colleagues at Saint Petersburg State University, I was recently awarded (2018-2020) by the Russian Science Foundation (Project No. 18-18-00222) a grant (approx. value: £212,000.00) to study the role of volitional acts in intentional agency. Through this collaboration we aim to develop a theoretical framework capable of explaining the neurobiological and cognitive mechanisms underlying free will. We already have laid the groundwork for success in this project as one of our papers, a philosophical critique of willusionism, is under review in ********. In addition, I am currently co-authoring three more papers (with Prof Andrea Lavazza [Arezzo] and Dr Sergei Levin [St. Petersburg] – one of them invited for a Springer Handbook on embodied cognition) on: (I). the relation between free will and extended mind thesis, (ii). the science of free will, and (iii). the relation between quarantine and retributive models of punishment and free will.