Monday 26th of February 2018
On 07th June 2010

An Exclusive Interview with Éric Laurent, from the University of Franche-Comté, Besançon, France

" scientists with strong quantitative backgrounds are and will be very useful and precious to the field since the mathematical modeling of cognition and behavior is taking more and more importance.."

My name is Éric LAURENT. I have been an assistant/associate professor ("Maître de Conférences") in cognitive psychology at the University of Franche-Comté, France, since 2007. I am currently the head of the Psychology Undergraduate Studies and of the Cognitive Psychology Curriculum at the University of Franche-Comté. Previously I was a lecturer at the University of Avignon, and had during a short period a consulting office in human performance in southern France. I earned my Ph.D. in 2003 from the University of the Mediterranean, France, where I was a Fellow of the French Ministry of Research and a lecturer.

My research interests are eye movement and visual perception (in learning/Alzheimer disease/depression), memory, emotions, biological embodiment of cognition and perception, and social situatedness of cognitive processes.

My central research goal is two-fold: 1) to develop and conduct an experimental program on enaction (i.e., a paradigm in which cognitive functions are seen as being emergent, dynamic and embodied) and human complexity 2) to develop and refine epistemological foundations of a multiscale coupling approach, namely by connecting psychology to other fields such as computer science, neuroscience, sociology or philosophy (and maybe physics in the future, who knows?).

How did you gain interest in cognitive science/psychology?
I was involved in sport competition during a long time and I was initially interested in topics such as motivation and expertise. During my advancement in the studies, some events associated to the growing field of cognition and brain sciences made me head towards cognition and visual perception.

What trend do you foresee in cognitive science/psychology?
I am convinced that in many scientific fields, complexity will become an unavoidable concept. Both theoretically and practically. Beyond the theoretical understanding of complex, dynamical and non-linear phenomena, if we want to understand and predict behavior in everyday situations, we need a framework organized around the concepts of "interactions". This implies, among others, that interdisciplinary work (and according to me more specifically "multiscale approaches") becomes really necessary and not just an "up-to-date" motto complementary to the main work. In my view and in my field I think we need to develop a flexible viewpoint on couplings that give rise to the emergence of perception or thoughts. It is what I try to do each day, at the lab or during my lectures. It is not easy, because some specialties are institutionally structured and changing perspectives on objects has non-marginal effects on multiple dimensions of social and institutional environments of science.

What did you investigate in your last publication?
In the last paper, published in IJCSI, we worked at connecting the field of enactive psychology to the field of computer science in order to provide some clues for developing a view on the ability of Pervasive Computing Environments to deal with human emotions. It's the fruit of a discussion between fields, which allows to put new problems in each field. It was a very good experience, and I think that typically, this kind of work can have some impacts on the design of new artificial artifacts that take into account dynamical human characteristics and adapt efficiently to them. IJCSI was chosen for its broad diffusion online, allowing free access to anybody connected to the Internet, especially computer scientists but also psychologists that are not all familiar with printed computer science journals.

How do you approach research? How long does it take to complete a paper?
Well, until now I have been a "high inertia-system". Indeed, I need to focus on writing for hours, days or a week without being caught by other things. However, when I find this availability, the paper can be written virtually within a single period of work or so. The availability of this kind of long sequences tend to be be very rare though and I am learning to work differently within shorter and more frequent sessions. In any case, I can note there are still alternating macrocycles of experimental and theoretical/writing work.

What are the most interesting or surprising things you have learned about since your arrival at the University of Franche-Comté?
I think that I have been impressed by some works carried out by leading scientists, for instance in vision, that associate many different techniques from the analysis of the activity of a single neuron, to BOLD responses, and behavioral/psychophysics, and computational modeling. This synergy of efforts and this diversity of methods used to study a phenomenon is remarkable but also require huge human and material supports.

Otherwise I discovered that the interest for complexity and its complicated relationships with traditional analytical theoretical trends straddled the boundaries of disciplines and has highly concerned some colleagues in physics, biological sciences, or computer science. That is really exciting, because the debate is something far more general than just predicting phenomena in a given domain: it is really a matter of seeing life. I believe that science that changes the way you see life is very important... and is finally connected to philosophy.

What topics have you been teaching so far?
I have lectured normal human cognition at both undergraduate and graduate levels (perception, memory, motor control, motivation), cognitive and sensorimotor development at the undergraduate level, dynamical psychology of cognition and behavior, and neuropsychology of vision and plasticity at the graduate level. I have given lectures since 1999.

What was your most successful moment? What are the current research projects you are working on?
I think that finding experimental data that test epistemological foundations established several years before is something exciting. We are currently getting these data in various domains and I appreciate this. In particular, we find that we can not conceive cognitive systems and vision as being modular or separated from the body, from emotional systems, or from the social context; vision embodies teleological (i.e., final) dimensions of cognition, emotion, and basic appetitive processes (e.g., thirst). From this point of view, I think that computer science might get profit from the data for conceiving and modeling the sources of processing instability. The research we carry out has potentially some impacts on health, work, learning, human performance and advertising sectors.

There are also more practical considerations to take into account for doing research; one of which is the funding of our activity. I recently obtained two grants with a colleague of mine (Pr. Pierre Vandel, psychiatrist) and other partners in order to study eye movement as a potential diagnostic tool for identifying and discriminating Alzheimer Disease onset from severe depression in elderly patients. This meeting between two disciplines and the different points of views on a health problem conducted to develop a method I used previously to research other phenomena such as 'expertise', for new purposes. We now possess adapted eye tracking tools, have developed tests, which are currently running on patients. We hope this will offer interesting perspectives; theory being connected here to concrete health stakes.

I like this process which consists, from epistemological foundations, to tackle some problems and to try and see if what is initially "the global theoretical view" can help us to solve applied problems.

Your recommendation(s) and advise for young researchers who would want to pursue research in cognition?
Cognition is today an object that is studied by a variety of sciences (computer science, neurobiology, psychology...). Whatever the initial background, it seems to me unavoidable to read things in the different disciplines.

In addition, I think that computer scientists with strong quantitative backgrounds are and will be very useful and precious to the field since the mathematical modeling of cognition and behavior is taking more and more importance in order to formally describe and test what has been inferred from what has been measured biologically or behaviorally. Human-computer interactions issues should also serve to promote the increasing integration of computer scientists in the field.

Were you inspired by a famous scientist or engineer?
Chronologically, I studied at the University of the Mediterranean where non-linear approaches were applied to motor behavior, in several (but clearly not all) cases in the opposition to cognitive computo-symbolic models. I developed both opposition (to the exclusion of any cognition) and identification (concerning the dynamical postulates) relative to this research.

I was also really inspired by the work of Professor Robert Goldstone, a brilliant cognitive scientist from Indiana University. He studies, among others, the interaction between perceptual processes and higher-level cognition. He also usually uses computational models in order to simulate human cognition. I began with studying the interaction between cognition and perception and then tried to generalize the principle of researching interactions between different cognitive systems. Then, I discovered the work of the neurophysiologist and philosopher Francisco Varela, the founder of enaction with Humberto Maturana. More recently I found out the work of the physicist Fritjof Capra being astonishingly close to the frames I have in the head in a different scientific domain. Progressively, what initially seemed to me to be rather marginal ideas, has been conceived as an epistemological posture held by a multiform, multidisciplinar, and weakly-federated community.

What is your feeling about open-access publication? Do you recommend it?
This considerably changes our research. We save time, the search for documents is greatly accelerated and we are far less limited by financial restrictions since the number of free articles increases... Just have to keep an eye on the charges that can rely on authors themselves in some journals.

Since my childhood I have been practicing sport (judo, ironman triathlon). I have always to struggle though... with time.
I have also been greatly inspired/felt close to Nietzsche philosophy on many points.

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