(Phd) Expecting space: an enactive and active inference approach to transitions (2020)

Djebbara, Z. (2020)Expecting space: an enactive and active inference approach to transitions. Aalborg Universitetsforlag. Ph.d.-serien for Det Tekniske Fakultet for IT og Design, Aalborg Universitet

The following thesis is an interdisciplinary investigation of architectural transitions cast as a composite of space and experience in time. Dispersed between philosophy, architecture and cognitive neuroscience, the thesis also attempts to provide an empirically plausible neuroscientific framework that best explains the human experience of architectural transitions. Accordingly, the thesis is neither a pure study of space nor of the human, but instead, an investigation of the dynamics that emerge between the body and space during transitions. To this end, a falsifiable hypothesis is derived from the framework and tested to assess the quality of the framework.

Throughout thousands of years, architectural transitions have been shaped
by human beings for various reasons—this makes this transhistorical both architecturally and biologically attractive. Transitions extend in time and space and depend heavily on the human body’s capabilities to propel itself through space. For this reason, the emerging experience caused by transitions is analysed as a composite of space and time, which biologically translates to an investigation of action-perception. A phenomenological approach to the emergence of perception over time establishes conditions for an empirically plausible neuroscientific framework, which in turn provides a meaningful explanation of the dynamics between human experience and architectural transitions. Indeed, the following thesis is an attempt to synthesise phenomenological arguments with a prominent theory of brain activity. Active inference, as a computational approach to cognition and cortical activity, is attempted bridged with enactivism, which is a phenomenological and sensorimotor account of experience, to demonstrate how the environment emerges as an experience in the dynamics themselves. Essentially, transitions in the human experience, as a structure of change, are argued to be the genesis of experience itself—transitions become both the question and the answer, albeit, on different terms.

The phenomenological framework is heavily based on the temporal nature
in human experience and its characterisation as inherently bodily, i.e. the world emerges through an active experience through enactive sensory systems. If the dynamics of enactive biological systems are affected by architectural design, it implies that architectural design can affect the human experience through short term processes, on which the long-term processes, e.g. the psychological expectation of space, are based.

The free energy principle, i.e. active inference, is an application of Bayes’ theorem to investigate biological systems through computational models. Portraying the human body as a dynamic system that must resist environmental disorder through homeostasis, fundamental processes as action-perception can be described as the consequential outcome of minimising uncertainty about the environment.

On a cellular level, the process of emergence is the outcome of dynamic self-organising systems, which is the very foundation of action-perception. By providing a thorough analysis of the computational process, it is revealed that knowing how is inherently different from knowing that, which indeed makes the computational approach more appealing as it aligns with the philosophical and enactive account of human experience. Active inference is essentially demonstrated to fit an embodied, embedded, enactive and extended account of cognition, rather than a traditional sandwich-model account to cognition.

In sum, the thesis may be taken as (1) an account of how architectural research may go beyond traditional methods and address questions that are currently not in the vocabulary of architects, (2) a computational neurophenomenological account of experience that provides a meaningful explanation of the emergence of architectural experience and (3) an answer to how do architecture impact experience and body on a sensory-level, from how the world is perceived.

The full PhD thesis can be downloaded here and here.

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