Building humanity: €10m research project into the influence of the built environment on the development of the mind
By: Neil Vowles
Last updated: Thursday, 5 November 2020
The University of Sussex is to participate in a new €10 million research project that is thought to be the largest ecological experiment on embodied visual perception ever attempted.
The project asks in what ways the material structures of human settlements such as buildings, roads and artefacts change fundamental patterns of thought and attention and the way that minds process information.
The researchers will conduct 41 different world-wide case studies, with locations chosen to sample very distinct types of societies ranging from Amazonian and African hunter-gatherers to traditional peasants in South America, Africa or India, and present-day European urban societies.
The XSCAPE project, which includes €1.7 million of funding for the University, will develop and deploy a new synergistic methodology that combines multiple real-world case studies with state-of-the-art visual neuroscience, and agent-based simulations.
It aims to deliver the first fully integrated framework for understanding the cycles by which humans make and transform the structured worlds that make and transform their minds.
Andy Clark, Professor of Cognitive Philosophy at the University of Sussex, is one of four Principal Investigators (PIs) leading the unique six-year project combining archaeological materials, visual neuroscience and simulation-based studies. The group also includes experts from the Spanish National Research Council and the University of Kiel in Germany.
Bridging Prof Clark’s home departments of Philosophy and Informatics, the University of Sussex team will use computational simulations to explore the various ways that acting in structured environments might alter patterns of thought and attention. This part of the project will exploit the emerging paradigm known as ‘predictive processing’ – a rich neurocomputational perspective that offers a principled means of linking perception, attention and action with cognitive change and learning.
Prof Clark said: “This is an amazing opportunity to put real flesh on the intuitive idea that our minds are intimately entwined with the worlds we build.”
The XSCAPE project launches in October next year and will run until September 2027.
It is being funded by a European Research Council Synergy Grant which has been designed to address ambitious research questions that can be answered only by the coordinated work of a small group of 2-4 Principal Investigators.
The Synergy Grant 2020 call received 440 proposals, with XSCAPE among 34 successful projects selected for funding.