The Action-Based Brain


I’m Principal Investigator for this multidisciplinary AHRC Research Network about action-based theories of neural and artificial information processing. Focussing on my collaborator Andrew Glennerster‘s own theory, we investigate the possibility that 3D vision is achieved without the need for representation in 3D coordinate frames.

Andrew’s work in computational neuroscience pursues the idea that perception, thought and action have more in common thantraditionally assumed, as they are all explicable in terms of brain mechanisms which have long been taken to underlie the control of action (since Marr, ‘A theory of cerebellar cortex’, Journal of Physiology 1969 and Albus, ‘A theory of cerebellar function’, Mathematical Biosciences 1971). This idea has far-reaching consequences not only for our understanding of the brain, and for attempts to recreate brain functions in artificial systems, but also for our understanding of human knowledge and experience.

RepresentationThe project

Our Research Network of philosophers, neuroscientists, roboticists and computer vision experts focusses on an application of Andrew’s idea to 3D vision. We investigate the scope and limits of Andrew’s alternative to a standard view of spatial vision and action. According to the standard view, the brain reconstructs a representation of one’s environment in 3D coordinate frames, and performs computationally expensive transformations between different such frames. According to the alternative, spatial vision and action are instead explained by an action-based mechanism.

We find that focussing on this specific proposal facilitates a genuinely multidisciplinary discussion, obviating the risk of different disciplines’ talking past one another by providing a shared target. But we also explore points of contact and contrast between Andrew’s hypothesis and other action-based theories of perception in the philosophical and scientific literature. We think the confluence of multidisciplinary approaches helps us to make progress with broader questions about the relationship between cognition, perception and action, as they arise in philosophy, neuroscience and the theory and practice of artificial intelligence.


The action-based alternative to 3D coordinate-frame representation was the main topic of our video meetings throughout 2016, and of our workshop at St John’s College, Oxford, in January 2017. This workshop brought together experts from diverse disciplines for a focussed multidisciplinary discussion across three days, testing the action-based hypothesis by assessing its philosophical, computational and neuroscientific consequences. You can see the final discussion of the workshop here. As well as discussions led by Andrew and me, the workshop featured talks by:

Bence Nanay (Philosophy, University of Antwerp / University of Cambridge)

Michael Milford (Computer vision, Queensland University of Technology)

Gunnar Atli Sigurdsson (Computer vision, Carnegie Mellon University)

Jenny Read (Neuroscience, Newcastle University)

Mike Gilbert (Neuroscience, University of Birmingham)

Here is Michael Milford’s blog about his trip from Australia for the workshop.


Further discussion takes place on our wiki, which is a good place to find out more about the project.