Last week I attended (most of) the 15th European Workshop on Ecological Psychology (EWEP) in Mountauban, France. This was my sixth EWEP, having first attended in Madeira in 2008, and for me it is as much of a get together with friends and colleagues from around the world as it is a scholarly meeting. Still, the scientific and theoretical content of the workshop was generally of a high quality, showcasing some interesting empirical and conceptual developments in the field of ecological psychology and related domains.

Some of my highlights of the workshop:

  • As with other recent meetings, there is a strong cohort of people developing the theoretical framework(s) of ecological psychology, both in terms of tackling conceptual controversies as well as in attempting to extend the range of activities and situations that ecological psychologists might meaningfully turn their attention to. Rob Withagen presented ideas, inspired in part by the work of Tim Ingold, about how creativity emerges from doing in the context of art and architecture. Ludger van Dijk drew links between Gibson’s ideas and those of the American Pragmatists. Julian Kiverstein attempted to tackle the problem of what Clark and Toribio (1994) called ‘Representation-Hungry‘ behaviours, activities which seem to necessitate mental representations to fill-in for the absence of behaviourally-relevant environmental properties. Matthieu de Wit presented updates on his project of a ‘Gibsonian Neuroscience’, in which the concept of ‘neural re-use’ supports the re-framing of neural processes as being organised around tasks rather than anatomical regions. Finally, Ed Baggs presented recent work on the distinction between the ecological environment as a habitat for a species, and as an Umwelt for an individual agent. While there are many challenges in advancing ecological psychology along these lines, some of which I hope to discuss in the blog soon, it is great to see people continue to enthusiastically engage with core concepts in these ways and I look forward to tracking their developments.
  • Another pattern I noticed was that a number of presentations featured data on how different individuals performed in different tasks, either as individual cases or in figures which showed the full range of performance/perception of an experimental cohort. Information about individual differences is key to better understanding issues in development, skill acquisition, expertise, disorders, and even just for understanding skilful adaptability in simple perceptual-motor tasks. I am encouraged to explore individual variation more in my own research, so it was inspiring to see how others engaged with the task.
  • On a related note, there were some great pieces on development (e.g. Laura Golenia‘s work on Developmental Coordination Disorder), skill learning (e.g. Daniel Leach‘s work on bimanual coordination and Agnes Henson‘s research on training new speech gestures with augmented visual feedback), and creativity (e.g. Dominic Orth‘s studies of how constraints in training may force learners to search for alternative affordances). I am delighted to see people adopting the ecological approach to engage with these psychological topics, as I think they are key to the future of the discipline.
  • An entertaining talk on the wisdom/stupidity of crowds in relation to perceived Social Identity information by Daniel Richardson, and an excellent keynote on self-organisation of collective motion in ants and humans by Vincent Fourcassié. Both of these presentations served up food for thought on how ecological psychologists might study social coordination beyond the usual dyadic interpersonal movements or sports team behaviour.
  • In general, the discussion of perception is still largely focussed on vision. However, by comparison to recent meetings, there was a greater representation of work involving auditory, haptic, and multi-sensory perception. Since I often find myself having to broaden discussions with ecological psych people away from the ‘visual fixation’ (pun-intended), this was encouraging.

Some room for change for the future:

  • The structure of the meeting was largely oral presentation-based, with these beginning at 8:30am, and finishing around or after 7pm. This was too much! Plus, with 15-minute presentations, it was a real challenge to keep up mentally with the switches between topics. The inevitable run-over of presentations meant that lunch was reduced in duration and a scheduled coffee break between sessions had to be removed. I saw hardly any of the posters due to the poster sessions coinciding with lunch, and the time for discussion with colleagues was shifted mainly to the nights. In my experience, the value of a conference is largely in the discussion, debate and planning with fellow researchers. Therefore, it was a shame that the format gobbled up a lot of the time and mental energy available to do this. This issue is not unique to EWEP, but in chatting to a number of people there emerged a feeling that perhaps there are other ways to communicate our research and make connections that are not so unidirectional and time-consuming. Given the collegiate nature of the broader EWEP community, and our aim to sustain the ecological psychology program, I think it will be important to explore different ways to facilitate discussion and collaboration in future workshops.
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