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A situational approach to representation.

This line of research is focused on a central notion in neuroscience, representation. The word “representation” (as in “neural representation”), and many of its related terms, such as “to represent”, “representational” and the like, play a central explanatory role in neuroscience literature. However, despite its extended use, we still lack a clear, universal and widely accepted view on what it means for a nervous system to represent something, on what makes a neural activity a representation, and on what is re-presented.

In his previous research, Oscar Vilarroya has shown that the set of properties that are usually assumed in the notion of representation are not useful to understand how brains behave as cognitive systems. The representational scheme based on the idea that neural activity encodes, maps or refers to self-subsistent, meaningful and measurable features of the environment might not be the best way to construe cognitive systems.

There have been authors who have suggested the possibility that cognitive systems might be better understood within a non-representational framework. Vilarroya has joined this line of enquiry by exploring a specific approach based on the integration of neural, bodily and environmental activities. In a nutshell, Vilarroya suggests that to understand how the brain works, we must focus on the most elementary role that the nervous system plays in the life of an organism: dealing with the challenges of an ongoing situation in order to meet the goals of the organism. In this sense, instead of representations, Vilarroya argues that the basic functional unit of the brain is what I call “situational engagement”. Vilarroya defines a situation as the interaction between an organism with its environment that can be characterized as a sequence of interrelated events sharing some meaningful aspect for the organism, and a situational engagement as the set of neural and bodily activities that an organism engages to manage a situation. In addition, and in line with my support of the idea that cognition extends into the body and the environment, Vilarroya suggests that a situational engagement must be understood as an extended system in which to include the brain, the body and the environment, and the way in which all these components interact.

The critical difference between the representational and the situational accounts is that, under the situational account, the brain does not map, picture or acquire information about the environment and then acts on it; rather, it uses the environment to prepare the organism for its next engagement with it. This “use” is implemented by the brain in a way that makes animals knowledgeable, without the need for representations. And when it comes to humans, this knowledgeable interaction is complemented by the creation and use of representational systems.

The move from a representational to a situational approach could be summarized by saying that “cognitive animals do not know how the world is”; rather, “cognitive animals know how the world they interact with works”.

At the moment Vilarroya is collaborating in an European FET project with the aim of applying the situational approach to the uses of “narrative” in Human-centric Artificial Intelligence.


  • MUHAI. FETPROACT-EIC-05-2019, ID: 951846 (PI: Luc Steels; € 3 996 032,50; 2020-2024).


Vilarroya O. Neural Representation. A Survey-Based Analysis of the Notion. (2017) Front Psychol 8: 1458.

Vilarroya O. (2014). Sensorimotor event: an approach to the dynamic, embodied, and embedded nature of sensorimotor cognition. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 7: 912

Miguel A Casal, Santiago Galella, Oscar Vilarroya, Jordi Garcia-Ojalvo (2020) Soft-wired long-term memory in a natural recurrent neuronal network. Chaos 30, 061101 (2020);

Vilarroya O. (2013). The Challenges of Neural-Mind Reading Paradigms. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 7: 306

Vilarroya, O (2012) A Satisficing and Bricoleur Approach to Sensorimotor Cognition. Biosystems     2012 Nov;110(2):65-73

Vilarroya, O (2013) Introducing Experion as a Primal Cognitive Unit of Neural Processing. In: Vincent C. Müller (ed.) Philosophy and Theory of Artificial Intelligence. Studies in Applied Philosophy, Epistemology and Rational Ethics Volume 5. pp: 289-305.

Vilarroya, O (2013) An Experientially-Based Informationless Communication In: Àngels Massip-Bonet and Albert Bastardas-Boada (ed) Complexity Perspectives on Language, Communication and Society. Berlin, Springer (Understanding Complex Systems) pp: 61-73.