Dean Eckles on people, technology & inference

Being a lobster and using a hammer: “homuncular flexibility” and distal attribution

Jaron Lanier (2006) calls the ability of humans to learn to control virtual bodies that are quite different than our own “homuncular flexibility”. This is, for him, a dangerous idea. The idea is that the familiar mapping of the body represented in the cortical homunculus is only one option – we can flexibly act (and perceive) using quite other mappings, e.g., to virtual bodies. Your body can be tracked, and these movements can be used to control a lobster in virtual reality – just as one experiences (via head-mounted display, haptic feedback, etc.) the virtual space from the perspective of the lobster under your control.

This name and description makes this sound quite like science fiction. In this post, I assimilate homuncular flexibility to the much more general phenomenon of distal attribution (Loomis, 1992; White, 1970). When I have a perceptual experience, I can just as well attribute that experience – and take it as being directed at or about – more proximal or distal phenomena. For example, I can attribute it to my sensory surface, or I can attribute it to a flower in the distance. White (1970) proposed that more distal attribution occurs when the afference (perception) is lawfully related to efference (action) on the proximal side of that distal entity. That is, if my action and perception are lawfully related on “my side” of that entity in the causal tree, then I will make attributions to that entity. Loomis (1992) adds the requirement that this lawful relationship be successfully modeled. This is close, but not quite right, for if I can make distal attributions even in the absence of an actual lawful relationship that I successfully model, my (perhaps inaccurate) modeling of a (perhaps non-existent) lawful relationship will do just fine.

Just as I attribute a sensory experience to a flower and not the air between me and the flower, so the blind man or the skilled hammer-user can attribute a sensory experience to the ground or the nail, rather than the handle of the cane or hammer. On consideration, I think we can see that these phenomena are very much what Lanier is talking about. When I learn to operate (and, not treated by Lanier, 2006, sense) my lobster-body, it is because I have modeled an efference–afference relationship, yielding a kind of transparency. This is a quite familiar sort of experience. It might still be a quite dangerous or exciting idea, but its examples are ubiquitous, not restricted to virtual reality labs.

Lanier paraphrases biologist Jim Boyer as counting this capability as a kind of evolutionary artifact – a spandrel in the jargon of evolutionary theory. But I think a much better just-so evolutionary story can be given: it is this capability – to make distal attributions to the limits of the efference–afference relationships we successfully model – that makes us able to use tools so effectively. At an even more basic and general level, it is this capability that makes it possible for us to communicate meaningfully: our utterances have their meaning in the context of triangulating with other people such that the content of what we are saying is related to the common cause of both of our perceptual experiences (Davidson, 1984).


Davidson, D. (1984). Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Lanier, J. (2006). Homuncular flexibility. Edge.

Loomis, J. M. (1992). Distal attribution and presence. Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, 1(1), 113-119.

White, B. W. (1970). Perceptual findings with the vision-substitution system. IEEE Transactions on Man-Machine Systems, 11(1), 54-58.

4 thoughts on “Being a lobster and using a hammer: “homuncular flexibility” and distal attribution

  1. I think spending a little more time thinking about the metaphor of senses is valuable, particularly in social interactions. For example, if we think of having a conversation while looking at each other, then what I see is nearly 100% different from what you see. But if I say “Oh, do you smell that bread baking?” then we’re both having an identical sensory experience: smell is inherently a communal, shared, localized sense.

    I think that example is from The Transmission of Affect, in which the late Teresa Brennan makes some very nice points about the ways in which we understand emotion in similar kinds of ways. I think it’d be up your alley, actually, although the approach she takes differs significantly from yours.

  2. Great comment — and I appreciate the pointer.

    It’s interesting how the lack of substantial difference in sensory input with smell comes along with some vacillation in how we talk about smells (vs. sights): we talk about the smells themselves — locating them either as perceptual objects or scents in the air — but also about the distal objects.

    More generally, if there was no difference in perceptual experience between people, then a broader version of this vacillation — and problem for our communication being meaningful — would obtain.

  3. This is very interesting.

    A lot of time, in Eastern “Internal” Martial Arts, the practitioners often require to learn to “feel the Qi/Chi” and do certain mental imaginations such as rings, spheres etc.

    I believe such mental training influences the way the body functions, and may even re-map the homunculus a certain way, giving the pratitioner “higher” abilities.

    I thinks Qi/Chi and other forms of “energetics” practices is an illusion, kind of like a virtual reality machine that works by influencing the pratitioners’ most complex organ – the brain.

  4. Hey, thanks for this, I’m going to try and attack Shaun Gallagher’s anti-representationalist argument for skill acquisition/refinement in the last tute presentation of my degree on Monday. I’m fairly happy with my argument for minimal representations, but as a tradesman carpenter who has also started quite a few apprentices over the years, who’ll be talking to younger, fresh-from-school classmates and academics, I think a little demonstration that there is some representation required in first starting to use a hammer correctly would be a nice little empirical demonstration.

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