Friday, October 19, 2007

Life is a Journey


In my last posts I wrote about embodiment and how many of our categories stem from sensorimotor experience, embodiment, simulation and emulation. But what about abstract concepts? Lakoff and Johnson (1980, 1999) argue that our conceptual system, which enables us to categorize and draw analogies, is also built on the basis of embodied experience. As Poirier et al. put it
"An analogical inference is a “cut and paste” process: from a cognitive domain (the source), copy the structure of an object in the domain and paste it into another (the target), while replacing every variable from the source domain by a variable from the target domain" (Poirier et al. 2005: 759f.).
Lakoff and Johnson see embodied experience as the source domain for such processes, many of which can be found in everyday language. One example is the conceptual network of CONTAINER-metaphors. As physical organisms which are separated from the outside world by our skin, we project our own experience of being a container with a demarcating surface with an inside-outside-orientation to other physical objects which are partitioned by surfaces (Lakoff/Johnson 1980). This results in many container-metaphors in everyday language, such as “I’ve had a full life.” “Life is empty for him.” “Her life is crammed with activities.” “Get the most out of life.” etc. Other examples are metaphors of movements or spatial dimension, like to get idea’s across, words reaching someone etc. These cross-domain mapping-ability, or ‘conceptual integration’ may be an essential evolutionary step in what makes us human (Turner 2006, Mithen 1996).

Dual Systems Theory

These observations can also be integrated in dual-system accounts of reasoning, which proposes that human cognition basically consists of the interactions of:
  1. an evolutionary older system (System 1) shared by humans and other animals consisting of parallel and automatic modules mediated by domain-general learning mechanisms
  2. and a uniquely human, central system 2, whch enables hypothetical thinking, abstract reasoning, and therefore is able to access and blend multiple domains, on the other (Evans 2003).
I’m not really sure what to think about the general-purpose-claims that come with this idea, but surely cross-domain access is crucial for modern cognition. On the neuropsychological level, higher frontal control over other cognitive systems could offer some insights on how to think of a system 2, or generally into the mechanisms enabling mental time-travel and displaced reasoning (Barsalou 2005, Deacon 1997), regardless of calling it general purpose or not.

When making 'analogizing categorization' a key feature of human evolution, we have to keep in mind that analogy of a simple kind, the abstraction and mapping of common global structures, can be found in other animals as well: Even fish have distinct areas for interpreting perceptual/sensory input and motor-coordination. The cerebral cortex of mammals, however, seems to have a much higher level of brain organization, i.e. the cerebral cortex with distinct ‘projection areas’ for various sensory and motor systems, enabling a cat, for example, to play with a ball of yarn as a mouse analog (Sowa 2005). If so, System 1 and System 2 should probably not be seen as discontinuous dichotomies but rather as different stages on a continuum, or extended specializations of previous abilities (Sowa 2005, Turner 2006).

Still, positing a System 2 seems to be justified considering the importance of cross-modal, “large-scale neural integration” (Donald 2006) for human cognition. Accepting this dual account, it is still important to make out the subsumed cognitive architecture, but as a heuristic tool it seems to be as fruitful for cognitive research as Dan Dennett’s (1987) tripartite account of ‘physical stance’, ‘design stance’, and ‘intentional stance’ and Hauser et al.’s (2002) division of the faculty of language in the broad sense (FLB), and the Faculty of Language in the narrow sense (FLN). Our understanding about the levels of cognition could also be enriched by complementary approaches, for example from Artifical Life and Artifical Intelligence (Sowa 2005), or cognitive ethology.
In my next post on Poirier et al.’s paper I will describe their account of “linguistic categorizers.”


Barsalou, Lawrence W. 2005. “Continuity of the conceptual system across species.” Trends. Cog. Sc. 9.7: 309-311.

Deacon, Terrence William 1997. The Symbolic Species. The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain. New York / London: W.W. Norton.

Donald, Merlin. 2006. “Art and Cognitive Evolution.” The Artful Mind: Cognitive Science and the Riddle of Human Creativity. Ed. Mark Turner. Oxford: OUP

Evans, Jonathan St. B.T. 2003. “In two minds: dual-process accounts of reasoning” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 7.10: 454-459.

Hauser, Marc D., Noam Chomsky and W. Tecumseh Fitch 2002. “The Faculty of Language: What Is It, Who Has It, and How Did It Evolve?” Science 298, 1569-1579.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson 1980. Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. 1999. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Book

Mithen, Steven J. The Prehistory of the Mind. London: Thames & Hudson.

Poirier, Pierre, Benoit Hardy-Vallée and Jean-Frédéric Depasquale.2005. “Embodied Categorization.” Handbook of Categorization in Cognitive Science. Eds. Henri Cohen and Claire Lefebvre. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Sowa, John F. 2005. “Categorization in Cognitive Computer Science.” Handbook of Categorization in Cognitive Science. Eds. Henri Cohen and Claire Lefebvre. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Turner, Mark. 2006. “The Art of Compression.” The Artful Mind: Cognitive Science and the Riddle of Human Creativity. Ed. Mark Turner. Oxford: OUP.

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