Monday, November 12, 2007

Baboon Metaphysics III: Links with other Fields of Cognitive Science

In my last post I argued that “Baboon Metaphysics” only mentioned half of the story of what makes the human conceptual system unique. What Cheney and Seyfarth did not address in their still absolutely excellent and insightful book, is the way our conceptual system has been extended in respect to that of other animals, and the way language may interact with conceptualization and other cognitive processes, instead of simply being the expression of cognitive processes absolutely independent from it. (Although I don’t want to attribute such a view to Cheney and Seyfarth just because they haven’t said anything about it, this theory still seems to be quite prominent. See, for example, Edmund Blair Bolles' review of Steven Pinker’s new book “The Stuff of thought (2007) ).
In the words of Robbins Burlings (2005): “What has language done to us?” Work by Gary Lupyan and others shows that there is evidence that language, thinking, and concepts interact and that language helps us organize and categorize the world and sometimes alters how we process information (Kenneally 2007: 106-111). This is certainly not a return to strong versions of the Sapir-Whorf thesis, considering that Cheney and Seyfarth clearly showed that there are concepts and conceptualization without language, and evidence that language itself is partly grounded in embodied cognition (Lakoff and Johnson 1980, Lakoff and Johnson 1999). But these interactive processes, and the way our own extended conceptual abilities rely on enhanced cognitive supplements to our basic neural architecture, are definitely part of the whole picture.

In my last post, I mentioned that Barsalou (2005) argued that frontal lobe control is a critical factor enhancing the displacement- and computation-abilities of conceptual simulation, and therefore a crucial factor of defining what makes the human extended conceptual system different from animal mental representations, which evolutionary are the basic architecture for our cognitive abilities, and which Cheney and Seyfarth described marvelously. Terrence Deacon has a similar proposal what makes us human. According to him
“The prominent enlargement of the prefrontal cortex and the correlated shifts in connection patterns that occurred during human brain evolution introduced strong biases into the learning process and gave human prefrontal circuits a greater role in many neural processes unrelated to language. Though intense selection was directed toward this one aspect of mind and brain, its secondary effects have also ramified to influence the whole of human cognition. (Deacon 1998: 417)
Because the prefrontal cortex is the most important structure that supports symbolic reference (Deacon 1998: 266) and in human beings, prefrontal circuits play a greater role in all neural processes of the brain than in any other species (Deacon 1998: 265), we are “The Symbolic Species” inhabiting mental worlds mediated by thousands of hierarchical structured symbol-symbol relationships (see also Kenneally’s (2007) prelude for a quite poetic description of the semiotic universes we create and communicate about) intertwined with our physical lives, our embodied experience of the outside world. As I mentioned in my last post Barsalou (2005), too, sees our symbolic capacities mediated by greater frontal control as crucial:
“What results is control of the distributed property architecture to represent components of situations and to combine them in novel ways.“
These combination of representations into an ‘integrated simulation’, can be found in another field of inquiry, namely mental images:
“Mental images need not result simply from the recall of previously perceived objects or events; they can also be created by combining and modifying stored perceptual information in novel ways.” (Kosslyn et al. 2001).
Interestingly “most of the neural processes that underlie like-modality perception are also used in imagery; and imagery, in many ways, can ‘stand in’ for (re-present, if you will) a perceptual stimulus or situation“ (Kosslyn et al. 2001). This supports Barsalou’s view that conceptualization consists of integrated “reenactments of perceptual, motor, and introspective states acquired during experience with the world, body, and mind “ (Barsalou in press). Also interesting in this regard is Mark Turner’s stance at what makes us uniquely human: conceptual blending - the integration of two mental spaces/conceptual structures to form a new one, enabling mental time travel and escape, as well as what-if relations. Turners describes it as “a basic human mental operation, with constitutive and governing principles. It played a crucial role, probable the crucial role, in the descent of our species over the last fifty or one hundred thousand years” (Turner 2003).

By the way, Edmund Blair Bolles has posted a great discussion of a paper by Don Ross which deals with the evolution of human culture and joint attention. Go check it out!

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

Barsalou, Lawrence W. In press. “Grounded Cognition.” In: Annual Review of Psychology 59

Burling, Robbins. 2005. The Talking Ape. Oxford: OUP.

Cheney, Dorothy L. and Robert M. Seyfarth. 2007. Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of a Social Mind. University of Chicago Press, Chicago

Deacon, Terrence William 1998. The Symbolic Species. The Co-evolution of
Language and the Brain
. New York / London: W.W. Norton.

Pinker, Steven 2007. The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature. New York: Viking.

Kenneally, Christine. 2007. The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language. New York: Viking.

Kosslyn, Stephen M., Giorgio Ganis and William L. Thompson. 2001.“Neural Foundations of Imagery.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience 2: 635-642.

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

Turner, Mark. 2003. “Double-Scope Stories.” Narrative Theory and the Cognitive Sciences. Ed. David Herman

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A bit off post again but what if the fundamental "metaphysical" structure is a tree--seriously.