Thursday, January 31, 2008

Metal Representation in the Brain

Before I start with my ‘background check’ for what we need for the creation and maintenance of a shared perspectival systemic space, I want to address two core issues of perspectivity. I already alluded to the first issue in this posts title, which is an amusing typo to be found on page 92 of Talmy Givón's (2005) book "Context as Other Minds: The Pragmatics of Sociality, Cognition and Communication"

1. Mental Representations

The first issues is largely an epistemic one. In a speculative account of what might have happened evolutionary so that we have the ability to entertain cognitive perspective, I would begin like this:

  1. The first necessary component for perspective is the ability to form mental representations, i.e. internal representations of outside reality.

The evolution from reactive systems not ‘having internal perspective’ (NIP) to systems ‘having internal perspective’, i.e. systems that are able to predict and, later on, even plan future events based on internal models of reality, can be seen as the first step from cognitive to non-cognitive organisms. (Cruse 2003)

Some authors, such as Ray Jackendoff, are unhappy with the term ‘mental representation.’ In Jackendoff (2007: 5-7), for example, he argues that we should discard the term ‘mental representation’ and instead speak of ‘mental structures’. His argument is that, from an epistemological point of view, we cannot say that some neuronal activity represents a state in the world, i.e. is ‘about’ something in the real world (what philosophers call, ‘aboutness’ or ‘Intentionality’). Also, he argues, ‘representation’ would imply that there is actually someone perceiving or interpreting these mental structures. But the mental functions of the ‘mind/brain’ bear only an indirect relation to the ‘real world’, mediated by long chains of neuronal connections and neurons interacting with each other. Mental capacities and the ‘real world’ are on this and on the opposite ends of a long chain of indirect, limited and intertwined neuronal interactions.

But I think it is important that at this point we are still talking “Beanbag Semantics” (Dennett 2003, Dennett 1995): Nowadays we know, for example, that the relation between single genes and the actual phenotypic traits an organism develops is not as easy as Mendelian beanbag genetics, but is in fact incredibly complex and depends on a variety of factors. Yet in some contexts it still makes sense for a biologist to speak of a ‘gene for x’, which then only implies that there seems to be a causal connections between to things, which can later be investigated more closely. Whereas in biology we by now have a pretty good idea how genes work, we still don’t really have a clue what ‘mental representations’ or ‘mental structures’ actually are, how they work, and how they are implemented in the brain. We are still at the ‘beanbag’ level, so to speak, and thus it seems perfectly alright to attribute ‘mental representations’ until we have found more about how this process actually works.

“There is, then, nothing wrong with using a term like ‘mental representation’ to label an entity whose physical properties we are only beginning to understand" (Cheney & Seyfarth 2007: 240)

So of course even if I follow Bühler and Köller in my notation of the “origo of the deictic sphere” /systemic space as a two-dimensional graph,

it is important to note that this conceptualization is above all a “‘metaphor’ for individual systems of orientation” (Bredel 2002: 176, Graumann 1994: 61)

2. The Objective Rationality of Perspectives

Another fascinating facet of any approach to perspectivity is the question of how rational decisions are grounded in the perspectives and of an individual and result in perspectival actions and choices.

To be more precise. On the one hand the frame of reference of an individual is one of the most basic parts of her perspective (Bischof-Köhler 2000, Bischof-Köhler & Bischof 2007) On the other hand, we can construe individuals a rational agents who try to act according to their “Natural Rationality”, based on multiple interacting processes of decision-making, trying to act as rational as possible given their precise perspective and choices, acting on clearly calculated incentives.

In this fascinating Blogginheads discussion, Tim Harford presents his new book “The Logic of Life: The Rational Economics of an Irrational World”, in which he argues that even when a prostitute agrees to have sex without a condom, or someone starts smoking, these decisions are based on rational calculation, given the current perspective of these economically acting agents.

Similarly, Benoit Hardy-Vallée, on his cool blog Natural Rationality, regularly posts on decision-making in humans and non-human animals, based on the theoretical assumption that natural selection is a powerful player able to implement rational decision making strategies in organisms, and that many irrational-seeming decisions are based on calculations which seem perfectly rational from the agent’s present perspective. Hardy-Vallée cites Dan Gilbert’s work on affective forecasting as an example of this tendency to base rational decisions on faulty information. In this case, our predictions are imperfect because we are unable to predict our own future psychological states correctly. This happens because we often simulate future events based on memories that don’t represent the past only inaccurately. These memories are ‘essentialized’, only containing the core features of past events, and are abbreviate,

which means that mental simulations tend to overrepresent the moments that evoke the most intense pleasure or pain.” (Gilbert & Wilson 2007: 1353)

The TED-Website features a very entertaining talk by Dan Gilbert on his research on our flawed prospective system.

Now we can add another important factor to the study of perspectivity: A rational agent able to consider multiple overlapping frames of reference, who is able to adopt multiple perspectives on a situation, is clearly at an advantage when it comes to making decisions.

A virtual systemic space thus is a key property of our ability to make advanced rational decisions, even if these still seem to be seriously flawed in some respects.

So it seems that shared systemic spaces do not only enable us to communicate, cooperate and share intentions about these mental representations. Neither do they only enable us to form mental models of reality and basing our predictions on these models by taking the physical, design, or intentional stance towards certain referents in these internal models.

On a more general level, in the optimal condition they enable us to base our decisions on our natural multiperspectival rationality.

As I have to start studying for my exams, I'm afraid that I'll have to pause my inquiry into the cognitive properties of perspective for a short time. In the next two weeks, I'll return to a matter I'm a bit more familiar with: The Evolution of Language, which of course also has many converging point with the study of the ontogenetic and phylogenetic rise of perspective. I'll follow the example of the Language Evolution Blog and post about some people or papers holding - I think - interesting or important views on this topic.


Bischof-Köhler, Doris. 2000. Kinder auf Zeitreise: Theory of Mind, Zeitverständnis und Handlungsorganisation. Bern et al.: Hans Huber.

Bischof-Köhler, Doris & Norbert Bischof . 2007. Is Mental Time Travel a Frame of Reference Issue? Behavioral and Brain Sciences 30.3: 316-317.

Bredel, Ursula. 2002. “You can say you to yourself.” Establishing Perspectives with Personal Pronouns. In: Carl F.Graumann & Werner Kallmeyer (Eds.): Perspective and Perspectivation in Discourse. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company. 167-180.

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

Cruse, Holk. 2003. The Evolution of Cognition – A Hypothesis. Cognitive Science 27
2003: 135–155

Dennett, Daniel C. 1995. Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Dennett, Daniel C. 2003. Beyond Beanbag Semantics. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 26.6 673-674.

Gilbert, Daniel. T., & Wilson, Timothy D. (2007). Prospection: Experiencing the Future. Science 317, 1351-1354.

Givón, Talmy. 2005. Context as Other Minds: The Pragmatics of Sociality, Cognition and Communication. John Benjamins.

Graumann, Carl F. 1994. Wieviel Zeigen steckt im Nennen? Zur Situiertheit des Sprachgebrauchs. In: H.J. Kornadt, J. Gabrowski, & R. Mangold-Allwinn (Eds.) Sprache und Kognition. Perspektiven moderner Sprachpsychologie. Heidelberg: Spektrum. 55-69.

Jackendoff, Ray. 2007. Language, Consciousness, Culture: Essays on mental Structure. Cambridge, MA: MIT.

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