Friday, April 18, 2008

Our Imperfect Categorizing Minds

There's a cool talk over at featuring Carl Zimmer and linguist/cognitive psychologist Gary Marcus, who talks about his new bookKluge: The Haphazard Construction of The Human Mind.” The talk features some really cool insights into the short-comings of the human mind that are due to the fact that evolution is a tinkerer without foresight who always builds on the foundation of old things. One of the subsections is titled: "Noam Chomsky meets the genome" and you learn why college students respond differently if they are first asked how they see their life in general and then are asked how many dates they had in the last year than if they are asked the other way around.

Also, Larry Barsalou and three of his colleagues have an opinion piece in the latest Trends in Cognitive Sciences (Glushko et al. 2008) called "Categorization in the Wild" (you can find the draft here), in which they argue that individual and insitutional catgeorization should be a new focus of research into the cognitive phenomonon of categorization in general.

Glushko et al. argue that until now most scientists have focuse on cultural categorization, that is
"categories shared by a culture and associated with language"
Such cultural categories are the shared storage of categories that we acquire by growing up in a culture and interacting with other people. They exist for basicall all kinds and components of experience and shared imagination, such as objects, events, mental states, properties, funerals, games, zombies, "
parks, serenity, blue and above".

How cool their proposal to set a new focus on two other modes of categorization actually is only becomes apparent when they reveal what they mean by these two terms:
Individual categorization: " occurs when someone creates an idiosyncratic classification system primarily for his or her own use, for example, when creating categories to organize locations where food can be gathered, objects in a garage, CDs in a music collection, websites in the favorites list of a browser, etc."

This means that the way I organize my bookmarks, label my posts, categorizes my CDs (by Genres and then in alphabetical order) books, tagging, or anytings else is about to become a research area of the cognitive sciences. How cool is that? But they even go further:
"Institutions engineer classification systems explicitly to serve institutional goals, typically requiring considerable time and resources to develop, maintain and apply."
In their view, institutional categorization consists of things like taxonomies, e.g. the Manual of Mental Disorders, the Period Table, or the Human Genome. But where it gets really interesting is where the three modes of categorization intersect. For example, Glushko et al. look a the photo-sharing website, which as they argue shows "how individual classification systems can evolve beyond a single individual to a group," because people can join groups, tag their photos with common labels, interlink them, thus creating a new category system through the interaction of multiple agents. They even compare this process to that of pidginization and creolization, which means that lolcats are within the reach of cognitive science. Yay!

humorous pictures
see more crazy cat pics

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