Monday, May 5, 2008

Stupid Primates & Embodied Minds (or Stupid Minds and Embodied Primates?)

On a very cool episode of video blog’s “Science Saturday” called “Stupid Primates”, experimental philosopher Joshua Knobe and psychologist Laurie Santos discuss her work on the psychological shortcomings of humans and other primates. Her team’s idea is that we shouldn’t only look at the cognitive abilities we’re really proud of, like language, cooperation, and the ability to reason about other minds. Instead of trying to discover the evolutionary precursors of these abilities and looking at if and in which ways other species possess them, we should also look at the evolutionary foundations of the things we’re not so proud of, like our tendency to cheat and deceive, and especially our tendency to behave irrational and illogical.

Interestingly, monkeys also show some of the same irrational behavior as we do, such as cognitive dissonance and loss aversion. If you’re interested, you should really check out this episode.

If monkeys make some of the very same mistakes we do, this speaks for the interpretation that we make some of our mistakes because we are wired that way. For some arguments in a similar vein, you can also check out this discussion betwen science Journalist Carl Zimmer and psychologist Gary Marcus, author of Kluge. You can also check out Gary Marcus being interviewed by blogger and author Jonah Lehrer.

On a related note, there’s a really cool episode of the Brain Science Podcast, where cognitive psychologist Art Glenberg talks about embodied cognition. Glenberg’s main research focus are the bodily, “low-level” underpinnings of language comprehension. He’s done quite a lot of research on the ways language is grounded in action and embodiment, and how we use bodily states and our experience with the world to construct meaning. He is influenced by cognitive linguist George Lakoff’s work on metaphor and embodied language comprehension.

It should be noted that, the term “image schema”, i.e. a recurring stereotyped perceptual structure or pattern generated from experience with and exposure to the world and used to categorize and understand objects and events, which Glenberg attributes to Lakoff, was AFAIK coined by Lakoff’s collaborator Mark Johnson.

In 1980, Lakoff and Johnson wrote the very influential book “Metaphors We Live By”, looking at the intrinsic metaphorical structure of language as exemplified for example by the many WAR metaphors found when talking about conversation: I defended my position, He attacked my argument, etc. or in the ways we visualize Life as being a CONTAINER filled our emptied of essences: I’ve had a full life. Life is empty for him, Her life is crammed with activities, Get the most out of life, etc.

Lakoff & Johnson (1980) even go further and claim that this metaphorical structure also extends to the way our conceptual system is mapped out. Glenberg’s experiments give empircal support to this view. For example, he showed that people were better at understanding sentences like “he opened the drawer”, when they had to indicate whether the sentence makes sense by extending their arm in a manner similar to the movement described in the sentence then when they had to make a movement analogous to the movement of closing a drawer to indicate its correctness , and vice versa.

Glenberg also reports that he has submitted a paper together with Vittorio Gallese on the relation between the grammar of natural languages and the hierarchical structure of neural action systems. This sounds akin to the work of Phillip Lieberman, who claims that

The supposed unique aspect of syntax, its “reiterative” productivity, appears to derive from subcortical structures that play a part in neural circuits regulating motor control.“ (Lieberman 2005),
especially stressing the importance of the basal ganglia in the production and evolution of language.

Interestingly, Gallese has also published a paper with George Lakoff, called “The Brain’s Concepts”, which focuses on the embodied, sensory-motor nature of conceptual structures and the role of mirror neurons in concept formation and language comprehension.

Anyways, check out the episode, I think it’s really worth it.


Lieberman, Phillip (2005): The pied piper of Cambridge. The Linguistic Review 22: 289–302.

Gallese Vittorio, Lakoff George (2005) The Brain’s Concepts: The Role of the Sensory-Motor System in Reason and Language. Cognitive Neuropsychology, , 22:455-479

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

1 comment:

Ginger Campbell, MD said...

Thank you for linking to the Brain Science Podcast. I am adding a link to your post to the episode show notes.

Ginger Campbell, MD
Brain Science Podcast