Sometimes I get an urge and, even though it threatens to unbalance my precarious overloaded life, I throw caution to the wind and go for it. This was the case in December when, swept up in the frenzy of best of 2013, I started googling for best books and new titles in the social sciences. A year ago I discovered some great books this way. I guess it was a little early to find 2013 lists. But I highlighted two books from 2012 I just had to have, and put on a hold at the county library. These two books were The guardian of all things: The epic story of human memory, by Michael S. Malone (2012, NY: St. Martin’s Press), and Louder than words: The new science of how the mind makes meaning, by Benjamin K. Bergen (2012, NY: Basic Books). When I went to pick them up, I discovered a third book, not quite so new, that I just had to have. This was Descartes baby: How the science of child development explains what makes us human, by Paul Bloom (2004, NY: Basic Books). Bloom’s name rang a bell and the title was catchy, so I grabbed it. I walked out of there with three more books to add to my already deep pile.
With Michael Malone’s memory book I was hoping to learn more about recent research on how memory works, specifically how information is stored in the brain and moved from place to place. The guardian of all things, turned out to be more of a history book. That includes some very, very ancient history, beginning with the evolution of memory in primates. It then takes up the history of civilization including the beginnings of trade and the history of writing, which allows up to preserve our collective memory. So yes, an epic story indeed. He rounds it all out with the history of data processing and computer memory.
Louder Than Words was more up my alley. Bergen is associate professor of cognitive science at UCSD. He studies the relationship between perception, mental representation and language. He is an advocate of something called “embodied simulation.” This idea is based on the discovery, using fMRI, that the same brain motor and visual cortex areas are activated when we talk about something, as are activated when we do something or see something. The idea is that we understand language by simulating whatever the words represent, using the same brain areas that are used in perceiving the world and performing actions.
This book describes a lot of research studies. This serves three purposes. First, it shows how the history of the ideas it presents. Second, it illustrates the ideas by giving concrete examples. And third, it shows how social science uses experiments to answer questions and test hypotheses. The studies also introduce us to some of the researchers in the field who have contributed to the theory of “embodied simulation, exploring how we understand words.
Some of the studies are classic, such as the 1910 work of C.W. Perky, who discovered the Perky effect by projecting dim slides of bananas or leaves on a blank wall where she asked participants to imagine a banana or a leaf. She discovered that mental imagery can interfere with perception of the real world, suggesting that they may both use the same part of the brain. Other classic studies include the time lag in mental rotation of geometric shapes (Shepard & Metzler, 1971) and in imaginary journeys around an island (Kosselyn, Ball, & Reiser, 1978). A lot of work has been done since the seventies, but there is still disagreement about the role of mental simulation and what it all means. An important milestone was the discovery of mirror neurons in macaque monkeys by scientists at the University of Parma in the the 1980s (Gallese, Fadiga, Fogassi, & Rozzolatti, 1996).
What does anything mean? What is meaning? How do we grasp meaning? Communicate meaning? These are some of the philosophical questions that cognitive psychologists are attempting to answer with empirical methods. Linguists are also involved, sometimes pointing the way. For example, in construction grammar linguists study the way sentence structure and grammatical constructions convey meaning that is more than the meaning contained in the individual words in the structure. And when we start talking about meaning, we easily veer into Semantics, a favorite subject of mine within linguistics. Some studies have explored the timing of a simulation in understanding, showing that we begin to simulate before a sentence is completed, running a new simulation in mid sentence if our guess about the meaning doesn’t match the progression of what we’re hearing or reading. Bergen says we simulate “early and often.”
Languages differ from place to place. An important and controversial topic is how meaning and understanding of the world varies according to the particular language we speak. For example, I once wondered, is their blue without the word blue? Can concepts exist nonlinguistically, or are they created in conjunction with the learning of the words we use to label them, in a culturally variable context? Bergson mentions that in English pink and red are two different things, while in Russian they are both variants of red, but sky blue and regular blue are two different things with two different words.
“To learn a language is to learn a particular way of talking about the world, cutting it up into meaningful parts that we encode through the words in our particular language.” p. 188.
“To know a language is to mean in that language.” p. 194.
Metaphor is a strange and fascinating creature. Our understanding of time seems to be metaphorical. We talk about time using the terminology of space, and apparently use the same parts of our brain that are used to understand spatial relations. Metaphor may also be the paradigm for much other abstract thinking. Bergson suggests that we construct abstract concepts based on concrete concepts and use similar mental simulation in talking and thinking about both.
This book is up to date, informative and a good read. And now we come to my favorite part, further reading ideas from the notes and references! These are at the end of this blog post.
While Bergen argues that meaning, a primary mental capacity of humans, is embodied, Paul Bloom in Descartes’ Baby (2004), took what almost seems like the opposite approach, carefully distinguishing our understanding of mental aspects and physical aspects of the world. Sixteenth century philosopher Rene Descartes wrote about our dualistic nature, the distinction between mind and body, a viewpoint which A. Damasio referred to as “Descartes’ Error.” Bloom believes that we can deepen our understanding of human nature by looking at early development. He shows how, from early on, we have mental capacities to understand the physical world and separate but equally important capacities to understand other people, their thoughts, feelings and intentions. This is a new take on dualism as a feature of humans, one that begins with babies. But it seems like what Bloom is saying, and showing, is not that the mind and the body are separate, but that the mind has the ability to understand both minds and bodies, bodies here being an example of physical things. Not nearly as astonishing, but a good strategy for organizing a lot of interesting information.
Bloom reviews research from developmental psychology, clinical psychology, and neuroscience to illustrate his point. The book is anecdotal and entertaining and presents a lot of key findings in recent psychological research. It also ties back into long-standing philosophical questions. Many things are considered from an evolutionary perspective, looking at the adaptive advantage of behaviors and traits. The readability disguies the significance of some of the ideas presented. Unfortunately, it also seems to camouflage their memorability.
Our thinking about categories of objects involves essential or defining qualities. The use of essences in thinking about objects is “essentialism.” With this we are thrust into the midst of the controversy between culturalism and nativism. Cultural anthropology has advocated that essentialism is a product of Western culture. Bloom disagrees. He thinks it has something to do with evolution. But he also thinks essentialism sometimes goes too far, such as when we attribute qualities to, for example, a race, which really aren’t there. Bloom thinks race is to a large extent, an “artifact,” something created by people. Artifacts are different from “natural kinds,” things that are not created by people. He talks about essentialist biases that distort children’s thinking about natural kinds.
Bloom turns his attention to modern art. He talks about “anxious objects,” artifacts that stimulate an emotional response. He discusses research on children’s understanding of the difference between mental representation and real objects. And he explores the idea that we can best understand art as a form of performance.
Next Bloom tackles another hot topic, the evolutionary basis of good and evil, and human morality. This involves empathy and altruism. A lot has been written lately about the adaptative advantage of altruism. How could helping others at a cost to ourselves appear as a result of evolutionary forces? Does it involve kin selection (William Hamilton)? Group selection (E.O. Wilson)? Mutual advantage through reciprocity? All these and more? He clarifies the view that natural selection involves the survival of animals that are “merely the gene’s way of making another gene” (Richard Dawkins). Bloom discusses emotional contagion, one of my favorite topics, and shows how it is the first step in empathy and compassion. And we can’t get through this topic without covering mimicry, imitation, and mirror neurons. The text contains some great photos of baby and mother faces taken from Field et al, 1982, “Discrimination and imitation of facial expressions by neonates,” Science 218, 179-181. How does the newborn baby mimic facial expressions and experience emotional contagion before it can “understand” any of it? Amazing.
In his discussion of dualism, Bloom acknowledges that “we do not occupy our bodies, we are our bodies.” And he challenges the older view that children don’t understand the difference between fantasy and reality. No matter how much time they spend in the world of make-believe, they seem to know the difference from real-life.
Bloom is a psychology professor at Yale. He also wrote, How children learn the meaning of words (2002), which I am dying to read. He seems to have a nose for hot topics. He wrote Just babies: The origin of good and evil (2011), and How pleasure works: The new science of why we like what we like (2010).
Here are some gems from Bloom’s references:
Gelman, S.A. 2003. The essential child. NY: Oxford University Press.
Gopnik, A. and A.N. Meltzoff, 1997. Words, thoughts, and theories. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Hauser, M.D. 2000. Wild minds: What animals really think. NY: Henry Holt.
Habson, R.P. 2002. The cradle of thought: exploring the origins of thinking. London: Macmillan.
Sterlny, K. 2001. Dawkins vs. Gould: Survival of the fittest. NY: Totem Books.
Here are the hot references from Bergen’s Louder than words:
Barsalou, L.W. (1999). Perceptual symbol systems. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 22, 577-609.
Bergen , B. & Chang, N. (2005). Embodied construction grammar in simulation-based language understanding. In J.-O. Ostman & M. Fried (Eds.), Construction grammars: Cognitive grounding and theoretical extensions (pp. 147-190). Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Boroditsky, L. (2011). How language shapes thought. Scientific American, February 2011.
Bowdle, B. & Gentner, D. (2005). The career of metaphor. Psychological Review, 112(1), 193-216.
Feldman, J.A. (2006). From molecule to metaphor:A neural theory of language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Hagoort, P. (2005). On Broca, brain, and binding: a new framework. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9, 416-423.
Kaschak, M.P. & Glenberg, A.M. (2000). Constructing meaning: The role of affordances and grammatical constructions in sentence comprehension. Journal of Memory & Languages, 58, 508-529.
Lakoff, G. (1987). Women, fire and dangerous things: What categories reveal about the mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct: How the mind creates language. New York: HarperCollins.
Stefanowitsch, A. (2004). HAPPINESS in English and German: A metaphorical-pattern analysis. In M. Achard & S. Kemmer (Eds.), Language, culture, and mind (pp. 137-149). Stanford, CA: Center for the Study of Language and Information.
Talmy, L. (2000). Toward a cognitive semantics. In Concept structuring systems: Volume 1. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.