The new way to view cognition

This year’s Edge question is “What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?”. If you want to read all the answers go (here). Simone Schnall has answered with embodied cognition and its solving of the questions of meaning and grounding.

Philosophers and psychologists grappled with a fundamental question for quite some time: How does the brain derive meaning? If thoughts consist of the manipulation of abstract symbols, just like computers are processing 0s and 1s, then how are such abstract symbols translated into meaningful cognitive representations? This so-called “symbol grounding problem” has now been largely overcome because many findings from cognitive science suggest that the brain does not really translate incoming information into abstract symbols in the first place. Instead, sensory and perceptual inputs from every-day experience are taken in their modality-specific form, and they provide the building blocks of thoughts. …following the cognitive revolution in the 1950ies psychology treated the computer as the most appropriate model to study the mind. Now we know that a brain does not work like a computer. Its job is not to store or process information; instead, its job is to drive and control the actions of the brain’s large appendage, the body. A new revolution is taking shape, considered by some to bring an end to cognitivism, and giving way to a transformed kind of cognitive science, namely an embodied cognitive science. … The basic claim is that the mind thinks in embodied metaphors. … But it does not stop here; there is also a reverse pathway: Because thinking is for doing, many bodily processes feed back into the mind to drive action.

She uses the metaphor of verticality (up/down) and morality (good/bad) to illustrate how the metaphors work.

The growing recognition that embodied metaphors provide one common language of the mind has lead to fundamentally different ways of studying how people think. For example, under the assumption that the mind functions like a computer psychologists hoped to figure out how people think by observing how they play chess, or memorize lists of random words. From an embodied perspective it is evident that such scientific attempts were hopelessly doomed to fail. Instead, it is increasingly clear that cognitive operations of any creature, including humans, have to solve certain adaptive challenges of the physical environment. In the process, embodied metaphors are the building blocks of perception, cognition, and action. It doesn’t get much more simple and elegant than that.

Of course, there are many people who have not accepted that the computer model of the brain is finished. They point out that computers can simulate brains (or more or less anything). But there is a difference between being able to simulate the weather in order to predict it and treating a computer as the model of how the weather engines work. The same applies to brains. Computers are very useful tools for studying various simulations of the brain, but the brain is not a computer.

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