Tuesday, 29 November 2011

How Universal Is The Mind?

If someone asked you to describe the psychological aspects of personhood, what would you say? Chances are, you'd describe things like thought, memory, problem-solving, reasoning, maybe emotion. In other words, you probably list the major headings of a cognitive psychology text-book. In cognitive psychology, we seem to take it for granted that these are, objectively, the primary components of "the mind" (even if you reject a mind/body dualism, you probably accept some notion that there are psychological processes similar to the ones listed above). I've posted previously about whether the distinction between cognitive and non-cognitive even makes sense. But, here, I want to think about the universality of the "mind" concept and its relationship to the modern view of cognition.

In fact, this conception of the mind is heavily influenced by a particular (Western) cultural background. Other cultures assign different characteristics and abilities to the psychological aspects of personhood. Wierzbicka (2005) delves into this problem in detail. She argues that speakers of a particular language make assumptions about what must be universal based on their own ability to imagine doing without a certain concept. Important cross-cultural differences in meaning become lost in translation. For instance, Piaget’s “The moral judgment of the child” was translated to English by substituting the French “juste” with the English “fair.” So, English readers think they are reading about the development of fairness in children, when this was not the author’s intention.

Translation is a deep problem, but it is often ignored in psychology. Generalisations about cognition must be made in some language, but, language is specific to particular cultures. Our choice of language, then, inevitably will bias how we talk about cognition across cultures.
“If we uncritically formulate some hypothetical universals in one particular natural language, for example, English, we run the risk of distorting them by imposing on them the perspective embedded in that particular language; and the same applies to our description of cultural differences” (Wierzbicka, 2005; p. 257).

So, back to the mind and our current view of cognition. Cross-linguistic research shows that, generally speaking, every culture has a folk model of a person consisting of visible and invisible (psychological)  aspects (Wierzbicka, 2005). While there is agreement that the visible part of the person refers to the body, there is considerable variation in how different cultures think about the invisible (psychological) part. In the West, and, specifically, in the English-speaking West, the psychological aspect of personhood is closely related to the concept of "the mind" and the modern view of cognition.But, how universal is this conception? How do speakers of other languages think about the psychological aspect of personhood?

In Korean, the concept "maum" replaces the concept "mind". "Maum" has no English counterpart, but is sometimes translated as "heart". Apparently, "maum" is the "seat of emotions, motivation, and "goodness" in a human being" (Wierzbicka, 2005; p. 271). Intellect and cognitive functions are captured by the Korean "meli" (head). But, "maum" is clearly the counterpart to "mind" in terms of the psychological part of the person. For example, there are tons of Korean books about "maum" and body in the same way that there are English texts on "mind" and body.

The Japanese have yet another concept for the invisible part of the person - "kokoro"."Kokoro" is a "seat of emotion, and also, a source of culturally valued attention to, and empathy with, other people" (Wierzbicka, 2005; p. 272). To illustrate the contrast between "kokoro" and "mind", Wierzbicka gives the following example: A Japanese television programme proclaims, "The 21st century should be the age of kokoro. Let's make a point of meeting with other people" (Hasada, 2000: 110). If an English speaker declared the 21st century to be "the age of the mind" then "meeting with other people" probably would not be a priority - thinking and knowing would be. In contrast to the Korean "maum", "kokoro" is not associated with will and motivation ("hara" meaning belly serves this purpose in Japanese). But, "hara" is not associated with the psychological component of the body, the way "kokoro" is. In other words, "maum" is all about motivation and "kokoro" is all about feelings and "mind" is all about thinking.

Interestingly, Russia, which kind of sits between East and West uses "dusa" as the counterpart to the psychological part of the person. "Dusa" is often translated as "soul", but also sometimes as "heart" or "mind." "Dusa" is associated with feelings, morality, and spirituality. The "dusa" is responsible for the ability to connect with other people. This meaning seems to lie somewhat more with the Eastern conception than with the highly cognitive concept of "mind."

In a larger sense, the fact that there seems to be a universal belief that people consist of visible and invisible aspects explains much of the appeal of cognitive psychology over behaviourism. Cognitive psychology allows us to invoke invisible, internal states as causes of behaviour, which fits nicely with the broad, cultural assumption that the mind causes us to act in certain ways.

To the extent that you agree that the modern conception of "cognition" is strongly related to the Western, English-speaking view of "the mind", it is worth asking what cognitive psychology would look like if it had developed in Japan or Russia. Would text-books have chapter headings on the ability to connect with other people (kokoro) or feelings or morality (dusa) instead of on decision-making and memory? This possibility highlights the potential arbitrariness of how we've carved up the psychological realm - what we take for objective reality is revealed to be shaped by culture and language.

Hasada, Rie (2000). An Exploratory Study of Expression of Emotions in Japanese: Towards a Semantic
Interpretation. Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University..

Wierzbicka, A. (2005). Empirical universals of language as a basis for the study of other human universals and as a tool for exploring cross-cultural differences. Ethos, 33(2), 256-291. 

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Theory, and Why It's Time Psychology Got One

Psychology has a problem. We have no core theory to guide our research; no analogue to the theories of evolution or relativity. When particle physicists recently found that some neutrinos had apparently travelled faster than light, it never actually occurred to them that this is what had happened. On the basis of the extraordinarily well supported theory of relativity, everyone went 'huh, that's weird - I wonder what we did wrong?', and proceeded to use that theory to generate hypotheses they could then test. It would take a lot of fast neutrinos to disprove relativity.

Psychology, though, when faced with an empirical result that violates the laws of physics, can't find any principled reason to reject the result and instead spends a lot of time squabbling about whether Bem's result might possibly be true because 'quantum'. Worse, when people do replicate the experiment and fail to support the original result, they can't get their 'null result' published. It's a bit embarrassing, really.

One of the problems of having no core theory is that you can't simply rule things out as options. Psychologists almost all consider this a strength: we can pick and choose from a variety of mechanisms which enables us to cope with our messy and erratic subject matter. Can't imagine how perception can explain a result? Just hypothesise a mental representation to fill the gap. After all, no single theory is going to account for the opportunistic and idiosyncratic behaviour of people, so why limit ourselves? We tried that with behaviourism, and it got us nowhere. Let's stay flexible.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Embodied cognition is not what you think it is

The most exciting thing in cognitive science right now is the theory that cognition is embodied. It is, in fact one of the things interested lay people know about cognitive science, thanks in part to a lot of high profile experiments that claim to show how cognition can be influenced and biased by states of the body, or that cognitive states can affect states of the body in ways that suggest abstract metaphors and concepts are grounded in the behaviour of the body. A recent blog post at Scientific American covers this ground quite nicely (although the large picture of Noam "not an embodied cognitive scientist" Chomsky hints that someone didn't actually read the piece).

The problem, however, is that this is not really what embodied cognition is about. Embodiment is not the weak claim that you can see small effects of the behaviour of the body in our mental representations of the world. Embodiment is the radical hypothesis that the brain is not the sole resource we have available to us to solve problems. Our bodies, and the meaning-filled perception of the world they allow, do much of the work required to achieve our goals, and this simple fact changes utterly what our theories of 'cognition' will look like.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Robots, Representation, & Dynamical Systems

When cognitive science tries to explain a given behaviour, it typically looks in one of two places for it's explanation. Some people go looking in the brain for the representation that encodes the solution to the task; these people typically treat the brain as the source of the observed structure in behaviour. Some of us, however, go looking in perception for the necessary access to the properties of the world that enable us to couple our resources to those in the environment. We consider the origin of behaviour to be the dynamical system formed by this coupling; the system provides a set of constraints and behaviour emerges as the constrained system works over time.

It's sometimes a little hard to tease these suggestions apart: after all, they  typically both predict that we succeed at the task at hand. When studying people, the best way to try and separate these two suggestions out is to examine how we succeed. For instance, in catching a fly ball, the brain-based prediction solution says we will run in a direct line to where we think the ball will land; the perception-based coupling solution suggests we will run along curved paths as we attempt to move so as to produce the information required. In this case, data supports the latter hypothesis, but it's not always that easy.

Sometimes, you've just got to start from scratch and build yourself a robot.