Monday 16 November 2020

Verb Your Nouns

One of the things that makes it hard to communicate with people about the ecological approach is that it is actually a radically different way of thinking about cognition. That means we are often literally not talking about the same things (this is why Hobbes is so concerned).

One of the ways this shows itself over and over is nouns vs verbs. Information-processing cognitive science studies nouns; memory, attention, perception. Describing things with nouns drives your science in very particular directions. For example, as soon as you talk about memory as a thing, you naturally ask questions such as 'where is it?' and 'how do you access it?'. 

In contrast, the ecological approach studies verbs; remembering, attending, perceiving. Verbs also guide your science in particular directions, but instead of talking about things that must be somewhere, we talk about processes that happen at times, in places.

Ecological types are often challenged to explain nouns cognitive psychologists are interested in. Memory is the big one; language is the other. I've realised, we can't, but only because we don't study nouns. So whenever I encounter this challenge now, my very first move is to verb all the nouns. While this doesn't provide an answer, it immediately makes me ask ecological style questions about the topic at hand, and now it can help you too.


  1. I started by looking around my conservatory, and felt that natural objects, such as my flower, were 'flowering', doing the plant the thing. But man-made objects, such as the christmas tree, were not 'treeing'. They were just there??? *goes to read language books*

  2. This may be of only tangential interest; my professional career comprised working with art & design students, mostly on 'foundation' courses during which we tried to strip away layers of received thinking that had already clouded the vision(ing) of late adolescents and which subsequently risked stultifying their potential. I learnt the educational value of 'verbing' nouns and tried to apply it to my own work. Simply put, I found that 'verbing nouns' opened 'the doors of perception as well as action'; colleagues and I often gave students the task of writing lists of self-instructions following an exemplary model authored by the sculptor Richard Serra, who early on in his career, wrote a list of transitive verbs ( .." to roll, to crease, to fold..." He used it to pare down, not just a block of raw material but to work toward first principles for sculpting.Further, one might argue that much of 'modern-ist' art and design emphasized process, rather than product. The closure of the 'gestalt/object'- the projection of outlining boundaries onto the world, literally and psychologically tend to confine experience and confirm the customary. (see Klee's Pedagogical Sketchbook in particular - his idea of 'being' nature not merely representing or 'copying' it - he tried to 'grow' drawing anew etc)

    Forgive this unsolicited incursion from one who is a layperson in the context of the sciences but your project sounds very interesting and, dare I add, such enterprise is especially needed now given the overall direction of travel in contemporary education towards 'measurable outcomes' and 'strategic-learning'. I used to drag 'my' students into a lecture theatre, 'lock' the door and make them watch Chomsky on the corporatization and branding of 'higher' education.

    Having as yet only briefly sampled your blog I've decided save up to buy the Turvey book, while currently working my through (very slowly) the philosophical and psychological literature on 'depiction-ing' and so as, hopefully, to get better at photographing... it's hard trying to self-teach an old dogmatist new tricks...

  3. Do God: The ultimate verbing. This discussion of verb-ing nouns reminded me of a clip from the Netflix series "Orange is the New Black" in which a prison inmate explains why she wants to convert to Judaism in this way:

    "I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell. If I was good, I’d go to heaven. If I asked Jesus, he’d forgive me, and that was that. And here, y'all sayin’ it ain’t no hell. Ain’t sure about heaven. And if you do something wrong, you got to figure it out yourself. And as far as God is concerned, it’s yo’ job to keep askin’ questions, and to keep learnin’ and to keep arguing. It’s like a verb. It’s like—you do God. And it’s a lot of work, but I think I’m in."

    Watching the entire clip is worth it: