What happens in society, stays in …the brain?

I finally had the chance to catch up on my reading this morning, and at the top of the list was this “We Aren’t the World” article. As Schaun pointed out in his last post, the basic narrative behind the piece (and a lot of the discussion around Henrich’s work) is that science is moving away from the view that humans have more or less universal cognitive faculties. This old view assumed everyone would respond similarly to basic stimuli. But then Henrich and others came along and showed that people respond differently to those stimuli. So now we know that cognition itself is shaped by “culture, environment, etc.”

The point Schaun made in his post was that Henrich’s work doesn’t show that human cognition itself differs between different places in the world. It doesn’t show that because the readily available and plausible alternative explanation is that people respond differently because they’re responding to a lot more than just the simple and constant stimuli presented in the experiment. And all those other things are different in different places.

Part of the misunderstanding behind the narrative adopted in the article relates to a broader current in social science. The last several decades can be characterized by an increased appreciation for incorporating biology into the science of human behavior. One part of that trend has been the huge interest in the last decade (and longer) in understanding the brain (e.g. the decade of the mind, or President Obama’s SOTU). Look anywhere you want in popular social science and you’ll see the brain find its way into the discussion (e.g. “Mind Theorist Finds the Keys to Conflict Resolution in Neuroscience”). Much of it is a legitimate recognition of the role the brain plays in behavior, much of it is just bunk popular journalism (see Neuroskeptic for good general de-bunking).

So it makes sense that smart anthropologists like Henrich would turn to cognitive science and psychology. But part of that urge to incorporate cognition into culture, or culture into cognition (depending on what department you sit in perhaps) has missed an important development in cognitive science: embodiment.

Embodied cognition is a big area of research, so it wouldn’t do to generalize too much. But this recent paper by Wilson and Golonka, “Embodied cognition is not what you think it is”, provides a good overview:

“Embodiment is the surprisingly radical hypothesis that the brain is not the sole cognitive resource we have available to us to solve problems. Our bodies and their perceptually guided motions through the world do much of the work required to achieve our goals, replacing the need for complex internal mental representations.”

This notion underlies folk wisdom like that “a healthy body leads to a healthy mind.” But within academic psychological science it actually is fairly controversial, because it seems to move away from some of the tenets of the cognitive revolution helped set off by Chomsky’s critique of Skinner in 1959. As the authors put it, Chomsky argued that “language learning and use cannot be explained without invoking mental structures (in this case, innate linguistic capabilities). In general, the theoretical entities cognitive psychologists invoke to do this internal mediation are mental representations … Cognitive science is, therefore, in the business of identifying this content and how it is accessed and used.”

You can see the influence of this general approach to cognitive science in the way the “We Aren’t the World” article and Henrich himself sometimes talks about Henrich’s work. For instance, in this Edge interview, Henrich wrote:

“The main questions I’ve been asking myself over the last couple of years are broadly about how culture drove human evolution…and we’ve begun to pursue this idea called the cultural brain hypothesis – this is the idea that the real driver in the expansion of human brains was this growing cumulative body of cultural information, so that what our brains increasingly got good at was the ability to acquire information, store, process and retransmit this non genetic body of information.”

Since the seeming consensus has been that learning and human behavior can’t be explained without invoking mental structures, Henrich looks to find a way to relate culture (the thing he was trained to study as a graduate student) to the brain. He does so by equating the concept of culture with a body of ideas or a “non genetic body of information.” As he defines it later in the interview, culture “is information stored in people’s heads.”

What’s happened here is that this area of work (anthropology? cultural cognitive science?) has rightly embraced the need to understand the brain, but it’s done so by embracing a fairly narrow and overly ambitious understanding of the brain’s role in behavior. This is where the paper by Wilson and Golonka makes a valuable contribution. In the paper they discuss the growing body of work that replaces complex internal mental representations with “bodies perceptually coupled to specific environments”. I wrote about this in a post many months ago, discussing examples of how thinking about organizations might be creatively provoked by developments in the design of robotics. Take this descripion of walking from a New Scientist article I quoted:

“To understand how building robots can be done differently, just think about the way you walk… During this process, the brain doesn’t monitor and control the trajectory of each ankle, knee and hip joint. Instead it simply changes the stiffness of the leg muscles. The muscles have low stiffness when the leg swings forward and high stiffness on impact with the ground. Other than that, the brain lets the local dynamics take over. The knee joint simply swings passively, but the design of the knee, the materials from which it is made and the laws of physics all combine to do the rest. In a sense, the morphology of the body – its shape and substance – perform a kind of computation to control what is going on.”

Walking shows the limitations of the brain’s role in behavior in a way separate from the kind of social behavior we’re interested in. However, the limitations extend to social behavior. In a great paper co-authored by Alin Coman (“Collective Memory from a Psychological Perspective”), the authors describe recent work of philosophers on what has come to be called the extended mind. “The argument of these philosophers is that the age-old notion that the mind is what happens in the head is misconceived.” They move on to empirical work and point out that to understand “how a person remembers what he ate last night, a researcher needs to consider not only the neural mechanisms underlying memory, but also, for instance, the visual cues in the environment, such as the pile of dishes in the sink.”

One of my favorite examples of this approach to human behavior (embodied cognition, extended mind, whatever your preferred term) is the behavior of expert bartenders (discussed in the Coman paper). To survive on a busy night in a crowded bar, a bartender has to have what at first would seem like an incredibly good memory. Barraged with drink orders from a wide array of drinks, they have to balance their need to take new orders with filling and delivering old ones. They can’t fill each one as it’s given, so the tasks overlap and the difficulty is in not getting it all confused. But they don’t really rely on their memory or their knowledge of drinks. Instead they outsource their task onto their environment in structured ways that facilitate their ability to keep their customers happy. One way they do that is by using drinking glasses. Different drinking glasses are conventionally appropriate to different kinds of drinks, but there are fewer kinds of glasses than there are drinks. So when a bartender gets an order, they grab the appropriate glass and place it on the counter in front of the customer. Then when they’re ready to fill that customer’s order, the shape of the glass tips them off to the general type of drink ordered, and their memory task is lightened to only remembering the kind of martini or whiskey or shot that had been asked for.

Coman’s paper provides a range of beautiful examples of how collective memories are created and facilitated by how society restructures the world (e.g. the Lincoln Memorial). The general idea here is that from the micro-behavior of walking or catching a baseball, to individual interactions like bartending, to the collective level of shared memories, human behavior emerges from constant interaction between the entire body (the brain is just one part of the body) and the persistent and the constantly shifting surrounding environment. To try and reduce all of those structured and moving parts to a vague concept like “culture” and then reduce “culture” to “information stored in people’s heads”, and then to reduce differences between populations to differences within their heads, is a conceptually poor approach to explaining variation in human behavior.


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