Questioning the cognitive

American Scientist has two great reviews that tackle books on perhaps the most important theory of psychology: that the mind can be understood as an information processing system.

This theory is known as the ‘cognitive approach’ and it assumes that the mind and brain can be usefully described as systems that transform and interpret different types of information.

For example, information from light that falls on the 2D surface of the retina is processed to allow us to recognise objects and judge depth in 3D.

The advantages this approach is that it easily allows for a scientific experimental approach (unlike some Freudian ideas) and accepts that we have internal mental states and are not just our behaviour (unlike behaviourist theories).

You can see from the success of cognitive psychology, cognitive neuroscience, cognitive linguistics and so on and so on that it’s been a very widely adopted idea.

The first review is of the epic book Mind as Machine: A History of Cognitive Science by Margaret Boden (sample chapter available online as a pdf).

I’m a firm believer in history telling us as much about a theory as the empirical evidence and this book looks at the development of the information processing approach.

One of my favourite analyses in this area is from Douwe Draaisma who noted in his book Metaphors of Memory that we borrow ideas from technology to explain the mind.

Past models of the mind used fluids, pressures and vapours (Freud’s psychodynamic theories were inspired by thermodynamics), whereas now we use metaphors related to computers.

The other book review tackles Language, Consciousness, Culture: Essays on Mental Structure, a new book by Ray Jackendoff.

Cognitive ideas generally describe how the mind works, and while everybody assumes that the brain is the organ that supports the mind, how these two map together is the subject of much debate.

One approach is functionalism, which suggests that anything that functions like the mind is the mind, regardless of what supports the function – be it a biological brain or digital computer.

In other words, the mind is just information processing, and is not solely a type of information processing that can only be completed by a brain.

The book under review defends a functionalist approach to the mind and language, while the reviewer, George Lakoff (known for his own theories about how metaphors shape thought), gives it a hard time.

More importantly though, both are informative reviews in their own right.

Link to Harman review of Mind as Machine: A History of Cognitive Science.
Link to Lakoff review of Language, Consciousness, Culture.

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