Wednesday, February 02, 2011

What would improve your cognitive toolkit?

My first MindBlog post in 2006 was a description of answers given to an annual question posed each year to prominent public intellectuals by The question for 2010 is "What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?"
A "scientific concept" may come from philosophy, logic, economics, jurisprudence, or other analytic enterprises, as long as it is a rigorous conceptual tool that may be summed up succinctly (or "in a phrase") but has broad application to understanding the world...James Flynn has defined "shorthand abstractions" (or "SHA's") as concepts drawn from science that have become part of the language and make people smarter by providing widely applicable templates ("market", "placebo", "random sample," "naturalistic fallacy," are a few of his examples). His idea is that the abstraction is available as a single cognitive chunk which can be used as an element in thinking and debate.
I'm going to give brief sketches of a few responses that I found most interesting.   I try to edit  the author's point to a single declarative phrase, the 'single cognitive chunk'  requirement suggested above (I'm surprised that in most cases the authors didn't do this more effectively). I'll list a few in this post, and as I have time to continue reading through the 164 contributions, perhaps do some further posts...

Howard Gardner - Try to disprove your viewpoint.
"If American citizens, or, for that matter, citizens anywhere were motivated to decribe the conditions under which they would relinquish their beliefs, they would begin to think scientifically. And if they admitted that empirical evidence would not change their minds, then at least they'd have indicated that their views have a religious or an ideological, rather than a scientific basis.

Christian Keysers - Avoid the mirror fallacy
...our brain mirrors the states of the people we observe...When the person we see has the exact same body and brain as we do, mirroring would tell us what the other feels. Whenever the other person is different in some relevant way, however, mirroring will mislead us...The world is full of such fallacies: we feel dolphins are happy just because their face resembles ours while we smile or we attribute pain to robots in sci-fi movies.

George Lakoff - Be aware of the conceptual metaphors you are using.
All concepts are physical brain circuits deriving their meaning via neural cascades that terminate in linkage to the body. That is how embodied cognition arises...Primary metaphors are brain mappings linking disparate brain regions, each tied to the body in a different way. For example, More Is Up (as in "prices rose") links a region coordinating quantity to another coordinating verticality...Complex conceptual metaphors arise via neural bindings, both across metaphors and from a given metaphor to a conceptual frame circuit. Metaphorical reasoning arises when source domain inference structures are used for target domain reasoning via neural mappings... A central consequence is the huge range of concepts that use metaphor cannot be defined relative to the outside world, but are instead embodied via interactions of the body and brain with the world...Every time you think of paying moral debts, or getting bogged down on a project, or losing time, or being at a crossroads in a relationship, you are unconsciously activating a conceptual metaphor circuit in your brain, reasoning using it, and quite possibly making decisions and living your life on the basis of your metaphors. And that's just normal. There's no way around it!..But it can do harm if you are unaware of it.

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