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RememberYoung Minds in Social WorldsYour Brain on CubsYour Brain on FoodYour Brain on Food: How Chemicals Control Your Thoughts and Feelings,Your Brain on YogaYour Child in the BalanceZombies and Consciousness
This book is the result of a
conference with the same title in Paris in March 1998 and features an impressive
collection of 23 papers by leading researchers in cognitive neuroscience and
related areas, with an emphasis on the similarities and difference between the
different ways the human brain uses to "represent" reality. It is
divided in two major parts, "Verbal Representation" and "Nonverbal
Representation". The first part offers papers ranging from the spatial and
temporal dynamics of phonological processes (Démonet & Thierry) and the
importance of intonation for expressing discourse structure and intention
(Grosz), via research on the organization of conceptual knowledge in the brain
(Caramazza) and verbal vs nonverbal representations of numbers (Dehane), to the
abilities of second language learners (Snow). The second part is mainly about
visual imagery and discusses topics such as whether the primary visual area is
activated in imagery (Mazoyer et al), how different representations of space
develop (Spelke), the interaction between visual, spatial and motoric
representation in thinking (Kosslyn) and the use of a set of basic visual forms
for illustrative purposes (Holmes). Not to mention all the other, equally
interesting and worth-to-read contributions. The book as a whole, its two main
parts and the six subsections in which it is divided all begin with an
introduction by the editors which helps much in orienting oneself among the
topics discussed in the essays. It is of course impossible to do justice to the
content of all the essays in a review; suffices it to say that for anyone who
takes a broad interest in neurocognitive science, the papers offer a lot of
relevant facts and ideas from the sectors of empirical or philosophical
research which they represent.
So much said, I want to launch some
serious criticism of the volume. The first one has to do with its format, and
the other one with its content (to use the terminology of the editors). It took
four years from the conference to the publication of the papers, and the result
is a book which costs something like USD 65-70. To consider buying this book
one must be very convinced that the reports which it contains have lasting
value and that it is not, for example, a better use of time and money to search
the available journal literature for more recent review papers by the same
authors. I am also a little surprised – considering the long time available for
editing – over the remaining errors in some of the texts, such as the
misspelling of the name of a famous contemporary philosopher ("Dredske"
for Dretske in Marc Jeannerod's paper), and, perhaps most glaringly, the
complete absence of illustrations in a paper which contains a high number of
verbal references to pictures shown at the conference (Holmes). If it was
impossible for some reason to include the pictures, the text should of course
have been edited to exclude the references to them.
One good reason to buy the book
instead of collecting more recent papers on one's own would indeed be if the
book offered an integrated theory, or at least a sketch for such a theory, of
the whole field spanned by the individual essays. However, and here is where my
content-wise criticism comes in, this is not the case, and the main reason
is – I believe – that the fundamental concepts were not systematically
probed at the conference. As the title hints, a main message of the book is
that the brain uses several different" languages", internal as well
as external, in its dealing with the environment. However, in the introduction
there is only a rudimentary (and conceptually unclear) discussion of the issue
in what sense (if any) of "language" this claim is true, and little
attention is paid to the same conceptual issue later in the book. Neither is
there any serious discussion of what a mental (or neural) representation
is, as opposed to where these representations are localized in the
brain. At the same time, the book is pervaded by an obvious commitment to representationalism
as a cornerstone of cognitive science. The philosophers who participated do not
challenge representationalism, nor do they critically discuss its conceptual
foundations. But such a critical discussion is necessary if one wants to
formulate a systematic theory of internal representations. Consider for example
the concept of a motoric representation. Is the concept formed in
analogy with that of a visual representation? How can that be, when "visual"
primarily refers to a sensory system while "motoric" does not? And
what is a visual (mental or neural) representation – a representation of
what can be seen, a representation which can itself (like an ordinary,
external visual representation) be seen or at least apprehended in a way
analogous to seeing, or (as Kosslyn would probably opt) a representation which
is relevantly similar to the standard product of the visual sensory system,
i.e., to a visual percept? Can any of these possible explications of "visual
representation" ground an analogous use of the term "motoric
representation" ? Then ask the same set of question concerning the
relations between visual and "verbal" representations. Issues such as
these are not seriously discussed in the book which, regrettably, detracts much
from its potential value.
© 2004 Helge Malmgren
Professor, MD, PhD, Dept. of Philosophy, Göteborg University, Sweden.
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