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For those of you out there who do not know what the science of cognition is, then you shouldn't bother reading this. If you are one of those who do, then you will know that this is the science of the mind. This draws on Neuroscience surely, but also on Philosophy, Psychology, artificial intelligence, and other disciplines. A survey of the contents page will inform further more than the title can, for those who are just entering this field.
Under the section heading of Foundations, in which the history and core themes are described, the representational theory of mind and cognitive architecture all have been illuminated upon, then the next section is set to cover aspects of cognition, the nitty gritty of the book, namely perception, action, learning and memory, reasoning and decision making, concepts, language, emotion and of course the holy grail, consciousness. The final section addressing research includes topics in both cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, embodied, embedded and extended cognition, and of course the ubiquitous animal cognition, although the previously mentioned learning and memory section is in fact human in focus. Each of these subjects has a different author(s) and only the introduction is written by the authors.
The result is a broad and authoritative collection of original essays in the field, collated in one volume, in a highly accessible format, for wider consumption than just those interested in the core subject, augmented further by a glossary of terms and recommendations for further reading in the various aspects of this wide-ranging field. The grounding of all of these chapters is however the philosophy or epistemological content that drives these cognitive scientists to do their work.
Part One therefore is there to introduce readers to ideas around representational theories of mind, and the role of representationalism in modern cognitive science and the issue of rationalizing intentionality. Two of the general models of processing and representation, rule based and connectionist, are highlighted here. These chapters set up the parameters for this book's content in the various siloes of the next section.
The cognitively specific areas discussed in Part Two cover both the issues and philosophy of the various aspects of cognition covered. The baseline of course for cognition is perception, since all sensory input dies on the retina, tympanum, skin etc., and thereafter is chemical signaling, which has to be appreciated and reconstructed, hence perceived at the outset: no perception, no related cognitions. A whole host of structures and functions have to come together to produce a percept, so this is the naturalistic science of just that. There can be perception in the absence of a stimulus, e.g. hallucinations, so this is an interesting field, namely defining the philosophies of this process that results in awareness of a percept. Now since every discussion of reality, or perceived reality, namely ontology, comes full circle to phenomenology, namely what do we regard as the subject matter to be studied, or regarded as factual? Blindsight phenomena are interesting in this regard, where cortically blind subjects act as if they are perceiving, which they are not, in terms of consciously experiencing sighted perceptions. So therefore, as opposed to careful statistical inferences, phenomenological based research is possible with surprisingly high concordance of results. This methodology has been challenged however.
To understand the Action chapter, it is perhaps useful to point out why this can be an issue: causality. Let us say a person raises an arm for one of a multiple of reasons they could give as causal: what if they were hypnotized to do so? They would raise their arm but deny they are doing it, namely, it is being done by the arm or the hypnotherapist, not their own volition, or even their own intention or equipment in terms of muscle and nerves, but of course, only they can raise their arm, but deny doing it. Some theories thus focus on beliefs and desires, others on volition and intentions as action-relevant causal elements. Actions are thus physical events with mental antecedents, or even causal processes rather than just causes or effects. Actions can thus come in various grades of activity and antecedents in psychology, some richer than others. The chapter finishes with an interesting comment, that the neural basis of social cognition has yet to define how much is mirroring process apart from other factors.
Human Learning and Memory is the next focus, and with the rejection of the modal model, new questions have emerged around how information in memory is used in the service of text and discourse comprehension, reasoning, problem solving, and skill learning. As usual, Baddeley's model is the most commonly questioned, as it moved the whole study forward quite progressively. Newer evidence since 1974 has supported Baddeley and Hitch's work considerably. Another aspect of the rejection of the modal model was the emergence of questions related to the encoding and retrieval of information, and the authors here point out the issues related to deep vs. shallow processing that emerged in otherwise sensible models discussing the different levels of initial encoding. Cues available at time of retrieval are thus a confounding variable in terms of Tulving and other researchers' work, as in transfer appropriate processing. Recognition is of course superior for semantically encoded words rather than for phonologically encoded words under some conditions and not others, hence not only encoding, but interactions between encoding and later retrieval processes will often define recall. Other familiar names in forgetting research and the different putative memory systems or processes are also discussed.
In the chapter on reasoning and decision making, the authors will note that there are paradoxes in these human processes, with this highly sophisticated set of systems prone to less than effortless actions and certainly a lot of background noise disrupting perfection in reasoning, and in decision making, the same, despite high levels of sophistication that computers cannot match. Highly adaptive and adapted cognitive processes do work well, but are best in basic learning, deploying world knowledge, or perceptuomotor control, despite poor endowment from our past experience or evolutionary history.
Although the previous chapter was quite technical and mathematical, the following one, on Concepts, despite the expectation it would be more esoteric, is not, but still draws on some probability theory. Little agreement about concepts are represented exists however, despite multiple models as discussed. Most agree the domain is an exceeding rich and complex area for philosophy and research, but there is no single type of concept or single way of learning and representing concepts to date. People differ in the way they do these things, and individual studies have shown that, rather than looking at averaging over groups. The result is a discussion around mixtures of different processes. Cohesion in the field is far off still, studying at least two different strands of inquiry.
Language as always has a huge series of connections with all the other processes in this book, not surprisingly, and yet is studied apart, and investigated for its layers of categorization and structure when analyzing for instance syntax and semantics. The questions which most entice us, which include why we have language and other creatures do not, are dealt with here as well, a short chapter rather than what you would expect, covering the broad and narrow faculties of language, another lively yet inconclusive chapter.
Emotions are a central topic of enquiry in cognitive science, being both cognitive and non-cognitive in terms of causality, at two different levels of abstraction. In this way, both perceptions and thoughts can cause emotions to arise, and may be not entirely distinct from each other. Discussion here thus focusses on these elements. Emotions also result in behaviors, and these effects are further discussed. Negative and positive categories thus then emerge as broad classes. Negative emotions might result in behavioral inhibition, withdrawal and avoidance, positive the opposite. Debate therefore centers around cognitive theories which emphasize the role of appraisal judgments, and non-cognitive, which propose that behaviors can arise in the absence of cognition.
One has to be brave to approach the cognitive science of consciousness, and William Lycan, a Professor of Philosophy at North Carolina, is the man to do that here. Despite its esoteric nature, Lycan argues that there is no great mystery, in terms of the definitions anyway. Most are loosely about awareness, he says, and rejects in this case as before, any sense of ambiguity. He looks at various facets of attention, namely its relation to awareness and experience, information without awareness, inattentional blindness and change blindness, filling in, grand illusion issues, temporal anomalies, intentions, agency and control of behavior, unities and disunities, and so on. He makes no real attempt to distinguish or bridge the divide between empirical and philosophical issues, which he varyingly refers to as either a battleground or a flea market. No closure here, but again despite that, another interesting chapter from a philosopher more than a cognitive scientist.
Part Three covers research programs, in cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, embedded and extended cognition, and animal cognition.
These chapters round off a considerably concise, where it can be, volume, with some fields in cognitive science yet poorly clarified, mixing philosophical debates with the more elegant, mathematical models of how we use our brain to think. The field as of yet is not terribly integrated with more visceral research, e.g. the influence of non-brain factors on cognition, such as gut content or emotions vs. feelings vs. thinking as proposed in integration models, but the seeds are there in the work of Dalasi and others, and in the references to anthropomorphism in the animal research literature, where there is no subjective awareness of self, as we see it.
The book is thus dense enough to satisfy the more experienced cognitive scientist, but open enough to the student who has some but not a deep or wide background in the cognitive sciences. Certainly this is not Gazzaniga's monumental cognitive neuroscience tome's competitor, which would scare anyone, but a short, concise revision of the area from Oxford Press that should satiate most in refreshing knowledge of a wide and disorderly natural phenomenon, namely how the brain produces thought and the resulting antics of cognition. However both the words of Koch (1981) and Biesheuvel ten years later come to mind. Koch: "Psychology does not express the holistic facets of behavior that emerge when man is pictured in real life contexts….it needs to be supplemented with psychological studies ranging over an immense and disorderly spectrum of human activity and experience" and Biesheuvel: "Psychology will remain a unitary scientific discipline seeking basic knowledge of a universal kind: but the portrait of homo sapiens which it is painting will bear little resemblance to how man is generally perceived in his endless variety." I would wonder how that would read if we substitute the cognitive science title for psychology? These issues seem to bedevil many of the authors, and we look forward to a time when substantive amounts of agreement around modeling is more obvious, and less flea markets or battlegrounds are evident. Averaging within groups and between groups seems to not provide, as it does not in psychology, substantive knowledge about the individual, but a more global view is emerging about how things work when we try to reason, think, solve problems, etc.
A highly competent work, with high and medium levels of engagement for readers of different strengths.
© 2013 Roy Sugarman
Roy Sugarman PhD, Director of Applied Neuroscience, Athletes Performance, Arizona