Sunday, November 28, 2004

If TCS Thinks It's Not Worth Publishing...

How bad must it be? Well, just ask John Ray, who's recently rejected essay containing all you ever wanted to know about women, or male-female relationships, can be found right here, and it comes from, well, a self-proclaimed expert, so you know it's true. Nevermind that his whole evolutionary story contradicts what we actually know about male and female sexual behavior, or even the hypothesized evolutionary reasons for what we know, or that his advice seems like it comes from someone who's never actually met a woman. Pay particular attention to the part about most women wanting to be dominated. One wonders whether Mr. Ray has heard of the concept of projection. All in all, it's fascinating in a "back away, slowly" sort of way. And it appears that back away, slowly, is just what Tech Central Station, not exactly known for its intellectual rigour, did.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

By Request: Cognitive Science of Humor

Much like creativity in general, the cognitive aspects of humor haven't been widely studied. While general creativity was viewed as difficult to study for reasons related to the view, among scientists at least, that creativity was a relatively rare and isolated phenomenon, I'm not quite sure why humor has been neglected by cognitive scientists. Still, there is some research, some of it bad, some of it good, mostly arising out of the field of computational linguistics. The general finding is that humans are funny, while computational linguists are not. Aaaanyway, I'm going to try to describe a few of the psychological theories of humor in this post. Humor is by no means my area of expertise, so if I miss something, and someone out there notices it, please let me know. As you're probably aware, humor has two primary aspects, a cognitive one and an affective one. Here I'm going to deal primarily with the cognitive aspect, and therefore won't be getting into issues related to things like the health benefits of humor and laughter.

The best place to start, with humor, is the brain. I'm not always comfortable talking about cognitive neuroscience, because there's so much bad cognitive neuroscience research, and because, as my neuroscientist friends are fond of reminding me, I'm not a neuroscientist, but in this case, the neuroscience will help situate the subsequent discussion at the representational level. When we hear a joke, brain activation follows a predictable sequence. Depending on the type of joke, different areas of the left hemisphere associated with language processing, and in some cases, ambiguity resolution are activated first. These include the left and right posterior middle temporal gyrus and the left posterior inferior temporal gyrus for semantic jokes, and the left posterior inferior temporal gyrus and left inferior frontal gyrus, areas associated with phonological processing, for puns1. After the joke is processed cognitively in these cortical areas, another set of brain regions, primarily subcortical, begin to become active. These include the nucleus accumbens and the ventral tegmental area, both part of the mesolimbic pathway, which is associated with things like addiction. Activation is also seen in the amygdala, a brain structure associated with emotion2.

There's not going to be a test on the brain structures, but there are three important lessons to be gleaned from the neuroscience research on humor. They are:
  1. The cognitive and affective components of jokes are reflected in the different brain areas that are activated, with humor activating areas used for language processing, reward, and emotion.
  2. The time course of activation, as we would expect, goes from cognitive areas to affective areas.
  3. Some of the cognitive areas activated by jokes are associated with ambiguity resolution. The importance of this will become clear in a bit.
As you've probably realized by now, the neuroscience research on humor has dealt primarily with verbal (spoken and written) jokes. However, it's likely that nonverbal humor follows a similar time-course, with other cognitive areas of the brain activated prior to activation of the reward and emotional areas. But that's enough about the brain. Let's move on to theory.

The earliest modern psychological theory of humor, of course, was Freud's. As you might expect, Freud thought humor had to do with sex (for more on Freud's theory of humor, see here). Later theories saw humor as a means of disparagement, or reaffirming superiority. Today, most theories, particularly in cognitive science, involve incongruity resolution (Freudian theories, usually called arousal-relief, or just relief theories, are still used by some nonscientists, as are disparagement theories). The gist of the incongruity-resolution account of humor is that we find things humorous when they involve the combination of incongruous parts. Here's an often quoted description of this theory:3:
Laughter arises from the view of two or more inconsistent, unsuitable, or incongruous parts or circumstances, considered as united in one complex object or assemblage, or as acquiring a sort of mutual relation from the peculiar manner in which the mind takes notice of them.
Graeme Ritchie, a computational linguist, has distinguished two types of incongruity-resolution theories prominent in the literature, the surprise disambiguation and two-stage types, and describes them as follows4:
Surprise disambiguation: The set-up has two different interpretations, but one is much more obvious to the audience, who does not become aware of the other meaning. The meaning of the punchline conflicts with this obvious interpretation, but is compatible with, and even evokes, the other, hitherto hidden, meaning.

Two-stage: The punchline creates incongruity, and then a cognitive rule must be found which enables the content of the punchline to follow naturally from the information established in the set-up. (p. 2)
Ritchie includes the most popular theory today, Raskin's Semantic Script-based Theory of Humor5, as a version of the surprise disambiguation view of humor. Because it is the most influential incongruity-resolution theory today, I'll focus on it in elaborating on the incongruity-resolution view.

In Raskin's theory, humor involves the activation of two opposing scripts, such as sex/no sex, good/bad, money/no money, possible/impossible, real/unreal, etc. Humor arises when one of two opposing scripts is activated, followed by the activation of the second opposing script, creating ambiguity. Thus there are three stages. In the first stage, one script (or schema) is activated. In the second stage, information that is incongruent with that schema is activated, creating ambiguity. In the final stage, the ambiguity is resolved. To see how this works, here is an example used by Raskin:
The first thing that strikes a stranger in New York is a big car.
According to Raskin, this sentence is processed in such a way that the meaning of the word "strikes" which is first activated is the one indicating surprise, followed by the activation of the collision meaning of "strikes" after reading "a big car." With these two meanings active at the same time, ambiguity is created, and it is the resolution of this ambiguity, or incongruity, which causes the sentence to be humorous. In a more recent version of Raskin's theory, called the General Theory of Verbal Humor6, the incongruincy-resolution aspect of the theory is accompanied by "knowledge resources" designed to allow for the influence of things like context, reasoning processes, text-comprehension processes, etc. Still, the primary aspect of humorous texts/situations which distinguishes them from non-humorous ones is the ambiguity, or incongruity, which must be resolved.

In recent years, various reworkings of Raskin's theory by other researchers have been proposed. For instance, in cognitive linguistics, Coulson7 has proposed a theory in which two incongruous mental spaces are activated at once, and resolved in the blend. Veatch has proposed a theory with three components:
1) V Something is wrong. That is, the perceiver thinks that
things in the situation ought to be a certain way -- and
cares about it -- and that is Violated.
2) N The situation is actually okay. That is, the perceiver has
in mind a predominating view of the situation as being Normal.
3) Simultaneity Both occur at the same time. That is, the N and V understandings
are present in the mind of the perceiver at the same instant.
Veatch describes the gist of the theory this way:
So humor is emotional pain that doesn't actually hurt. Or a violation that you care about, overlaid with the conviction that everything is normal (either good or neutral, but not bad).
Unlike Raskin and most others, Veatch's theory is explicitly designed to account for nonverbal humor. In fact, one of his favorite examples is peekaboo. Also, it is meant to account for the affective components of humor, which are dealt with only cursorily in most other incongruity-resolution theories. Still, Veatch is a linguist, like the other theorists mentioned so far, and thus he has yet to test his theory empirically. In fact, because the cognitive scientists who've constructed theories of humor have almost all been linguists, there has been very little empirical testing of even the basic assumptions of these theories, such as the activation of competing scripts/schemas, or the need for the resolution of ambiguity. I, on the other hand, am not a linguist, and my first inclination is to look for data. So, I searched and searched, and found some. I'll briefly describe one set of experiments related to the incongruity-resolution models discussed so far, though it will not provide any evidence to decide which theory is better. I'll then describe some research in other areas of cognition that might be relevant to theories of humor, but which hasn't been incorporated into the theories thus far.

In a set of experiments, Vaid et al.8 presented participants with visually presented verbal jokes, and primed the two opposing meanings at different times during the presentation, either after reading the set-up, in the middle of the joke, or after the punchline had been read. Most incongruincy-resolution models would predict that, initially, only the set-up meaning would be activated, while at some point after encountering the incongruous information, both meanings would be active at the same time, forcing a resolution. Vaid et al.'s priming data supported this view. When primes were given at the beginning of the joke, only the first meaning showed a priming effect, indicating that only it, and not the second, incongruous meaning, was active. At the intermediate position, both the first and second meanings showed priming effects, indicating that they were both active simultaneously. Finally, after viewing the joke for an extended time, only the second meaning was active, indicating that a resolution had been found. Thus, the three-stages of the various incongruincy-resolution models based on Raskin's Script-based Theory, the first script activation, followed by the activation of a second script, which creates ambiguity, and finally ambiguity-resolution, were all empirically supported.

Another area of research that might be relevant for cognitive theories of humor is research on schematic memory. Since most cognitive theories of humor involve the activation of incongruous schemas, this seems straightforward. Still, much of the schematic memory research has been ignored by humor theorists. For instance, Anderson and Pichert9 showed that when information incongruous with a currently activated schema, but congruent with another schema, is read, the new schema is activated. Furthermore, information associated with a schema that is not active during comprehension tends to be inaccessible, meaning that the conflict would not arise until both schemas were activated, and that once the conflict is resolved, and only the second schema is active, information associated with the first schema would not be accessible10. This is consistent with the fact that, in the Vaid et al. studies, only the second meaning was active several moments after the punchline had been read. It's also consistent with research showing that, despite the fact that people tend to spend more time attending to the joke set-up during the initial processing of the joke (a fact that is likely indicative of attempts to resolve ambiguity between the set-up and punchline), participants are much more likely to remember the punchline of a joke than the set-up11.

Finally, because in most incongruity-resolution theories of humor, jokes are said to involve the alignment of opposing scripts or schemas, humor research could benefit from the vast literature on comparisons, and inter-domain mappings in particular. Coulson's blending theory, for instance, is one attempt to use mappings in a theory of humor. Other, more empirically supported theories of mapping should probably be looked at when composing complete theories of humor as well.

So, there you have it, what constitutes either more than you ever wanted to know about cognitive theories of humor, or barely enough to satisfy your appetite for knowledge, depending on how interested you are in the topic. I find it interesting for reasons I've hinted at in the last two paragraphs. Humor is closely related to many more general cognitive phenomena, such as schema-activation and memory, and mappings between domains. Hopefully then, researchers will begin to explore humor, as they have recently begun to explore creativity in general, more thoroughly in the near future, because it is likely that many important insights about cognition in general can be gleaned from how people produce and comprehend humor. I'll leave you with a joke. You can apply what you've learned to it, and see if the theory can account for it. It's the shortest joke ever: Two Irish guys walk out of a bar.

1 Goel V., Dolan R. J. (2001). The functional anatomy of humor: segregating cognitive and affective components. Nature Neuroscience, 4(3), 237-8.
2 Mobbs, D.; Greicius, M. D.l Abdel-Azim, E.; Menon, V.; Reiss, A. L. (2003). Humor modulates the mesolimbic reward centers. Neuron, 40(5), 1041-8.
3 Beattie, J. (1776) . An essay on laughter, and ludicrous composition. In Essays. William Creech, Edinburgh, Reprinted by Garland, New York, 1971. Quoted in Raskin, V. (1985). Semantic Mechanisms of Humour. Reidel, Dordrecht, 1985.

4 Ritchie, G. (1999). Developing the incongruity-resolution theory. Proceedings of the AISB Symposium on Creative Language: Stories and Humour, Edinburgh.
5 Raskin (1985). See note 3.
6 Attardo, S. (1993) Linguistic Theories of Humor, Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
7 Coulson, S. (2001). What's so funny: Conceptual blending in humorous examples. In Herman, V. (Ed.), The poetics of cognition: Studies of cognitive linguistics and the verbal arts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
8 Vaida, J; Hulla, R.; Herediab, R.; Gerkensa, D., & Martinez, F. (2003). Getting a joke: the time course of meaning activation in verbal humor. Journal of Pragmatics, 35, 1431-1449.
9 Anderson, R., and Pichert, J. (1978). Recall of previously unrecallable information following a shift in perspective. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 17, 1-12.
10 Stilwell, C. H. & Markman, A. B. (2001). The fate of irrelevant information in analogical mapping. Paper presented at the 23rd annual meeting of the Cognitive Science Society, Edinburgh, Scotland.
11 Mitchell, H., & Graesser, A.C. (2003). Investigating conceptually driven processing in humor: The effects of context on jokes. Paper presented at the 15th International Society for Humor Studies. Northern Illinois University

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Creative Cognition: Ordinary, Observable, and Unconscious

Recently, cognitive psychologists have begun to take a serious look at creativity in human cognition, and to study it empirically. Under traditional views of creativity, this is a daunting task, because creativity is viewed as something mysterious and extraordinary. However, researchers using what is now called the creative cognition approach1 argue that this traditional view of creativity is wrong. Rather than being instances of extraordinary, or unusual cognitive processes, human creativity, even in its most striking forms, utilizes ordinary cognitive processes. Thus, the difference between mundane, everyday acts of creativity, and acts of extreme creativity is one of degree, rather than kind. Adopting this view allows researchers to study creative phenomena in laboratory settings, using the methods of cognitive psychology, and to carry over knowledge from existing cognitive theories. In this post, I want to briefly outline the creative cognition approach, as presented in Fink, Ward, and Smith's Creative Cognition: Theory, Research, and Applications2 and Ward, Smith, and Finke (1999). In a subsequent post, I will discuss some of the empirical findings generated from this approach.

The creative cognition approach is built around the Geneplore model3, and describes two types of processes involved in creative cognition: generative processes and exploratory processes. Generative processes are those that most of us think about when we think of creativity. They are the processes by which creative concepts are first born. These processes are highly visible in extreme acts of creativity, but they are also evident in ordinary, everyday cognition. For instance, concepts are products of generative creative processes. As Ward, et al. (1999) write:
The mere fact that we readily construct a vast array of concrete and abstract concepts from an ongoing stream of otherwise discrete experiences implies a striking generative ability; concepts are creations. (p. 190)
A wide range of ordinary cognitive processes can be used in the service of generating novel ideas. Examples from Ward et al. include memory retrieval, assocation formation among information retrieved from memory, combinations of structures retrieved from memory, the synthesis of new structures, the transformation of retrieved structures into "new forms," analogical transfer between domains, and "categorical reduction," which involves reducing existing structures to "more primitive constituents"(p. 191-2). One type of structure produced by generative processes is called a preinventive structure. Preinventive structures are, in essence, the "germs" of creative ideas. Ultimately, they may not resemble the final product of the creative process, but they are the ideas that get the ball rolling, and they can be created through any of the processes mentioned above, or through other ordinary cognitive processes.

Exploratory processes are just that, processes used to explore the structures produced by generative processes. Examples of exploratory processes given by Ward, et al. include searching retrieved structures for "novel attributes," searching for "metaphorical implications," searching for possible functions, "the evaluation of structures from different perspectives or within different contexts," interpretation of structures from the perspective of the problem(s) to be solved, and "the search for various practical or conceptual limitations that are suggested by the structures" (p. 192).

As you might imagine, it will sometimes be difficult to distinguish between generative and exploratory processes, in practice. The two types of processes interact in a dynamic fashion. In some cases, generative processes may be used to produce a novel idea, after which exploratory processes will disover potentially important limits to the utility of that idea. Generative processes will then produce a new novel idea based on the findings of the exploratory processes, and so on, until a desired solution or otherwise acceptible final structure is arrived at. The complex interactions between generative processes, exploratory processes, and context is presented in the following diagram from Ward, et al.:

Posted by Hello

Figure 10.1 from Ward, et al. (p. 193). The following is their caption:The basic structure of the Geneplore model. Preinventive structures are constructed during an initial, generative phase, and are interpreted during an exploratory phase. The resulting creative insights c an then be focused on specific issues or problems, or expanded conceptually, by modifying the preinventive structures and repeating the cycle. Constraints on the final product can be imposed at any time during the generative or exploratory phase.

One other interesting aspects of the Geneplore model is that most of its processes occur unconsciously, or below the level of awareness. This is particularly true of the generative processes, but also for many of the exploratory processes listed above. For example, the processes involved in analogical mapping occur largely unconsciously, and more often than not, memory retrieval is an automatic process born of cues in the environment. Furthermore, there is evidence that conscious thought, including (and perhaps especially) language, may actually inhibit generative processes. The unconscious nature of many (if not most) of the cognitive processes involved in creativity call into question the many anecdotal accounts of sudden insight and the production of creative ideas that have often fueled the belief that creativity is something mysterious and not amenable to careful empirical study. This does not mean that we can't consciously influence the outcome of creative processes. Exploratory processes can often be used quite deliberately, and even generative processes can benefit from conscious attention to problems and potential solutions. As Pasteur once said, "Chance favors the prepared mind."

So there you have it, the basics of the creative cognition approach. Over the last decade or so, researchers using this approach have produced a great deal of empirical research, with a wide arrange of findings. In the next post on creative cognition, I'll discuss some of these findings, and describe their implications for other disciplines, including science in general and literary theory.

1 Ward, T. B., Smith, S. M., & Finke, R. A. (1999). Creative cognition. In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), Handbook of creativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
2 See also The Creative Cognition Approach and the chapter cited in footnote 1.

3 First described in Creative Cognition: Theory, Research, and Applications.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

My Best Pharyngula Impression

OK, so I'm no PZ Myers. Hell, I'm not even a biologist. That doesn't mean I can't post about evolution, does it? Well, I guess it does, so I'm not even going to try to write something about evolution research. Instead, I'm just going to refer you to a paper that I found very interesting when I read it a couple years ago. I'm not really qualified to evaluate the paper's claims, so I won't even do that. You'll have to check out "Bayesian natural selection and the evolution of perceptual systems" for yourself. Here's a passage from the introduction, just to give you an idea of what the paper is all about:
Here we show that a constrained form of Bayesian statistical decision theory provides an appropriate framework for exploring the formal link between the statistics of the environment and the evolving genome. The framework consists of two components. One is a Bayesian ideal observer with a utility function appropriate for natural selection. The other is a Bayesian formulation of natural selection that neatly divides natural selection into several factors that are measured individually and then combined to characterize the process as a whole. In the Bayesian formulation, each allele vector (i.e. each instance of a polymorphism) in each species under consideration is represented by a fundamental equation, which describes how the number of organisms carrying that allele vector at time t + 1 is related to: (i) the number of organisms carrying that allele vector at time t; (ii) the prior probability of a state of the environment at time t; (iii) the likelihood of a stimulus given the state of the environment; (iv) the likelihood of a response given the stimulus; and (v) the birth and death rates given the response and the state of the environment. The process of natural selection is represented by iterating these fundamental equations in parallel over time, while updating the allele vectors using appropriate probability distributions for mutation and sexual recombination.

Our proposal draws upon two important research traditions in sensation and perception: ideal observer theory (De Vries 1943; Rose 1948; Peterson et al. 1954; Barlow 1957; Green & Swets 1966) and probabilistic functionalism (Brunswik & Kamiya 1953; Brunswik 1956). After reviewing these two research traditions, we motivate and derive the basic formulae for maximum fitness ideal observers and Bayesian natural selection. We then demonstrate the Bayesian approach by simulating the evolutionof camouflage in passive organisms and the evolution of two-receptor sensory systems in active organisms that search for prey. Although we describe Bayesian natural selection in the context of perceptual systems, the approach is quite general and should be appropriate for systems ranging from molecular mechanisms within cells to the behaviour of organisms.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Late Night Generalizations About Philosophers' Intuitions

With all the talk of intuitions in philosophy (here's the latest installment), and particularly the fear that the intuitions of western academic philosophers may not be shared by members of other cultures, or even nonphilosopher members of the same culture, it's easy to begin to wonder about the validity of many philosophical positions, or at least how to save them from the problem of unshared intuitions. I myself think we should be skeptical about intuitions regardless of whether they're shared across members of different cultures. The reason is that no matter how hard philosophers try, and no matter how clean their intuitions are rendered through the process of making them explicit and filtering them through the sieve of social and academic review, so much of what goes into the production of those intuitions is unconscious and unavailable to introspection. The very idea that through this filtering is possible reminds me of the hubris Nietzsche remarks in his essay "On the Prejudices of the Philosophers," where he writes:
Collectively they take up a position as if they had discovered and reached their real opinions through the self-development of a cool, pure, god-like disinterested dialectic (in contrast to the mystics of all ranks, who are more honestly stupid with their talk of "inspiration"—), while basically they defend with reasons sought out after the fact an assumed principle, an idea, an "inspiration," for the most part some heart-felt wish which has been abstracted and sifted.
Perhaps Nietzsche is a bit harsh, but I can't escape the impression that philosophers' intuitions, like those Kripke and the philosophers who have followed him seem to share about things like reference (as discussed in Fodor's much-blogged about review) are, when they are made explicit, nothing more than post hoc rationalizations of the positions in which our largely unconscious and unexamined conceptual schemes place us in relation to the problems the philosophers are raising. If this is the case, then it's not surprising that members of cultures with conceptual schemes that vary in significant and relevant ways would have different "intuitions" when confronted with those problems. However, these cultural differences only hint at the real problem with intuitions, a problem which is made even more clear by the possibility of members of the same culture failing to share those of philosophers. What this implies is that philosophers' intuitions are a product of their specialized knowledge structures gained through training and reading related to the philosophical issues in question.

There's an upshot to all of this. When I changed disciplines from philosophy to psychology long ago, I used to get into heated discussions about the value of analytic philosophy with my graduate advisor. One of his most frequent remarks was that the biggest difference between philosophers and experimental psychologists is that psychologists are beholding to data. There's something naive about philosophers believing that their intuitions are somehow getting to the heart of the issues, that their intuitions are somehow direct, immediate, or otherwise unreasoned (but not unreasonable) impressions of or responses to the (often counterfactual) scenarios they explore. Regardless of how sophisticated the logical and conceptual tools they may have at their disposal, philosophers are subject to the personal and social limitations idiosyncracies that come with human cognition. And since all that philosophers are beholding to, in most cases, is their own intuitions and those of other philosophers (members of a community that shares at least some relevant knowledge structures) there's no real way to independently test the validity of philosophical positions. If you want to know how something like reference works, you go out and you look at how people use language to refer. That doesn't entail exploring one's own intuitions. Psychologists realized the ineffectiveness of this sort of introspection 100 years ago. Instead, in entails going out and systematically gathering data. It's true that scientists, too, are shackled by their cognitive makeup, but that's the beauty of data - it constrains the range of possible intuitions that one can accept, and the more data one gathers, the fewer intuitions on can reasonable accept.

Obviously there are areas of philosophy where this method won't work. For example, you can't develop a meta-ethical theory, particularly one that's meant to be normative rather than purely descriptive, by going out and looking at peoples' moral reactions to situations. In this case, your goal isn't to understand how people behave, but to come up with theories about how they should behave regardless of how they actually do. However, there are intuitions that go into any moral theory that could benefit from some good data. For instance, any descriptive or moral theory of ethics will have to take into account facts about the human mind, and how it acts in the types of situations (particularly in social situations) that ethical theorists are interested in.Thus in some cases, like theories of reference, philosophy can best be used as a sort of hypothesis-generator, which then passes its hypotheses along for empirical investigation. In other cases, like the case of moral theorizing, philosophy produces the ultimate theories, but it should use knowledge from empirical investigations to gain insight into the potential structures of moral theories. Any philosophy that relies exclusively on intuitions, however, is doomed to be little more than parlor games. As Fodor says in his review, "Is that a way for grown-ups to spend their time?"

Friday, November 19, 2004

A Connectionist Model of Metaphor

In my posts on metaphor (I, II, III, and IV), I focused primarily on theories of metaphor, with some empirical work thrown in for good measure. I didn't discuss any of the many models that implement these theories, primarily because there are so many. Today I was reading a paper on a connectionist model, called the Metaphor by Pattern Completion (MPC) model (Thomas & Mareschal, 1999), that implements the attributive categorization model (see posts III and IV), and I thought it might be interesting to give a quick description of it.

The model uses a pretty normal three-level connectionist architecture (see here for a good primer on connectionism), consisting of input and output nodes, along with intervening hidden nodes. The model was trained with exemplars from three separate categories (Apple, Fork, and Ball), and the representations of these three categories are stored in the hidden units. Here is a graphic representation of the architecture:

Posted by Hello

Figure 1 from Thomas and Mareschal (1999). Click for larger view.

Given an exemplar, the model autoassociates the features that comprise the representation of the category to which the exemplar belongs. This just means that the model reproduces the features, in the form of semantic vectors, of the category as output. So, given an exemplar with a set of features, the model will determine into which category the exemplar belongs, and output the features of that category. To model metaphors, an exemplar serving as the topic of the metaphor is inputted into the node(s) representing the category which serves as the vehicle. For instance, the metaphor "An apple is a ball" would involve inputting an apple exemplar into the node(s) representing the category Ball. The output, in this case, would be a representation of apples (the topic) which has been altered by the vehicle representation so that the output is more similar to the ball representation than the original exemplar was. Here is the author's description of why this alteration of the topic representation occurs:
Pattern completion is a property of connectionist networks that derives from their non-linear processing (Rumelhart & McClelland, 1986). A network trained to respond to a given input set will still respond adequately given noisy versions of the input patterns. For example, if an autoassociator is trained to reproduce the vector <0> and is subsequently given the input <.2 .6 .2 .2>, its output is likely to be much closer to the vector it 'knows', perhaps <.0 .9 .0 .0>. An input is transformed so as to make it more consistent with the knowledge that the network has been previously trained on. The connection weights store the feature correlation information in previously experienced examples. If a partial input is presented to the network, it can use that correlation information to reconstruct the missing features.
When the model is actually used, it exhibits properties of metaphors consistent with the attributive categorization theory. First, the representation of the topic and vehicle interact to determine which features of the topic are represented in the output of the metaphor. In addition, the output of the metaphorical comparison differs depending on the direction of the comparison. "An apple is a ball" will produce a representation that is different from "A ball is an apple," indicating that the model produces results consistent with the irreversability of metaphorical statements. In addition to the results consistent with the predictions of the attributive categorization theory, the model itself produces three new predictions. The first is that the smaller the range of features found in exemplars of a vehicle category, the less metaphorical comparisons involving that category as a vehicle will produce interactive effects. In other words, when a vehicle with a small range of features is used in metaphors, the features it transfers to the topic will tend to be the same regardless of what the topic is. This will also be the case when the vehicle category is highly familiar. Finally, metaphorical comparisons will involve the transfer of attributes from the vehicle to the topic that are not likely to be reported. This is because, while some features may not make sense when transferred from the vehicle to the topic, (e.g., "A ball is an apple" may transfer the feature "edible," even though very few balls are actually edible), but which are transferred anyway. As a result, Thomas & Mareschal predict that participants will be slower to questions about features which are transferred but not otherwise reported.

So, there you have it, a connectionist model of metaphor implementing the attributive categorization theory. There are several obvious problems and limitations with the model. For one, it's not really doing what the attributive categorization theory says is involved in metaphor. Recall that in the attributive categorization model, the vehicle is a member of a category. The topic is placed into that category, not into the category specifically referred to by the vehicle label. For example, "My job is a jail" doesn't involve categorizing my job as a jail, but as a member of a common category, confining plances. However, in the MPC model, the topic is placed into the category referred to by the vehicle label, rather than a common category. I imagine the model could be modified to do this, but as it's described, it isn't doing what the attributive categorization theory says it should be. In addition, the model can only deal with metaphors that involve the transfer of attributes, and cannot handle any metaphors that involve the transfer of structure. This is a big problem, since research has shown that most metaphors involve structural information. In addition, the model's version of the irreversability of metaphorical comparisons is pretty weak. The model can perform comparisons in either direction, and has no way of determining which direction is better. This hints at a limitation common to most (if not all) connectionist models: it's not clear how th model fits within a larger system which, in this case, would ultimately be needed to explain the full range of metaphorical behaviors we humans exhibit. The model's simulation of metaphor is therefore uncomfortably elliptical. Finally, with the exception of the third prediction, the first two predictions are hardly novel, and are pretty much self-evident. If the model had not demonstrated these properties, it would certainly have been in trouble, but the fact that it does make these predictions is hardly a case for taking the model seriously. The third prediction is interesting, but it is also a prediction that would be made by most comparison theories, and therefore wouldn't allow us to differentiate between this model and comparison models.

Buridan's Ass

At Oohlah's Blog-space, there are two recent posts (this one and that one) on "choice without preference" and Buridan's Ass. For those who are too lazy to click the links, here's the first of the two posts in its entirety:
In the first chapter of Jon Elster's Solomonic Judgments, he argues that choice without preference is not an important practical issue. He contends that no one cares which of two apparently identical soup cans on the supermarket shelf is chosen. The only way a choice like this will matter is if there are differences in the two soup cans, i.e., one has more broth than the other, etc.

I may have missed the point, but the problem of the choice without preference is that we can choose either soup can A or soup can B and satisfy our desire for buying soup. Since both soup cans will satisfy our desire, then rationality tells us to purchase both soup cans. If we think like this, though, we could potentially become poor very quickly. (Perhaps using the example of very similar cars on a new or used car lot would bring the problem to the fore.) So, it is not rational to purchase both cans. What seems to follow is that reason tells us to do something it is not rational to do.

Have I missed the point of choice without preference, or has Elster missed an important component of this difficult problem?
I may be stupid, but I'm like Elster -- I just don't see a problem here. The scenario assumes that our only motivation is to purchase the can, and that there are no constraints other than preference on choice. It ignores the motivation the post mentioned (the financial motivation to only buy one can), time-constraints, motor constraints, etc., which all factor in to the optimal (which is really what "rational" is in this case) choice. If you get rid of all of those, then there's probably no need to choose a can in the first place. In fact, I bet that if you threw all of those into an Ideal Observer model, what you'd find is that the model either chooses one of the two cans all of the time (which would probably be due to the motor constraints) or choose each can 50% of the time (because the motor constraint doesn't apply). Humans, because we're not ideal observers (our behavior is suboptimal) will have all sorts of noise in our data if forced to make the choice a bunch of times, but it would probably be pretty close to the ideal observer model assuming that the initial conditions were the same every time (which would be impossible, but you get the point).

Maybe Buridan's Ass is an interesting logical problem, even though it's not an interesting practical problem, and probably can't shed any light on the decision-making process (though it apparently sheds some light on Romance novels -- see here) other than that we have reasons for making decisions that go beyond the independent attractiveness of two options (duh!), but I can't imagine how it would be. For it to be even a logical problem would require that we pretty much remove all of the motivations to make the choice in the first place (a similar point for is made by Richard at Philosophy, etcetera). If it were still a problem, logical or otherwise, even given all of the constraints and other motivations that factor into a choice like this (or with them all removed), here's how I would solve it: I'd pick up both cans and then make a choice when I got to the cashier. By that time, choosing one should be more optimal than choosing the other (maybe because it's closer to me in the cart). I think that's pretty much the solution people much smarter than me have traditionally come up with (e.g., the solution of Otto Neurath, which just involved flipping a coin). As for the ass, since he probably doesn't have a shopping cart, or a coin, he's just going to have to suck it up and make a choice.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

A Plea for More Requests

For those of you who find my political rants irksome, or worse, I just wanted to let you know that two cognition posts or in the offing, one on creative cognition and one on the cognitive psychology of humor (by request). I also want to ask (nay, beg) for more requests. In the post-election blog atmosphere, I'm having trouble coming up with ideas for posts. If there's anything you'd like to read about, let me know. (Also, I haven't forgotten the connectionism request, but I'm writing something on representations right now, and I may either post a short version of that, or summarize the ideas in it, when I'm finished.)

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

The Conservatives We Don't Want

The Anal"Philosopher" writes:
By allowing Muslims to immigrate into their countries in massive numbers, Europeans are destroying their culture and risking their lives. What idiots. And these are the people we are supposed to emulate with regard to gun ownership, capital punishment, homosexual "marriage," confiscatory taxation, and other matters? Americans must never stoop to the level of Europeans. If they do, they deserve Europe's fate.
I don't know about you, but to my ear, that sounds exactly like the arguments heard in the United States during the first few decades of the twentieth century, but instead of Muslims, the arguments were directed at Italians and the Irish. It also sounds uncannily like the arguments made in the south about the effects of freeing the slaves and loosing all those dark-skinned folk on the fair, southern culture. These are the Republican voters we don't want to reach out to, and should ignore entirely. This may sound harsh, but what I think what they want is less than worthless.

Trying to Reach the Evangelicals, On Purpose

Apparently it's fashionable among liberal bloggers (and non-bloggers) to wonder out loud about how Democrats can court the evangelical vote. For instance, Lindsay Beyerstein of Majikthise writes on the topic, concluding:
I don't know whether Democrats can find equally compelling areas of common ground with evangelical groups today. Perhaps Democrats can make common cause with evangelical groups over economic justice, peace, or other issues of mutual concern. The alliance between the religious right and the corporate right may seem inevitable in retrospect, but it too is built on a sometimes uneasy compromise. Proponents of religious alternative outreach are urging Democrats to cultivate compromise in the other direction (economic interests over cultural interests). Whether such outreach is feasible remains an empirical question.
While Lindsay seems to harbor at least some hope of someday getting more evangelical votes, I do not, and to be honest, I don't want them. The evangelicals who don't already vote Democrat (and there are some; my parents make at least two) aren't the sort who are swayed by economic policies. The ones who are concerned with economic policy are likely to harbor a conservative, hyper-individualist, free market view of economic issues, and any talk of something like universal healthcare or government-funded arts or environmental programs will turn them off immediately. If we talked about gun-control, prison reform, or progressive taxation, we might cause these evangelicals to have an aneurysm. Then there are those who don't vote Democrat for moral and religious reasons. These are the people who vote based on issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, sex education, evolution, and the like. There simply is no reaching these two classes of evangelicals without compromising our core values, and as Lindsay herself says, "Compromise outreach to is morally unacceptable and politically naive."

Instead of focusing on evangelicals, Democrats should be focusing on the people who do sometimes vote Democratic. Some of these voters may be evangelicals, and they may even hold some of the views that the untouchable evangelicals hold, but they don't vote on these issues alone. The way to get to them is to make it clear that Democrats will do more for them, in the short-term and the long-term, than Republicans will. People like me seem to think this is obvious, but the swing voters, evangelical or not, don't see it. So, it's not as obvious as we think, and we liberals got to do a better job of expressing ourselves and getting the message out there.

My one true hope, and I think this is a genuine possibility, is that the Democratic party will become more liberal, not less so, by recognizing that the conservative moral and economic voters are out of their reach, and focusing on what differentiates us from them. When survey after survey shows that a substantial majority of Americans support universal health care, why do we de-emphasize this issue in elections? Because we think we will lose the ultra-conservative voters? We've already lost them. The more we talk about trying to win them, the further we get from what we should be talking about.

Philosophers' Carnival IV: Attack of the Epistemologists

The fifth Philosophers' Carnival is up at Ciceronian Review. There are some interesting posts this time around. The post from Prosthesis on science and beauty is very interesting, and reminds me of Stephen J. Gould's work towards the end of his life (leading to this book, and research at this lab). It's hard to tell whether the author of the post at Prosthesis thinks "nonempirical" factors in theory selection are bad for science, but it's clear that he/she thinks they are unavoidable. I like Gould's take, in which nonempirical (most notably aesthetic) factors are not only inevitable, but desirable. Science is about understanding the world around us, after all, and aesthetic considerations can facilitate understanding.

Blowhard has a very good introduction to Stephen Toulmin, whom I only recently really discovered, so I found the post helpful.

Siris, which continues to be one of my favorite blogs, has a good post on Shepherd on causation. I don't really know anything about Shepherd, and I've only really begun to think seriously about causation, so this post was definitely edifying for me.

I also liked the post at Evolving Thoughts on knowledge of the past in science. The issues discussed in the post don't really come up in my own work as problems with scientific knowledge, but similar issues are raised when trying to verify the accuracy of memories. For instance, in the debate over recovered memories, what evidence constitutes verification of the accuracy of the content of recovered memories? Unlike in the sciences, immediate certainty is important here, because the future discovery of new evidence may come too late. For instance, when recovered memories are used as the primary evidence in criminal cases against accused child molestors, we can't wait until after the trial to decide whether the recovered memories are accurate.

There are several other interesting posts in this edition of the Carnival as well, so go check them out.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Concepts of "Human" Among American Undergraduates

I've been reading a lot of literature on the creative cognition approach lately (expect a post soon), and came across something interesting, though it's not really about creative cognition. In an experiment by Ward et al., participants (98 undergraduates in an introductory psychology course) were asked to list properties of humans that distinguish them from animals. Here are the most common categories of properties listed, along with the percentage of participants who listed them (taken from Table 1 in Ward, et al., p.1390):
Communication 72
Mental ability 68
Physical features 42
Technical/manipulative 33
Emotions 32
Socioeconomic institutions 25
Morality/religion 22
Sex/reproduction 20
Clothing 13
Instinct 15
Family 12
Lifespan 11
Consciousness 8
Dominance 7
Creativity 6

How do their concepts of "human" fit with yours? I think it's interesting that "consciousness" was only listed by 8% of the participants, when it's played such a large role in intellectual debates about "humanness."

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Cognitive Science and Literary Criticism

A while back I discovered a very interesting, and perhaps even important (though, at least in the cognitive sciences, almost completely unread) paper by Herbert Simon, one of the few psychologists to have won the Nobel Prize. The paper, which can be found here along with several commentaries, attempts to "bridge the gap" between cognitive science and literay criticism. The essay focuses primarily on meaning, because literary criticism is a practice primarily aimed at analyzing the meanings of texts. His account of meaning is clearly impoverished. It revolves around memory retrieval. Here are two paragraphs from the paper that present the gist of what Simon has to say about meaning:
Meanings are evoked. When a reader attends to words in a text, certain symbols or symbol structures that are stored in that reader's memory come to awareness. (In psychology we might say, more ponderously, "having been noticed, the symbols are activated or transferred from long-term to short-term or immediate memory"). This is the sense in which we will use the term "evoke" throughout this paper. It denotes a specific set of psychological processes that have been much studied in the laboratory and in everyday life: the processes that bring meanings, or components of meaning, into attention.

The process that underlies evocation is recognition. Words in the text serve as cues. Being familiar (if they are not familiar, they will not convey meaning), they are recognized, and the act of recognition gives access to some of the information that has been stored in association with them--their meaning (Feigenbaum and Simon, 1984). Recognizing a word has the same effect as recognizing anything else (a friend on the street). Recognition accesses meaning.

Then, a little later, he adds:

The meaning of the text, then, will be a function of the memory contents that are accessed by recognition of words. Which of the whole collection of memory contents will be accessed depends on context, that is upon what contents are both associated directly or indirectly with the word recognized and also the extent to which they have recently been activated.

And to complete the summary:

Thus, the evocation of certain symbols may evoke others by the chain reaction that we call mental association. The burst of evocation that a bit of text may induce is limited only by the richness and complexity of the memory structures that it activates. The more elaborate the structures that are evoked, the more the meaning to the reader is defined by the reader's memory, the less by the author's words. The meaning of text is determined by a relation between the text itself and the current state of the memory of the reader, its contents, and its state of activation. (emphasis added)

I agree with Simon that literary criticism can benefit from a deeper connection with cognitive science (though I'm not so convinced the relationship can be symmetrical), but I also agree with some of the commentators (this one and this one, for istance) that Simon's conception of meaning isn't going to to anyone, much less literary critics, much good. If it were only that his description of the cognitive scientific view of meaning was an oversimplification, I think that would be OK. It's a short paper, and cognitive science has a lot to say about memory. However, I think oversimplicity is not the only problem. The paper's account of meaning is just wrong. It's wrong in how it describes memory (which is probably more case-based, more reconstructive, and much less encyclopedic than he would lead us to believe), and I think he pays far too little attention (none, in most cases) to things like inference, imagery, layers of meaning, and the role of creativity in extending meaning. Still, with all its flaws, I think the aim of the paper is a good one.

I know what you're thinking: how does Chris think cognitive science can benefit literary criticism? Excellent question. The most obvious way is by developing an understanding of the cognitive processes involved in reading. In addition, the elucidation of the cognitive processes underlying literary techniques, like metaphor, imagery, and the construction of representations can benefit the study of texts. Finally, cognitive scientists can help critics to understand creative cognition. How are novel representations produced? How do we create entirely fictional worlds out of the material of the factual world? None of these things is designed to give literary critics a single, all-encompassing view of meaning with which they can interpret all texts. There may not be such a theory, and if there is, cognitive science isn't yet equipped to give it. Still, each of those things plays a role in meaning construction, in the minds of both authors and readers.

Anyway, I recommend checking out the paper, and the commentaries, if this is the sort of thing that interests you. Simon is not much of a writer, but he's very insightful, and even when he's wrong, he still raises important issues.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Promiscuous Females = Better Semen

I'm not really a big fan of evolutionary psychology. I don't think it has anything important to say about cognition, and at least up to this point, I've been right. However, there are interesting ways to use evolution to study things like sexual behavior. You have to do good research, though. For instance, this is the sort of research that evolutionary psychologists should be doing, rather than this shit. Here's an excerpt from the article on the study (the good one):
Researchers have shown that when females are more promiscuous, males have to work harder -- at the genetic level, that is. More specifically, they determined that a protein controlling semen viscosity evolves more rapidly in primate species with promiscuous females than in monogamous species. The finding demonstrates that sexual competition among males is evident at the molecular level, as well as at behavioral and physiological levels...
Lahn's group studied semenogelin, a major protein in the seminal fluid that controls the viscosity of semen immediately following ejaculation. In some species of primates, it allows semen to remain quite liquid after ejaculation, but in others, semenogelin molecules chemically crosslink with one another, increasing the viscosity of semen. In some extreme cases, semenogelin's effects on viscosity are so strong that the semen becomes a solid plug in the vagina. According to Lahn, such plugs might serve as a sort of molecular "chastity belt" to prevent fertilization by the sperm of subsequent suitors, though they might also prevent semen backflow to increase the likelihood of fertilization.

Lahn and his colleagues compared the SEMG2 gene, which contains the blueprint for semenogelin, from a variety of primates. They began by sequencing the SEMG2 gene in humans, chimpanzees, pygmy chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, gibbons, macaques, colobus monkeys, and spider monkeys. These species were chosen because they represent all the major mating systems, including those in which one female copulates with one male in a fertile period (such as gorillas and gibbons); those in which females copulate highly promiscuously (such as chimpanzees and macaques); and those in which mating practices fall somewhere in between (such as orangutans where a female will copulate with the dominant male, but may also copulate with other males opportunistically).

"When we plotted data on the evolution rate of the semenogelin protein against the level of female promiscuity, we saw a clear correlation whereby species with more promiscuous females showed much higher rates of protein evolution than species with more monogamous females," said Lahn. The researchers measured protein evolution rates by counting the number of amino acid changes in the protein, then scaling it to the amount of evolutionary time taken to make those changes.

"The idea is that in species with promiscuous females, there's more selective pressure for the male to make his semen more competitive. It's similar to the pressures of a competitive marketplace. In such a marketplace, competitors have to constantly change their products to make them better, to give them an edge over their rivals -- whereas, in a monopoly, there's no incentive to change."
Now this is the sort of research I can respect. Of course, it's done by biologists, not psychologists, which may explain why it's good evolutionary research.

Deaths in Iraq

There's been a lot of really, really bad commentary on the Lancet study in the blogosphere. Apparently everyone becomes a self-described expert in statistics when the statistics disagree with your previously held beliefs. At least we have Timothy Lambert and Daniel Davies to set the record straight. Lambert does an excellent job (as usual) of debunking some of the most common criticisms, and links to other defenses of the study, while Davies provides a thorough look at other common criticisms.

I really can't help but wonder why so many people who've clearly never taken a statistics course, and some who obviously haven't even read the paper, feel qualified to comment on its methodology and findings. Even those who do have some statistical knowledge (or at least should), seem to forget everything they've learned (or should have learned) when commenting on the paper. Thus, John Ray, who has published some admittedly unimportant psychological research that used statistics, writes:
Nobody, however, seems to have commented on the fact that the findings were a product of cluster sampling. The major fault I see with the study is that estimating low-incidence phenomena via cluster samples is inherently dodgy. I have had many findings derived from cluster samples reported in the academic journals so I know a little bit about it. You just have to get one or two clusters being a-typical (either by chance or intentionally) to arrive at totally distorted results. Basing such an important conclusion on a sample-size of only 33 is really quite ludicrous. I have used as few as 10 clusters in some of my surveys but I was concerned only to find whether some effect existed at all. I was not trying to estimate it precisely.
I'm going to be charitable and assume that it's been so long since Ray has published anything using cluster sampling that he doesn't remember how it works, and what sort of estimation errors one is likely to get using it. If that's the case (instead of Ray being so upset that the study disagrees with his personal beliefs about Iraq that he is rendered "temporarily" stupid), I hope that Ray and others will read Davies' post, because he explains where Ray goes wrong. He writes:
Although sampling textbooks warn against the cluster methodology in cases like this, they are very clear about the fact that the reason why it is risky is that it carries a very significant danger of underestimating the rare effects, not overestimating them.
Hopefully, further research will be done on the effects of the war in Iraq on Iraqis. This study is really just a preliminary one, though its findings should be taken seriously. However, as the results of future studies are likely to further upset conservatives, I can't imagine their responses will be any different, no matter how many studies demonstrate that Iraqis are worse, rather than better off, in post-war Iraq.

One More on the Great War

Since the anniversary of the Treaty of Versailles is now Veterans Day, which seems appropriate since it is this treaty that led to the creation of millions of future veterans of foriegn wars, Lindsay Beyerstein gives us "In Flanders Field," a poem written in 1915, during the Second Battle of Ypres, before McCrae could have known just how many more would die. Instead offering a another poem that glorifies the dead directly, I think I'll post one with a different perspective on the men who fought, and society in general. I think it does a good job of capturing the war, and the atmosphere that allowed it. Sometimes this sort of commentary can do more to honor those who died than direct tributes. I also think the poem is disturbingly appropriate for today. The entire poem is here. I will only give you a piece:

From Ode Pour L'election De Son Sepulchre by Ezra Pound

These fought in any case,
And some believing,
pro domo, in any case...

Some quick to arm,
some for adventure,
some from fear of weakness,
some from fear of censure,
some for love of slaughter, in imagination,
learning later...
some in fear, learning love of slaughter;

Died some, pro patria,
non "dulce" not "et decor"...
walked eye-deep in hell
believing old men's lies, then unbelieving
came home, home to a lie,
home to many deceits,
home to old lies and new infamy;
usury age-old and age-thick
and liars in public places.

Daring as never before, wastage as never before.
Young blood and high blood,
fair cheeks, and fine bodies;

fortitude as never before

frankness as never before,
disillusions as never told in the old days,
hysterias, trench confessions,
laughter out of dead bellies.

There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization,

Charm, smiling at the good mouth,
Quick eyes gone under earth's lid,

For two gross of broken statues,
For a few thousand battered books.

The Anniversary of the Treaty of Versailles

John Quiggin has an excellent post on the anniversary of the treaty that ended The War to End All Wars. This war more than any other of the last century, and perhaps since the Greeks themselves, seems to embody the essence of tragedy, with the folly, shortsightedness, greed, ineptitude, and all around ineluctable humanness displayed throughout it. The Treaty of Versailles, as ill-conceived as it looks to us now in hindsight, is merely another event born of the same tragic impulses that drove virtually every other act of the war. Yet though it is often almost unbearable to consider the mistakes and their later implications, much less the millions of dead, the Great War has always fascinated me to no end. I've spent countless hours reading about it or looking at pictures, imagining what life must have been like for those ordinary soldiers who knew full well that their chances of being killed and wounded were greater than their chances of making it out unscathed (counting those taken prisoner, the casualty rates for the French, Russians, Germans, and Romanians were all over 60%, while 90% of the Austria-Hungarians who fought in the war were killed, wounded, or captured). In the end, all I can do in the face of such mindless destruction is echo Quiggin's final sentiments:

War is among the greatest of crimes. It may be the lesser evil on rare occasions, but it is always a crime.
It's a shame so few have learned any real lessons from that war, or any other. They certainly haven't learned the lesson Quiggin has.

Note: On this site you will find some amazing color (not colorized!) photos from World War I. I highly recommend it if you are interested in that sort of thing.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Counterfactuals and the Real World

Brandon has a great post on counterfactuals at Siris, in which he argues that many counterfactuals are designed to highlight something factual. He gives some good examples, such as, "If I were a Hindu, I would worship Shiva," and analyzes them in order to show what it is they are meant to show. Here is his analysis of that counterfactual:

Suppose I said something like this. Not only am I not a Hindu, I can directly connect my preference for Shiva with a number of things in my personal history that would not at all have been likely to occur had I actually ever been a Hindu. What (1) really imports is not something about what I would od if I were actually a Hindu; its import is that I (now, as I am) see reasons for thinking a certain thing about Shiva-worship (what that thing is will depend on the context; it might be a comment implying that I think Shiva-worship is preferable to other sorts of Hindu worship, or that I think it more intelligible, or that I think it more in line with my temperament, or some such). In other words, although put idiomatically in a counterfactual form, what it really is set out to describe is something factual.

I think he's right about the examples he gives, and would go even further to say that all counterfactuals serve to highlight aspects of the factual world. Take, for example, counterfactuals used in causal reasoning. Imagine that I have just been in a car accident, and I am thinking about what I could have done to avoid it. I might think that if I had taken my usual route, rather than the scenic one, I would not have gotten into the accident. Or I might wonder if I had swerved instead of hitting my breaks, I would have been able to miss the car that I ran into. In these cases, the counterfactual serves two purposes. The first is to come up with possible scenarios in which I would not have gotten into an accident. This then serves to help me to understand what aspects of the factual scenario actually caused the accident, which is the second, and in most cases primary goal of the counterfactual.

In addition to being used in causal reasoning, counterfactuals are also often used for rhetorical purposes. For instance, Gilles Fauconnier has analyzed the counterfactual, "If [Bill] Clinton had been the Titanic, the iceberg would have sunk." This is an excellent example of a figurative counterfactual designed to highlight something about the factual Bill Clinton. This counterfactual was used (I forget by whom) soon after Clinton was impeached and it became clear that congressional Republicans were hurt more by the impeachment process than Clinton himself. The counterfactual is meant to highlight these aspects of the factual world. It essentially says that no matter what you bring against Clinton, you, rather than he, will ultimately be the one who gets hurt.

The fact that counterfactuals are generally used to highlight some aspect of reality demonstrates the importance of the mapping process in the production and comprehension of counterfactuals. As I've said previously, mappings between the factual and counterfactual scenarios serve to structure the counterfactual scenarios using our representations of the factual ones. In addition to providing structure for the counterfactual scenario, though, the mapping can also serve to highlight aspects of the factual scenario through contrasting alignable differences in the two domains. In other words, elements of the factual and counterfactual scenarios that are mapped onto each other (because they play the same role in the relational structure shared by the two scenarios), but which differ in some way, are brought to our attention through the mapping process. This highlighting of alignable differences has been demonstrated in research on analogy and metaphor, and is one of the key features in the structural alignment models of those phenomena. The fact that highlighting alignable differences through the mapping process can help explain the fact that counterfactuals serve to call our attention to certain aspects of the factual world makes me more confident that this sort of model can be used to explain counterfactuals as well.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Idioms, Metaphors, and Lakoff, Oh My!

Now that the election is over, it's safe to talk about Lakoff and his theory of metaphor, but before I get to that, I want to talk about idioms. Idiomatic expressions are interesting because in many cases the connection between them and their meaning is not always obvious. Take the idiom "kicked the bucket." What does kicking the bucket have to do with death? There are all sorts of folk etymologies constructed for these sorts of idioms (e.g., kicking a bucket on which one stands to hang oneself), but for the most part, the real phrase-meaning connection remains elusive1. For practical purposes, it might seem as though these connections don't matter; convention has established a meaning for idiomatic expressions, and people are able to learn them even when the expressions are opaque, as is "kicked the bucket." However, it turns out that the tendency to search for the connections between idiomatic expressions and their conventional meanings is in fact imporant for both practical and theoretical reasons. To demonstrate why, I'll quickly describe an experiment on idiom comprehension. Afterwards, I'll talk a little about the implications of this experiment, and some others, for Lakoff's conceptual metaphor theory.

Keysar and Bly 2 gave participants unfamiliar idioms3 in contexts that implied one of two meanings for the idioms. Half of the participants read the idiom with one meaning, and the other half with another. Afterwards, participants were asked to rate how likely it was that the idioms could have another meaning. Keysar and Bly found that after exposure to one meaning, participants; ratings of the likelihood that the expression could have another meaning were much lower (than another set of participants who read the idioms without being given a meaning). This effect grew stronger the more participants were exposed to the first meaning of the idiom. Furthermore, participants spontaneously constructed explanations for the meanings of the idioms. For instance, when given the idiom "the goose hangs high" in a context in which it meant that things were going well, participants might interpret it as meaning "there is a freshly-killed goose hanging in the larder, and so there will be plenty of food." When asked how likely it was that "the goose hangs high" meant things were not going well, participants who had been given the "things are going well" meaning rated this as very unlikely. Thus it appears that because people assume that there is a connection between the expression and its conventional meaning (and even construct explanations for this connection), and that people have a difficult time believing that the idiom could have another meaning once they've given it an interpretation.

While plausible, peoples' inferences about the literal meanings of the idiomatic expressions in the Keysar and Bly experiment were not based on any real evidence. Instead, they were "best guesses" based on the expression itself and the meaning it was given. One of the motivations for this experiment was to argue that this is the sort of thing that appears to be going on in cognitive linguistics when people like Lakoff and Johnson interpret conventional expressions such as those that use the language of war to talk about arguments (e.g., "The debate teams battled hard"). According to Lakoff and Johnson, such expressions are instantiations of conceptual metaphors (in this case, the "argument is war" metaphor). When people interpret these conventional expressions, they are making conceptual mappings between the domain being discussed (e.g., arguments) and a base domain (e.g., war). Under this view, this how we understand these expressions each time we hear them (i.e., we have to make the mappings for the expressions to make sense). Keysar and Bly argue that at most, these interpretations (specifically Lakoff and Johnson's interpretations) of conventional expressions are post hoc inferences like those the participants made about the meaning of "the goose hangs high." Instead of making the conceptual mappings implied by Lakoff and Johnson's intepretations of such statements, people (including Lakoff and Johnson) may build these interpretations after comprehension. The metaphorical mapping between arguments and wars is not actually part of the meaning of the expression itself, but merely a spontaneous explanation of that meaning. Here's a further explanation of the differences between the two views, from Keysar et al.4:

To point out the difference between the two alternatives, consider Lakoff and Johnson’s claim that “it is important to see that we don’t just talk about arguments in terms of war. We can actually win or lose arguments [. . .] It is in this sense that the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor is one that we live by in this culture; it structures the actions we perform in arguing.” Our alternative claim is that we usually do “just talk” about arguments using terms that are also used to talk about war. Put more simply, the words that we use to talk about war and to talk about arguments are polysemous, but systematically related. Just as a word such as depress can be used to talk about either physical depression or emotional depression, words such as win or lose can be used to talk about arguments, wars, gambling, and romances, with no necessary implication that any one of these domains provides the conceptual underpinning for any or all of the others. The bottom line is that conventional expressions can be understood directly, without recourse to underlying conceptual mappings. Thus, when we say that an argument is right on target we do “just talk” about arguments using terms that we also happen to use when we talk about war—and music, art, literature, journalism, film criticism, and any other human activity in which something can be more or less on target. (p. 578)

Things get still worse for Lakoff and Johnson when we consider more empirical evidence. The fact that people spontaneously produce post hoc interpretations of the meanings of conventional expressions calls into question Lakoff and Johnson's own metaphorical interpretations of such expressions, but it doesn't show that people aren't actually making the conceptual mappings Lakoff and Johnson say they are. However, other findings make it clear that people really aren't making these sorts of conceptual mappings. For instance, in one set of experiments, McGlone5 asked participants to paraphrase conventional metaphorical expressions like those about arguments that use terminology from the war domain. Participants produced paraphrases that were consistent with the meaning of the expression (e.g., a long lively argument), but rarely produced paraphrases that said anything about the base domain (e.g., talk about war), implying that no mappings had occurred.

In another set of experiments, Keysar et al. had people read scenarios that contained either no mapping, an implicit mapping (i.e., they used language that Lakoff and Johnson argue involves the instatiation of a conceptual metaphor, but the metaphor itself was not made explicit in the sentences), or an explicit mapping (same as in the implicit condition, but with the metaphor itself as one of the sentences in the scenario). Example scenarios from the "love is a patient" metaphor are below (from Keysar et al., Table 1):

No mapping “Love is a challenge” said Lisa. “I feel that this relationship is in trouble. How can we have an enduring marriage if you keep admiring other women?” “It’s your jealousy,” said Tom.

Implicit “Love is a challenge” said Lisa. “I feel that this relationship is on its last legs. How can we have a strong marriage if you keep admiring other women?” “It’s your jealousy,” said Tom.

Explicit “Love is a patient,” said Lisa. “I feel that this relationship is on its last legs. How can we have a strong marriage if you keep admiring other women?” “It’s your jealousy,” said Tom.
At the end of each scenario was the same target sentence, which referenced the conceptual mapping. The target sentence for the "love is a patient" scenarios was, "You're infected with this disease." Keysar et al. measured reading times for this target sentence, and compared them across conditions. If conceptual mappings occur during the comprehension of the implicit or explicit mapping scenarios, then it should be easier to comprehend the mapping-related target sentence, and therefore reading times for these sentences would be shorter in the two mapping conditions (the literal scenario was included as a manipulation check). If people don't spontaneously conduct the mapping, but do so when prompted to, then the difference in reading times should only show up in the explicit mapping scenarios. If people aren't making mappings, then there should be no difference between the no-mapping and mapping scenarios. This last possibility is what Keysar et al. actually found. Reading times did not differ across the three conditions. Thus it appears that people weren't making the mappings when interpreting statements that should, according to Lakoff and Johnson, require conceptual mappings in order to make sense. They didn't even make the mappings when they were prompted to by sentences making the mappings explicit. In fact, the only time in which they did appear to make the mappings Lakoff and Johnson say they should occurred in another experiment, in which novel (rather than conventional) metaphorical statements were used. For example, the following is a novel scenario derived from the "love is a patient" metaphor (from Table 1):

Novel “Love is a patient,” said Lisa. “I feel that this relationship is about to flatline. How can we administer the right medicine if you keep admiring other women?” “It’s your jealousy,” said Tom.
When given this scenario, participants did read the target sentence faster than in the no-mapping condition, as well as the implicit and explicit mapping condition. Thus, it appears that novel metaphors do require mappings, while conventional expressions do not.

Where does all of this leave conceptual metaphor theory? Well, I don't know about you, but I think it's pretty safe to start treating it as a result of the illusory transparency of conventional expressions, rather than as a good theory of everyday thinking. The evidence overwhelmingly indicates that people simply aren't performing the conceptual mappings that the Lakoff and Johnson conceptual metaphor theory requires. Fortunately, outside of the cognitive linguistics circle, this is how Lakoff and Johnson's theory is already viewed. However, Lakoff has bipassed the cognitive science world, and taken his theory straight to the public in the form of his framing analysis of political discourse. This is unfortunate. If we try to do framing the way Lakoff tells us we should, we're going to quickly run into problems. Lakoff's entire analysis of the conceptual metaphors underlying the two poles in American politics is probably nothing more than a misguided (and painfully bad) attempt to explain the meaning of "the goose hangs high." If we try to use these conceptual metaphors to explain and sell the moral underpinnings of our political views, we're simply not going to activate the desired mappings, as the Keysar et al. experiments show.

1 I've heard that "kicked the bucket" has its origins in pig-slaughtering techniques, but I'm not sure how reliable that etymology is either.
Keysar, K, & Bly, B. (1995). Intuitions of the transparency of idioms: Can one keep a secret by spilling the beans? Journal of Memory and Language, 34, 89-109.
3 They were actually really, really old idioms that were completely unfamilar to the participants.
4 Keysar, B., Shen, Y., Glucksberg, ?S, & Horton, W. (2000). Conventional Language: How Metaphorical Is It? Journal of Memory and Language, 43, 576–593.
5 McGlone, M. S. (1996). Conceptual metaphors and figurative language interpretation: Food for thought? Journal of Memory and Language, 35, 544–565.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

The Internet and the Extended Mind

While we're thinking about the internet as distributed cognition, we might also think about it from the perspective of the active externalism. From this perspective, when entities external to the mind are used in the course of thinking, those entities are part of an extended cognitive system. Thus, in these cases, cognition takes place both inside and outside of the brain. As Clark and Chalmers put it:

Epistemic action, we suggest, demands spread of epistemic credit. If, as we confront some task, a part of the world functions as a process which, were it done in the head, we would have no hesitation in recognizing as part of the cognitive process, then that part of the world is (so we claim) part of the cognitive process. Cognitive processes ain't (all) in the head!

They go on to say:

In these cases, the human organism is linked with an external entity in a two-way interaction, creating a coupled system that can be seen as a cognitive system in its own right. All the components in the system play an active causal role, and they jointly govern behavior in the same sort of way that cognition usually does. If we remove the external component the system's behavioral competence will drop, just as it would if we removed part of its brain. Our thesis is that this sort of coupled process counts equally well as a cognitive process, whether or not it is wholly in the head.
For the most part, the focus of Clark and Chalmers is on immediate interactions with the environment, as when we physically rotate objects rather than mentally doing so, or when we count on our fingers (using them, in their view, as a form of external working memory). However, I think one of the more interesting aspects of the internet is the way in which it serves as a sort of external long-term memory store. I think we can view the use of the internet for the storage and retrieval of information as a form of active externalism, or an instance of the extended mind, as well.

The primary criterion Clark and Chalmers discuss for treating the use of the external environment during cognitive tasks as part of an extended cognitive system requires that the external entities serve the same purpose as internal processes (i.e., the external and internal processes are causally systematic). I think the use of the internet as a long-term memory store meets this. Take search engines, for example. Often we may read something on the internet, and encode the gist of it. However, the details are either not encoded, or weakly encoded. We don't need to encode them. Using our knowledge of the gist, we can simply search the internet using keywords (retrieval cues), and quickly retrieve these details. We can then use this information to structure our knowledge of the domain on-line. We may even use the internet to store and retrieve information about ourselves. Blogs, for instance, serve as extended memory stores for our previous ideas, and articles we've read. Searching their archives, or using search engines to find previous posts, can therefore be an economic way to retrieve information about ourselves.

In these situations, the external information serves the same purposes that internal information in memory would. Much as we would when retrieving internal memories, we use retrieval cues to search for information, and that information then serves to structure our representations. Furthermore, the retrieved external information may serve to cue the retrieval of further autobiographical memories about inferences we had previously made based on that information, much as the retrieval of stored representations would. Thus, the internet, as a long-term memory store, appears to be part of an extended cognitive system used for retrieving and reasoning about information in extended long-term memory.

The Internet as Distributed Cognition

The word "meme" is one of the most pervasive memes in the blogosphere, and rightly so. Ideas, phrases, talking-points, etc., often catch on, or don't, and gain a life of their own in blog posts and internet articles. One of the more recent examples is the "moral values" issue which has somehow come to be viewed as the issue of the election, despite the fact that there is no empirical evidence to indicate that this issue was any more influential in 2004 than it has been in the past. While it may be productive to use the meme metaphor when thinking about the ways in which such ideas become distributed throughout the minds of many individuals, I think there's another way of thinking about it that might capture more of what's going on. In many ways, the development of such ideas (and not merely their proliferation) is similar to the sorts of phenomena discussed within the distributed cognition approach to cognitive phenomena. This approach doesn't just highlight the ways in which ideas are transmitted and reproduced, but also explains the ways in representations of and reasoning about them develops over time and across individuals. It might be interesting, then, to treat the blogosphere, and the internet in general, as distributed cognition.

Distributed cognition is a fairly new idea (first proposed in the late 80s, but only recently gaining some popularity) that is opposed to the traditional Cartesian views of the mind that are prominent even among materialists in philosophy of mind. Here is a short description of the D.C. approach from Yvonne Rogers and Mike Scaife:

The distributed cognition approach is concerned with cognitive phenomena that cover a wide spectrum; from analysing the properties and processes of a system of actors interacting with each other and an array of technological artefacts to perform some activity (e.g. flying a plane) to analysing the properties and processes of a brain activity (e.g. perceiving depth). To date, however, most attention has focused on cognitive systems of work practices, like cockpits, air traffic control (Halverson), software teams (Flor) and engineering (Rogers).

The Distributed Cognition approach emphasises the distributed nature of cognitive phenomena across individuals, artefacts and internal and external representations in terms of a common language of ‘representational states’ and ‘media’. In doing this it dissolves the traditional divisions between the inside/outside boundary of the individual and the culture/cognition distinction that anthropologists and cognitive psychologists have historically created. Instead, it focuses on the interactions between the distributed structures of the phenomenon that is under scrutiny.
For the most part, researchers studying distributed cognition focus on work tasks, such as flying a plane or navigating a ship. However, the same types of principles may also be applied to other types of reasoning and behavior as well. For instance, in the blogosophere, the ways in which individuals represent and reason about certain concepts is often a product of the dynamic interactions of multiple individuals over time. This dynamic exchange of ideas can create products (new concepts, or new representations of old concepts) that had not existed prior to the interaction of multiple minds. In essence, blogospheric discussions can be viewed as attempts to solve problems, and the problem-solving behavior is distributed across multiple minds and external media.

You might be thinking that this is just the way all interactive dialogue (and multilogue) works to produce epistemic and cultural innovations, but that is really my point. Instead of thinking about dialogue in the traditional ways, in which individual, informationally-encapsulated minds interact through external symbols, we can treat these instances of interactive reasoning as distributed cognition in which multiple minds are intertwined across time. Also, instead of thinking about these interactions from the perspective of the selfish reproduction of the concepts and symbols themselves, as the memetic approach does, we can focus on the ways in which the distributed aspects of the representing and reasoning about these concepts and symbols reproduces and recreates them, reaching novel solutions to difficult conceptual problems.

UPDATE: Brandon from Siris alerted me to this post of his on the same topic. It's better than mine, so you should go read it instead.