Sunday, November 7, 2010

The cultural part of cognition

D’Andrade, R. (1981). The cultural part of cognition, Cognitive Science, 5, 179-195.

A good part of what any person knows is learned from other people. The teaching by others can be formal or informal, intended or unintended, and the learning can occur through observation or by being taught rules. However accomplished, the result is a body of learnings, called culture, transmitted from one generation to the next.

In saying that an object--either a physical object like a desk, or a more abstract object like a talk or a theorem--is a product of culture, I mean that the cultural pool contains the information which defines what the object is, tells how to construct the object, and prescribes how the object is to be used. Without culture, we would not have or use such things.

How can things be arranged so that all this information gets learned again and again without serious loss or distortion? How could one know if the information were lost? How can procedures be established so that the person who has the appropriate information is there when needed? How has all this been arranged in the past, and how can it be arranged in the future when it is likely there will be an even bigger pool? [See posting about the Tomasello article]

An important assumption of cognitive anthropology is that in the process of repeated social transmission, cultural programs come to take forms which have a good fit to the natural capacities and constraints of the human brain.

One major difference between cultural and computer programs is in the degree of precision with which computer programs must be stated. For almost all computer programs, there must be an exact and unambiguous specification of the steps to be taken to accomplish the task, while what it is that is being accomplished does not have to be represented at all in the program. For humans, however, what is to be accomplished is usually represented in detail, while how to do the task is usually given only incompletely and ambiguously, if at all.

Looking at cross-cultural studies of socialization, one is struck with both the small amount of explicit step by step instruction and the large amount of occasional correction that characterizes cultural learning all over the world.

Part of the method of guided discovery is having ready for the discoverer information about what has been learned, and how it is labelled. Typically, cultural systems not only label what is a good thing to know or do, they also classify and label the kinds of errors people make.

The author argues that part of the human condition to work hard to discover what is already known.

Three generalizations have been made about the relation between humans and cultural programs. First, culturally based programs for action and understanding are rarely well specified and explicit; second, people typically learn these culturally based programs through a process of informally guided discovery; and third, people are very good at discovering what they must learn under conditions of informally guided discovery, and not so good when they must learn entirely on their own.

There are two types of abstraction: content-based abstraction and abstraction by recoding the problem or situation in a different symbol system.

On the cultural level, formal language abstraction is the product of "schooling", where there is a division of labor between the "theor ists" who develop and teach the formal system, and the "engineers" or "applied people" , who work on the interface between the formal system and the content problems. Content based abstraction, on the other hand, appears to be the product of "experience", where the division of labor is a blurred distinction between the old hands versus green horns, and instruction involves on the job training and a personal relationship between the "master" and the "apprentice".

There is a strong positive correlation phylogenetically between intelligence and emotionality. Thus vertebrates show more emotional communication and intelligence than the invertebrates (with that interesting creature the octopus as an exception), and mammals more emotional communication intelligence than reptiles and fish. Among the mammals, the higher primates have a more complex emotional communication system than the rodents, herbivores, and even carnivores.

It seems to the author that intelligence necessarily involves a delay between stimulus and response, a delay which permits time for complex information processing. As intelligence increases, the representation of external events relies more on internal processing, and response to events is determined more by learned and recalled connections instead of innate stimulus-response bonds. This processing takes time and requires delay.

The beauty of feelings and emotions is that they permit delay, but work against forgetting. Feeling and thought are parallel systems of processing which permit one to reason while being hungry or angry. Emotions and reasoning are not at all incompatible. In fact, as a total information processing system, emotions and thoughts are, the author argues, interacting parallel processes which have evolved together.

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