Culture Magazine

Cognitivism for the Critic, in Four & a Parable

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
I published this in The Valve in March of 2010. It's a guide on how to get on board with the computational thinking that's the driver in the so-called "cognitive revolution" — which, BTW, has peaked and is now deep into routinization. Computational thinking is a style of thought, a way of looking at the world. Alas, the most familiar example of computation, arithmetic, is not a very good way to get a feel for the style, not as you need it to investigate literature, the arts, or even the human mind. This post is a brief guide to THAT style. 
Note that the first book I recommend is a comic about comics. Forget about MLA-authorized easings into literary cognitivism and similar things and forget about Turner and Lakoff, More than Cool Reason. Move them down on your list. Put McCloud first. Why? Because cognitivism is in fact about building things, about how the mind builds  perceptual and conceptual structures. McCloud is about how comics are built. And, in one way or another, the other books give you a sense of construction as well. The Braitenberg constructs a mind, mechanism by mechanism. There's NO sense of mechanism in Turner and Lakoff. See also Cognitivism and the Critic 2: Symbol Processing.
It has long been obvious to me that the cognitive sciences are what happened when the computation and the computer hit the behavioral sciences as a source of models and metaphors. And that is what is missing from almost all of the work I’ve seen in cognitive approaches to literature. In this post I list and annotate four modest books that can help restore the sense of computation, and the constructive, that’s otherwise absent. I list them in order of suggested reading, starting with a comic book about comic books. After that we have a bonus section, a parable about computation based on passages from Simon about a drunken ant walking on the beach.
(1) Scott McCloud (1993). Understanding Comics. New York: HarperPerennial.
In some odd, but wonderful, ways this may be the best single introduction to the cognitive study of literature. It's not an academic book; there's no scholarly apparatus. But it yields a superb sense of what it is like to think about story-telling from a cognitive point of view. It takes the form of a comic book, words and images in panels cover every page - McCloud is a cartoonist. The pictorial form is what makes it so effective. So, McCloud has the reader thinking about visual objects and how they're constructed and how those constructions are organized into stories. It conveys a sense of design, engineering, and construction which is very important and which is missing in much of the current literary cognition literature. It gives the reader a whiff of mechanism without the pain involved in understanding the computational models of the cognitive sciences.
(2) Valentine Braitenberg (1999). Vehicles: Experiments in Synthetic Psychology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
This is a cumulative series of thought experiments, 14 of them in the first 83 pages. Braitenberg asks us to imagine a simple (artificial) creature in a simple environment. Here’s how he begins to describe the first one: “Vehicle 1 is equipped with one sensor and one motor. The connection is a very simple one. The more there is of the quality to which the sensor is tuned, the faster the motor goes” (p. 3). He then works out the consequences of this very simple creature, how it moves about. In the second chapter he gives the vehicle two sensors and two motors and from that constructs primitive fear and aggression. And so it goes for the rest of these 14 chapters. In each chapter he adds a little bit to the vehicle from the previous chapter and explores the behavior consequences, e.g.: love (vehicle 3), concepts (#7), getting ideas (#10), egotism and optimism (#14). The last 50 pages contain biological notes on the vehicles, thus relating to the real nervous systems of real animals. Like the McCloud, it conveys a sense of design, engineering, and construction that is essential to the cognitive science.
(3) Herbert A Simon (1981). The Sciences of the Artificial, Second Edition. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Trained in political science, Simon became one of the founding fathers of artificial intelligence, computing, and cognitive science during the 1950s and 60s. This is a relatively informal collection of essays that has been widely, and justly, influential. From the preface (xi): “Engineering, medicine, business, architecture, and painting are concerned, not with how things are but with how they might be—in short, with design. . . . These essays then attempt to explain how a science of the artificial is possible and to illustrate its nature. I have taken as my main examples the fields of economics (chapter 2), the psychology of cognition (chapters 3 and 4), and planning and engineering design (chapters 5 and 6).” Chapter 7 is entitled “The Architecture of Complexity” (originally published in 1962) and takes up the problem of biological evolution. The bonus section of this post is based on a thought experiment or parable from chapter 3, “The Psychology of Thinking: Embedding Artifice in Nature.”
(4) John von Neumann (1958). The Computer and the Brain. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Von Neumann was an mathematician who made contributions in many fields. But he is best known for his work in computing. This slender volume (82 pages) is the last project he worked on and is incomplete. Brain cancer took him before he could finish. It is about two ways a computing process can be embodied in physical matter, the analog and the digital, and addresses, among other things, the limitations these modes impose on the process. Though the book contains no math, it is quite abstract, its details at some remove from all the complex details about existing computers (then and now) or the messy wetware of the brain. That is to say, it is about the essential. Forget about the fact that computers are now quite different from those von Neumann knew, and forget about the fact that most of what we know about the brain was discovered since von Neumann’s death. In this book first class mind grappls with deep questions in simple, if abstract, terms. Reading it is a good work out.
Bonus: Simon’s Ant and Slocum’s Pilot
Think of this as a parable about computation, about how computational requirements depend on the problem to be solved. Stated that way, it is an obvious truism. But Simon’s thought experiment invites you to consider this truism where the “problem to be solved” is an environment external to the computer – it is thus reminiscent of Braitenberg’s primitive vehicles.
Think of it like this: the nervous system requires environmental support if it is to maintain its physical stability and coherence. Note that Simon was not at all interested in the physical requirements of the nervous system. Rather, he was interested in suggesting that we can get complex behavior from relatively simple devices, and simplicity translates into design requirements for a nervous system.
Simon asks us to imagine an ant moving about on a beach:
We watch an ant make his laborious way across a wind- and wave-molded beach. he moves ahead, angles to the right to ease his climb up a steep dunelet, detours around a pebble, stops for a moment to exchange information with a compatriot. Thus he makes his weaving, halting way back to his home. So as not to anthropomorphize about his purposes, I sketch the path on a piece of paper. It is a sequence of irregular, angular segments--not quite a random walk, for it has an underlying sense of direction, of aiming toward a goal.
After introducing a friend, to whom he shows the sketch and to whom he addresses a series of unanswered questions about the sketched path, Simon goes on to observe:
Viewed as a geometric figure, the ant’s path is irregular, complex, hard to describe. But its complexity is really a complexity in the surface of the beach, not a complexity in the ant. On that same beach another small creature with a home at the same place as the ant might well follow a very similar path.
I want to consider a variation on his parable. What would happen if we put the ant on an absolutely featureless surface and let it walk about? What kind of paths would it trace then? As that surface lacks any of the normal cues in the ant’s environment I would imagine the ant would either not move at all or move in a genuinely random or perhaps a rigidly stereotypic way (e.g. around and around in a circle). Or perhaps the ant would hallucinate.
Simon, of course, was not particularly interested in ants. He only told that story to make a point he wanted to apply to the human case. So let us continue on and consider the human case. What happens to us when we face a blank world, a world that does not support our intentionality? What happens is that the mind becomes unstable.
Early on in The Ghost Dance, a classic anthropological study of the origins of religion, Weston La Barre considers what happens under various conditions of deprivation. Consider this passage about Captain Joshua Slocum, who sailed around the world alone at the turn of the 20th Century:
Once in a South Atlantic gale, he double-reefed his mainsail and left a whole jib instead of laying-to, then set the vessel on course and went below, because of a severe illness. Looking out, he suddenly saw a tall bearded man, he thought at first a pirate, take over the wheel. this man gently refused Slocum’s request to take down the sails and instead reassured the sick man he would pilot the boat safely through the storm. Next day Slocum found his boat ninety-three miles further along on a true course. That night the same red-capped and bearded man, who said he was the pilot of Columbus’ Pinta, came again in a dream and told Slocum he would reappear whenever needed.
La Barre goes on to cite similar experiences happening to other explorers and to people living in isolation, whether by choice, as in the case of religious meditation, or force, as in the case of prisoners being brainwashed.
Imagine, now, that when you step away from the world, you fill the void with a work of imaginative literature. How does that work support the operations of the nervous system, giving them resistance and structure so they don’t flail into chaos?
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I just googled "simon's ant" and got over 5 million hits. I didn't check more than 15 or so, but 3 or 4 of those were references to Simon's little story. People seem to find it a very useful tool for thinking, as well they should.

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