Taking a toddler to the zoo!

Some three months ago, before I knew that I would be doing my PhD on categorisation and concept formation I was reflecting on the ‘shape of thoughts’ and (mainly to impress a lady) I wrote this:

I have been thinking about the shape of thoughts, and except in the synaesthesic sense, i disagree that they have surfaces.. I have tried to offer an alternative visualisation and beyond the very mundane image of thousands of tiny electrical discharges zipping through the mossy tangle of our neurons, I keep return ing to a drop of ink in water, at just the point before it is so diffuse that its singular nature is lost. Thoughts are elusive and diaphanous.

When philosophers write about concrete concepts they usually talk about chairs or desks.. psychologists tend to prefer dogs and cats. Especially, developmental psychologists. Young children learning to talk have to solve an incredible problem, applying the right labels to the things they see around them and sifting the names from the actions, the nouns from the verbs. The first words they learn are usually commands or specific names (no, gone, eat, juice, mummy) They also quickly learn that this furry four-legged animate object is a dog. Another dog is correctly called a dog. Parents are proud.

Now the psychologists intervene and we take the toddler to the zoo. Suddenly, there are a range of other four legged animate objects, some furry, some less so. These are trimuphantly identified as ‘dogs’ too. Everyone laughs benignly. But why are they so complacent, their own idea of dog is a lot less clear than they realise it. We may be able to give a dictionary definition of a dog or a description of a cannonical dog. But that captures so little of reality.. and particularly of how we experience it. our concept of dog is much more intangible than a word or a collection of objects have some common property of doghood.

It encompasses everything from the smell of a wet dog lying by a coal fire in a dublin pub through the dim remembered fear of a snarling beast at a neighbour’s gate in childhood and onto to our self-assured adult assumption that of course we know what a dog is. We do and we don’t. It’s a fuzzy hairball of connected and related abstractions built from thousands and thousands of individual experiences from toddlerhood until today, some remembered, some forgot, but all passing through the brain and leaving faint traces that turn into our knowledge. Or at least something like that.

Now, here I am reading a paper by a colleague on my research program and in the peer commentary, i recognise the vague outline of something and i see that psychologists do indeed prefer dogs to tables. Or to put it another way, here’s how i might phrase the above after a few more years in academia.

What of the common case of automatic categorization ñ when we, for example, see a dog as a dog? First, critical reviews (e.g., Dulany 1997; Perruchet & Vinter 2002; Shanks & St. John 1994) find no defensible evidence for use of unconscious rules in learned categorization. Second, according to a view recently elaborated (e.g., Dulany 1997; 1999; Perruchet & Vinter 2002), automatic categorization occurs with direct activation of an awareness of kind from awareness of features or form. With automatization, category representations should drop out, not down to an unconscious level ñ a view consistent with accumulating evidence for diminishing fMRI activation in relevant networks during automatization (e.g., Schneider et al. 2003). Third, it is difficult to believe that evolution has required us to activate a defining rule or our canine prototype or to shuffle through dogs we have known in order to recognize a dog as a dog. Although we can, if required, form one of these representations of a dog, and even compare dogs for similarity, neither rules nor similarity need be represented by the person automatically categorizing the very familiar ñ and therefore the issue addressed in the target article would not arise.

Dulany, D.E.(2005) Rules and similarity as conscious contents with distinctive roles in theory. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 28 p24

a commentary on

Pothos, E.M (2005) The rules versus similarity distinction Behavioral and Brain Sciences 28 1-14

About caspar

Caspar is just one monkey among billions. Battering his keyboard without expectations even of peanuts, let alone of aping the Immortal Bard. By day he is an infantologist at Birkbeck Babylab, by night he runs BabyLaughter.net
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