Thursday Program
Imagination and the Adapted Mind 
Friday Program
 
Francis Steen
English, UC Santa Barbara
 
The Learning-mode Hypothesis of the Literary Imagination

Evolutionary accounts of cognitive abilities represent an attempt to historicize structures and processes that previously either were taken so for granted that they went unnoticed or else were viewed as timeless essences inescapably part of the order of things. In this sense, Darwin belongs with Nietzsche and Marx, the great historicizers of morals and politics. Yet Darwin poses a tougher question than both of these: history, for him, extends far beyond the conceptions of his social science colleagues, blending uncomfortably with the history of animals, plants, and indeed matter itself. Because Darwin's theories span the conceptual chasms between the human, the non-human living, and the merely material, a century of attempts to digest their significance remains mired in basic controversies. At stake is the simple matter of when in historical time, in that singly flowing river full of repeating vortices, a particular cognitive capacity is built: in personal history, cultural history, or evolutionary history. Initially premised on a dubious distinction between "nature" and "nurture" -- "nurture" supposedly epitomizing culture -- the technical formulation of this controversy has been cast as a debate between specialized -- and therefore evolved -- capacities versus broad and equipotential domain-specific neural powers of problem solving that build the mind in much the same way that God formed Adam "of the dust of the ground" (Gen. 2:7).

The two major cognitive approaches to literature and culture -- cognitive linguistics and evolution -- specifically face this reformulation of the nature/nurture debate in the question of the cognitive capacities underlying metaphor, and thus more broadly, the imagination. The project of cognitive linguistics, first formulated by Lakoff as a response to Chomsky's largely ahistorical and rationalist view of language, proposed to historicize linguistic structures by grounding them in an undeniably temporal body. The mechanism invoked to get from the physical to the mental was metaphor: a mapping of information across cognitive domains. Metaphor was found to be ubiquitous, penetrating far beyond what in common parlance was termed metaphorical, and demonstrating conceptual continuity between such basic capacities as spatial cognition, or a grasp of force dynamics, and the partly lexicalized and grammaticalized conceptual structures humans employ to model psychological and social processes. When the processes underlying metaphorical thinking were further specified by Turner and Fauconnier in the mid-90s, we were given possession of an extremely ambitious model that unified cognition from the neural level to abstract mathematics, politics, and literature. Conceptual blending, as the process was descriptively termed, was proposed to arise on the one hand as an inevitable consequence of the branching and interconnecting of neurons -- a generic and domain-general property of thinking matter that required no evolutionary account beyond the most rudimentary -- and on the other to constitute a high-level cognitive operation "on a par with analogy, recursion, mental modeling, conceptual categorization, and framing" (Fauconnier & Turner 1998).

Cognitive linguistics shares with evolutionary psychology the view that basic capacities of the body, inseparable from the body itself, are products of evolutionary design: the ability to perceive objects in three-dimensional space, to move at will through the landscape with the help of complex motor control structures, to hold and to be held.  The evolutionary history of these capacities is seen as unproblematic, mostly shared with other mammals or at least with the primates, and unlikely to yield further insights into the structure of cognition. Their development flows undetectably into the infant's earliest embodied experiences. It cannot be denied, however, that human mental capacities are highly unusual in the animal world; the question is whether this is a sign of quantitative oomph or qualitative skills. Steven Mithen has argued that what is uniquely human is precisely "cognitive fluidity," functionally equivalent to the capacity described by Turner and Fauconnier. Even if, as seems likely, Mithen's claims must be qualified, the fact that a wholly generic process is invoked to account for the very unusual cognitive capacities of human beings gives room for pause.

In this talk, I will consider the possibility that conceptual blending arose in evolutionary history to solve a specific problem: that of training complex physiological and cognitive adaptations. Adaptationists generally focus on functions that solve problems in the real world -- finding food, extracting information, chosing a mate. The evolution of such pragmatic cognitive abilities can create a situation where training becomes a distinct adaptive problem. Frivolous behavior that appear to perform no practical function beyond training is widespread in mammals, allowing us to distinguish between a learning mode and an executive mode. The conditions that trigger behavior in the learning mode (e.g., play chasing) differ markedly from those that trigger the corresponding behavior in the executive mode (e.g., escaping from a predator), even though the behaviors themselves may be nearly identical. For example, the learning mode is typically triggered in the absence of danger and involves an apparently enjoyable and often extravagant expenditure of energy.

In brief, I will argue that the "blended space" that characterizes conceptual integration may have as its prehistory not the generic tendency of, say, sensory domains to integrate, but the specific utility of hypothetical (emergent) conceptual domains for enabling play. This view has broad implications for the arts, which can be understood as extensions and elaborations of the learning mode for a range of cogntive abilities. It is distinct from the view that the arts are a form of sexual or status display, or the neo-Freudian notion that the arts enact a deluded wish-fulfillment -- both perspectives frequently seen in popular works on evolutionary psychology. Finally, the learning mode hypothesis suggests that conceptual blending is very far from an inevitable outcome of neural interconnectedness but represents a specialized adaptation to solve a specific class of problems.
 
 

 
Speaker

Francis Steen is a doctoral candidate in English at UC Santa Barbara, currently completing his dissertation Negotiating the Natural Mind: A Cognitive Approach to British Fiction 1651-1728 in Berkeley. Relevant work includes The Time of Unrememberable Being: Wordsworth's Autobiography of the Imagination and a review of Higbie's Dickens and the Imagination. See also various resources on cognitive science and cognitive cultural studies.
 

top of page

 

Thursday Program
Imagination and the Adapted Mind 
Friday Program