Time to dump the concept of cognition?

An interesting paper came up in my Twitter feed.  Neuroscientist Paul Cisek notes that many of our current models on how the mind works come from dualistic traditions, as well as psychological ones that were heavily influenced by dualism.  He sees the concept of cognition having largely been created after dualism was abandoned.  It made up for the missing non-physical aspect of the mind, sitting between perception and action.

In the paper, he proposes remodeling our concepts by studying the evolutionary biology of the brain.  Along those lines, he provides an overview of the functional evolution of the vertebrate brain, from the earliest nervous systems up through the primate lineage.

Central to this view is the idea that living organisms are control systems designed to maintain their state within certain homeostatic parameters.  Behavior should be seen as an elaboration of that control into the environment, control that is in a tight sensorimotor feedback loop.  (There’s a lot of resonance here with Antonio Damasio’s biological value idea.)

There’s a lot in this paper, and it’s fairly technical.  But I also came across a couple of videos of talks where he presents his ideas, although without the evolutionary history analysis.  Here’s the short one.  It’s about 49 minutes.

Some of us where having a discussion about how different regions of the brain talk with each other and the loops that are involved.  This fits right along with Cisek’s ideas.  All behavior is an ongoing loop of stimulus, a proliferation of possible actions in competition with one or two winning, followed by the next stimulus.

I’m intrigued by the possibility that the binding problem isn’t really a problem.  The dorsal vision stream, the “where” stream, feeds into action selection, and the ventral stream, the “what” one, is used later by that process.  Object identification becomes a detail of action selection.

All that said, I’m not entirely convinced that Cisek succeeds here in obviating the concept of cognition.  Most of what he’s talking about seems to involve minimal foresight.  Certainly, as he indicates, that is most of what animals do.  And, lets be honest, it’s a lot of what humans do.

But humans also spend a good amount of time planning, both in the short and longer term.  A lot of the actions he discusses actually happen below the level of consciousness in humans.  Consciousness itself seems to be reserved for dealing with novel situations, where short term planning is needed, or longer term contemplation, such as planning the chess moves he dismisses.

All of which is to say, I’m not sure where imagination or introspection fit in his framework.  It seems to be mostly concerned with in-the-moment decisions.  And within that scope, I don’t know that his view of how this works is all that different from the conventional versions.

Still, the idea of analyzing mental functions by looking at evolutionary history appeals to me.  The recent developments showing that the hippocampus, which was understood to be crucial for memory, is actually a navigation system, puts the evolution of memory into context of why early animals needed it.  I suspect many of our “higher order” cognitive functions have similar grounded origins.

h/t How Does It Work @generuso

6 thoughts on “Time to dump the concept of cognition?

  1. I support your skepticism Mike, and especially because I know that Cisek’s position does appeal to you. Just because evolution has built us bottom up, doesn’t mean that we can understand ourselves that way. And just because neuroscience is doing lots of good things while psychology flounders, doesn’t mean that we can effectively go against the natural order of things. The engineer (neuroscientist) must be informed by good architecture (psychology). Hopefully good psychology will exist soon enough, thus effectively guiding the hands of our comparatively quite talented neuroscientists.

    In the mean time I suppose that we’ll dream about using good neuroscience to develop good psychology. But why stop there? We might just as well study the brain of a person who speaks in order to grasp the nature of linguistics. HA! Some subjects supervene upon others, though science ignores this dynamic at its peril.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I am skeptical that he’s successfully removed the need for cognition as a concept, but I do think there’s a lot to be said for reassessing traditional psychological concepts within the context of neuroscience and evolution. Ever since reading Damasio and F&M’s first book, I’ve been aware that many of the “mysteries” that bother so many psychologists and philosophers have evolutionary answers. Many problems become easier when we broaden our scope of inquiry.

      Not that I think neuroscience makes psychology obsolete by any measure. We need both. But their subject matters are highly entangled. Indeed, they’re actually one and the same, just at different levels of organization.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is the perfect follow-up to our discussion. I haven’t looked at the paper yet, but I watched the video, and I’m pretty much all in.

    On the topic of dualism and cognition, the impression I got was that he was thinking of cognition as the kind which one of our computers does, i.e., using a single central processor (he refers to the central executive, I think) which stores information here, integrates it with new information from there, follows some algorithm to produce action. I’m going to guess he would not object to the idea of highly parallel processors, each doing their relatively simple thing.

    Regarding living objects as control systems, I think many people are coming to this realization from many angles. I think we’ve discussed it as teleonomic purpose (at least that’s how I was thinking of it). It’s essentially the same thing as Friston’s free-energy thing, and Dawkin’s archeopurpose, and I presume Damasio’s biological value, and now, apparently Rovelli’s “meaning” (which I’m pretty sure translates to value, as opposed to intentional content) (Google:Meaning and Intentionality = Information + Evolution).

    And finally we get to imagination and planning. I think the idea of parallel affordances goes a long way towards explaining things. A given perception can offer a number of affordances for action, and multiple pathways for action can be initiated as competitors which can be helped or hindered by other processes. I think imagination may be just another source of perception, but where the source of the information is internal, and planning may be just recognition of affordances in that information creating new competing actions which will again be helped or hindered by other process. The actions for those affordances might be the establishment of a plan. The existence of that plan may have its effects as the hindering or helping of other affordances, depending on whether feedback furthers the plan.

    Note: it’s easy to see how evolution could work to give us our prefrontal cortex if it’s simply just more cortex doing what cortex does, more or less.

    [now I need to figure out if this is compatible with Generative Adversarial Networks]


    1. I think you might be sweeping a lot of complexity and dynamics under the carpet with “just another source of perception, but where the source of the information is internal”. And those dynamics complicate the somewhat simple loop structure Cisek presents. Not that I think he’s necessarily wrong on the broad structure, but that there’s a lot of feed back in addition to feed forward processing happening, and his view minimizes it, I think excessively.

      I don’t think the prefrontal cortex is more cortex doing what cortex does. (At least other than in the sense that description applies to the whole nervous system.) We have substantial evidence that a lot of planning, foresight, and self control is associated with it. It could be said that a lot of the role of the frontal cortex overall is as a break. Most of the connections going down to the basal ganglia and brainstem are inhibitory. It’s the why of those inhibitions where it functionality lies.

      So there’s good stuff here, but I think we have to keep in mind all the other scientific work out there. This is part of the picture, but it’s not the whole picture.


  3. Interesting links to follow up there, thanks. I do find that thinking in terms of control, rather than perception and action, is helpful in bringing a few different things together (even if the resulting architecture could then be re-expressed in terms of perception and action). Consciousness then translates as control of control.


    1. Thanks Peter. I do think it pays to remember that consciousness is essentially a homeostasis mechanism, a prediction framework to enhance behavior, which is an extension of metabolism, with the reproduction impulse thrown in complicating everything.


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