Play and Embodiment

In yesterday’s post, Play and Culture, I discussed how the neurobiological and behavioral aspects of play feed into the production of culture.  Play helps integrate the processing and coordination of different brain systems and to produce skilled social and physical engagement with other individuals in the environment.  By being able to draw on these evolutionary and embodied precursors, play also helps with the formation of cultural patterns, particularly among children.  These cultural patterns—say, a game of Cowboys and Indians—then feedback to shape the coordinated behavior of the individuals involved, from everything to guns vs. arrows and good vs. bad to cultural valuations of indigenous people and gender roles. 

In many ways, it sounds like a fairly neat story, at least to me (well, I wrote it, didn’t I?).  But the process of cultural production and the ability of cultural forms to then re-engage with people still seems a bit of a black box to me.  Biology and behavior don’t quite get us to culture, even if I invoke emotional and motor processing in conjunction with social relationships.  It’s too far a jump, because it assumes that all these things just “naturally” come together and somehow produce culture.  It also relinquishes too much of “meaning” to culture.  Anthropologists have traditionally been quite happy to accept that deal in the mind-body split—we talk about meaning, you guys about neurotransmitters. 

Greg and I have both pushed embodiment and practices as a central way to mediate between meaning and neural function.  Bringing body, behavior, and organism-environment interactions into the picture certainly is a big help.  But in writing the posts on play, I realized that all the talk of “embodied cognition” suffers from the same problem that I talked about in the first post on play.  Researchers often assume that the integration of different brain systems happens naturally, without help, without any “outside” process to help it along.  I see the same thing happening with embodied cognition. 

First, let me say that I find the insights of embodied cognition crucial to the work that I do and to how we can think about integrating neuroscience and anthropology.  Works like Lakoff’s Women, Fire and Dangerous Things and Gibb’s Embodiment and Cognitive Science have a prominent place on my bookshelf.  Today I’ll talk about the work on one of the field’s leader, Lawrence Barsalou at Emory University.  I recommend reading his work, even if today I will be on the critical side. 

Let me present the first part of an abstract from a recent co-authored paper, Cognition as Coordinated Noncognition (download the paper here): “We propose that cognition is more than a collection of independent processes operating in a modular cognitive system. Instead, we propose that cognition emerges from dependencies between all of the basic systems in the brain, including goal management, perception, action, memory, reward, affect, and learning. Furthermore, human cognition reflects its social evolution and context, as well as contributions from a developmental process.” 

The internal causal nature of this account is reflected in these few sentences, even as the researchers take steps to provide a broader accounting that moves away from a strict modular view.  There are “dependencies” between brain systems, cognition reflects context and has contributions from development—in the end, cognition is the independent variable, shaped by these dependencies but somehow “emerging” on its own.  My concern, then, is that embodied cognition comes packed with an implicit determinism.  

Take the language used in Barsalou’s first lines in his 2008 Annual Review of Psychology paper, Grounded Cognition: “Grounded cognition rejects traditional views that cognition is computation of amodal symbols in a modular system, independent of the brain’s modal systems for perception, action and introspection.  Instead, grounded cognition proposes that modal simulations, bodily states, and situation action underlie cognition.”  Here cognition is the center of action, and everything else “underlies” it.  But how do you get perception and action into cognition, particularly through “coordinated noncognition”? 

Play, in my mind (well, really, in my fun with it), plays a central role.  Put differently, by talking about a specific behavior that helps to organize neurological function, links to social relations, and has evolutionary roots and connections to culture, we are in a better position to avoid the innatist position that embodied cognition often takes up. 

But that is still too general.  We need to talk about specific circuits, specific relationships, specific cultural configurations.  Otherwise, we’re not in a good-enough position to understand for some of what George Lakoff argues, for example, that metaphor plays a central role in language and thought.  Rather than metaphor being a basic psychological process that accounts for the data (the general Lakoff position), metaphor becomes enriched and dependent on who you play with, what sort of game involved, your physical surroundings.  These provide the richness and specificity to metaphorical thought. 

Put differently, play can help drive the sort of extensions from “noncognition” to cognition that Barsalou argues for.  It drives the playful combinations and creative extensions that help metaphor do its work.  At least that’s the idea I am playing around with today.  It’s my sort of answer to what wends between nature and culture.  It’s not of the brain or of social and cultural traditions, and thus offers one alternative to that duality.   

I’ll end with an example of that duality, seen here in this good critique of Lakoff and Pinker together, but which goes over to the environment as what shape us.   It’s from Geoffrey Nunberg writing in The New Republic: 

The fact is that in his way, Lakoff is as much a Chomskian as Pinker is: There’s the same psychologism, the same reductiveness, the same stress on cognitive universals and downplaying of merely social and historical factors. In the end, the two men are playing the same game by the same rules… As good cognitive scientists–and in particular, good Chomskians–both writers naturally look for the primary genesis of political orientation in underlying psychological dispositions, rather than the social and economic conditions that shape us politically.

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