Finish off this …

the concept of ‘cognitive communities’ was once explained to me by an anthropology lecturer at Melbourne University, Dr Douglas Lewis. Here is my own short version of Dr Lewis’ explanation:

Imagine Jack and Jill walking up a hill and Jack says to Jill, “Oh, I’ve forgotten to bring the… the.. the… um…”
“The bucket?” Jill says.
“Yes, yes, the bucket, I forgot to bring the bucket.”

What Jill is demonstrating, is her culturally attuned ability to predict what Jack will say. She helps him out with his cognitive homework (so to speak) and finishes off his sentence. The cognitive work is done by a community of people, i.e. Jack and Jill, who share similar perceptual attunement, modes of attention and cultural training.

Watch Steve Martin complete this sentence: “This may sound a little wierd but…”

I have just finished reading, Second Nature by Gerald Edelman which contains lots of quotable ideas, but reads more like a collection of essays than a book. I probably wouldn’t reccomend this book to people who haven’t read Edelman before, but I did find it nice to refresh myself on some of his ideas. For neophytes looking to understand neural darwinism and the Theory of Neuronal Group Selection, I suggest first reading Bright Air, Brilliant Fire or Wider than the sky

In Second Nature, readers will need to have some familiarity with the history of philosophy and science to help make the book more comprehensible. Edelman has cut to the core of his ideas, but if you want to cotton on to his genius, then you have your work set out for you. 

Edelman uses the term ‘second nature’ to refer to:

“the sum of our experienced perceptions, memories, and attitudes individually and collectively. The Term is perhaps best encapsulated in the notion of common sense knowledge derived from everyday experience rather than from scientific knowledge.” (Edelman, 2006:164)

When I first read Edelman as an undergraduate, I felt that someone had given me a mathematical question and shown me the answer without showing me the steps between. Nonetheless, I have always felt that Edelman was onto something and the more I have delved into his work, the more I have understood how it bridges physics and biology and provides an account of neural functioning that accomodates for cultural activity. In fact, Edelman acknowledges that “Cultural factors play a large role in determining beliefs, desires, and intentions” (Edelman, 2006:66) and that his theory “necessarily requires that the brain and body are embedded in the environment (or econiche)” (Edelman, 2006:55). The brain and body, Edelman affirms, “is embedded and situated in a particular environment, influencing it and being influenced by it” (Edelman, 2006:24).

“The constraints that are applied through experience and convention prompt various ‘internal experiments’ to emerge, involving order and disorder, tension and relaxation, and the play between the core and nonconscious portions of the brain. Of course, the resulting output is subject to further constraints that come from experiences within a culture. Those experiences determine the choice and response to patterns, altering expectation and prompting abstraction from the flux of experience” (Edelman, 2006:104).

Patterns of expectation are often the subject of Music Psychology research. In fact, music research is given privileged access to culturally patterned modes of attention. It would be fantastic to see this research complemented with an ethnological account of the musical experience of the composers, musicians and research subjects. Here is a short clip about musical expectation:

(It is re-affirming to see that Dr Jamshed Bharucha in the above clip has expressed ideas similar to my own, that “The brain is the organ of society and the biological vector of culture” (Mason, P.H. 2006. Music, Movement and Metaphor: An Investigation of degeneracy in human behaviour, Human Communication Sciences (HCSNet) SummerFest ‘06, Sancta Sophia College, University of Sydney, p. 62).

For those of you looking to have a bit of fun testing your own encultured patterns of expectation come back to tomorrow to finish off our inaugural ”Complete this quote” and in the meantime, You can fill in the Hank:

Thank goodness Hank Moody is not an advocate for neuroanthropology! …yet…

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Paul Mason

I am a biomedically trained social anthropologist interested in biological and cultural diversity.

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