Wednesday Round Up #61

-I’m taking at least two weeks of break, so this is the last round up for awhile.

Translating cognitive science in the public square

We are at a tipping point. For cognitive science to support broader societal change, a paradigm shift in the way that we think about research and communities is required. This paradigm shift requires acknowledging that even though a wealth of research has shown that neighborhood, family, and cultural contexts all play a critical role in supporting healthy brain development [1], much of the work has been laboratory based rather than being centered on children’s and families’ lived experiences. While laboratory research is indeed necessary, children do not interact with caregivers and peers in highly controlled environments; instead, cultural traditions and local knowledge influence behavior, learning, and development. When cognitive science moves from including community members in field studies to codesigning with community members, scientific knowledge and interventions will be more culturally sensitive, equitable, and representative.

Research outside of psychology and the other social sciences offers some roadmaps for this kind of inquiry. For instance, adding green spaces to an environment can reduce aggressive behavior [2], and putting exercise equipment in public parks increases activity levels [3]. Rather than taking an intensive approach with a small group, these projects target a large swath of the population with a small dose of enrichment [4]. Perhaps public spaces can be designed with a light touch that enables a kind of ‘mental’ exercise for caregivers and children. By creating codesigned installations that ‘bake in’ the science of learning, physical spaces might empower people to behave in ways that support the kinds of caregiver–child interactions known to foster language, mathematics, and spatial learning [5]. Here, we outline how centering communities and using evidence-based principles to transform public spaces offer a new direction for cognitive science in situ.

Six pillars for designing public spaces for change

Creating public spaces that offer cognitive enrichment requires several deviations from the typical research process. First, scientists need to work in collaborative teams of community members, architects, politicians, and urban planners. Second, rather than highlighting what is not known in the research, scientists must look at the accumulated evidence over time to offer evidence-based frameworks that can guide designs, such as by relying on six principles of learning for which there is consensus in the literature. Designs should inspire active (rather than passive), engaged (not distracted), meaningful (connects to what is known and what holds personal meaning), socially interactive, iterative (rather than repetitive), and joyful experiences [6,7], which are known to predict learning outcomes. Third, designs must be informed by community input with respect to their placement, form, and uses. For example, consider a design building on the converging evidence that playing with puzzles helps children build science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) knowledge [8]. Community design input would allow members of the neighborhood to suggest what could be in a puzzle, where it might be placed, and even the design of the puzzle, be it on a wall, near a bench, or on the ground in front of a bus shelter.

Gabor Maté’s Bizarre Ideas on Connections Between Stress and Disease

Casually attaching such labels to phenomena his audiences do not understand scores points with them. It allows Maté to dismiss the knowledge and tools we need to prevent new cases of asthma among these women and reduce the toll of asthma among those women who have already developed this chronic, recurring condition.

Maté paints a cartoonish caricature of medicine locked in silos. He confuses the maps that specialist researchers and clinicians use with the territory they cover.

The Brain Maps Out Ideas and Memories Like Spaces

“Our language is riddled with spatial metaphors for reasoning, and for memory in general,” said Kim Stachenfeld, a neuroscientist at the British artificial intelligence company DeepMind.

In the past few decades, research has shown that for at least two of our faculties, memory and navigation, those metaphors may have a physical basis in the brain. A small seahorse-shaped structure, the hippocampus, is essential to both those functions, and evidence has started to suggest that the same coding scheme — a grid-based form of representation — may underlie them. Recent insights have prompted some researchers to propose that this same coding scheme can help us navigate other kinds of information, including sights, sounds and abstract concepts. The most ambitious suggestions even venture that these grid codes could be the key to understanding how the brain processes all details of general knowledge, perception and memory.

Toni Morrison on the Power of Language

Speculation on what (other than its own frail body) that bird-in-the-hand might signify has always been attractive to me, but especially so now thinking, as I have been, about the work I do that has brought me to this company. So I choose to read the bird as language and the woman as a practiced writer. She is worried about how the language she dreams in, given to her at birth, is handled, put into service, even withheld from her for certain nefarious purposes. Being a writer she thinks of language partly as a system, partly as a living thing over which one has control, but mostly as agency — as an act with consequences. So the question the children put to her: “Is it living or dead?” is not unreal because she thinks of language as susceptible to death, erasure; certainly imperiled and salvageable only by an effort of the will.

Naomi Quinn: “The Cultural Basis of Metaphor” (1991)

Quinn’s contributions to Beyond Metaphor (1991) argues against the claim that metaphor “constitute understanding,” and instead proposes that metaphors “are ordinarily selected to fit a preexisting and culturally shared model” (p. 60).

Thought (Mostly) Structures Metaphor

Here are some more elaborate versions of the quotes in which she presents her ideas:

I will be arguing that metaphors, far from constituting understanding, are ordinarily selected to fit a preexisting and culturally shared model. And I will conclude that metaphors do not typically give rise to new, previously unrecognized entailments, although they may well help the reasoner to follow out entailments of the preexisting cultural model and thereby arrive at complex inferences. I do not want to suggest that metaphors never reorganize thinking, supply new entailments, and permit new inferences; but my analysis will argue that such cases are exceptional rather than ordinary. (p. 60)

Metaphors are usually cherry-picked on the basis of prior understanding:

I want to argue further, and I think quite contrary to what Johnson and Lakoff seem to be saying, that metaphorical systems or productive metaphors typically do not structure understandings de novo. Rather, perticular metaphors are selected by speakers, just because they provide satisfying mappings onto already existing cultural understandings—that is, because elements and relations between elements in the source domain make a good match with elements and relations among them in the cultural model. Selection of a particular metaphor for use in ordinary speech seems to depend upon its aptness for the conceptual task at hand—sometimes, as we shall see, a reasoning task. (p. 65)

The Day the Good Internet Died

For a small slice of time, being online was a thrilling mix of discovery, collaboration, creativity, and chaotic potential.

The internet lasts forever, the internet never forgets. And yet it is also a place in which I feel confronted with an almost unbearable volume of daily reminders of its decay: broken links, abandoned blogs, apps gone by, deleted tweets (miss you always, ah-well-nevertheless!), too-cutesy 404 messages, vanished Vines, videos whose copyright holders have requested removal, lost material that the Wayback Machine never crawled, things I know I’ve read somewhere and want to quote in my work but just can’t seem to resurface the same way I used to be able to.

Some of these losses are silly and tiny, but others over the years have felt more monumental and telling. And when Google Reader disappeared in 2013, it wasn’t just a tale of dwindling user numbers or of what one engineer later described as a rotted codebase. It was a sign of the crumbling of the very foundation upon which it had been built: the era of the Good Internet.

Interview with Agustín Fuentes: This Species Moment

I love the way, someplace, you described that what you got excited about about anthropology is that it was a space that linked the bones and muscles and gut and DNA — human DNA, and behavior, and didn’t detach that from culture and history and power.

Exactly. The whole idea that, for us, to really understand the human, you have to understand how muscles and bones and genetics and the circulatory system work, but you have to also understand how the neurobiologies interface with the perceptions, the histories, the social experiences, the languages, and the daily lives of people. And it’s that conflux of events, that ongoing dynamic, that really draws me. And it’s messy. It’s messy to be human, but it’s really fascinating.

Against Persuasion: Knowing takes radical collaboration: an openness to being persuaded as much as an eagerness to persuade.

Over and over again, Socrates approaches people who are remarkable for their lack of humility—which is to say, for the fact that they feel confident in their own knowledge of what is just, or pious, or brave, or moderate. You might have supposed that Socrates, whose claim to fame is his awareness of his own ignorance, would treat these self-proclaimed “wise men” (Sophists) with contempt, hostility, or indifference. But he doesn’t.

The most remarkable feature of Socrates’s approach is his punctilious politeness and sincere enthusiasm. The conversation usually begins with Socrates asking his interlocutor: Since you think you know, can you tell me, what is courage (or wisdom, or piety, or justice . . .)? Over and over again, it turns out that they think they can answer, but they can’t. Socrates’s hope springs eternal: even as he walks toward the courtroom to be tried—and eventually put to death—for his philosophical activity, he is delighted to encounter the self-important priest Euthyphro, who will, surely, be able to say what piety is. (Spoiler: he’s not.)…

One of Socrates’s interlocutors, Meno, doubts whether it’s possible to come to know anything if you know so little to begin with. If someone doesn’t know where she’s going, it doesn’t seem as though she can even take a first step in the right direction. Can you map in total darkness?

Socrates’s answer was no. Or at least: you can’t do it alone. The right response to noticing one’s own ignorance is to try to escape it by acquiring someone else’s knowledge. But the only way to do that is to explain to them why you aren’t yet able to accept this or that claim of theirs as knowledge—and that is what mapping one’s ignorance amounts to. Socrates stages an exhibition of this method for Meno by demonstrating how much geometrical progress he can make with a young slave boy by doing nothing but asking questions that expose the boy’s false assumptions.

It is when he refutes others’ claims to knowledge that Socrates’s own ignorance takes shape, for him, as something he can know. What appears as a sea of darkness when approached introspectively turns out to be navigable when brought into contact with the knowledge claims of another.

Social memory and niche construction in a hypervariable environment

Communities in southwest Madagascar have co-evolved with a hypervariable environment and climate. The paleoclimate record reflects major fluctuations in climatic conditions over the course of Holocene human settlement. Archeological evidence indicates short-term occupations of sites, suggesting that frequent residential mobility and flexible subsistence strategies have been central features of life on the southwest coast for millennia. Today, despite rapid changes linked to globalization and increasing market integration, mobility and subsistence flexibility remain key to the lives of communities of the region.

In this article, we advocate closer consideration of the social dimensions of the human niche, and their inextricable links to the biophysical world. Specifically, we explore the theoretical implications of applying a Niche Construction Theory framework to understanding the role of social memory in constructing the human niche of SW Madagascar. We look at how social memory facilitates mobility, resource use, and the creation and maintenance of social identities and ties among communities of foragers, farmers, herders, and fishers living under hypervariable climatic conditions.

The Biology of Racism

The conversation this essay is based on took place during the “Raising Our Voices” AAA online conference, in November 2020. We were fortunate, and honored, to have Professor Leith Mullings as a partner in the discussion. Her passing in December 2020 left a hole in our hearts. All of us on the panel were influenced, shaped, and/or mentored at some stage by Leith, and her powerful words, actions, and legacy continue to inspire and push us to make anthropology matter. Professor Mullings framed this discission, and the challenge before us, when she stated, “I think most of us here would agree with the often-quoted ‘race is not biological but has biological consequences.’ But the question is: How do we understand racism? What are the biological consequences? And most important, how do we address them?”

Tender Rhythms: An Interactive Art Installation Created Out Of The Connections Between People

Stephanie Koziej is an installation artist and scholar who explores, perhaps, the most fundamental concept in our lives — the connections between people. Her new experimental installation Tender Rhythms is an “interactive brain-computer interface installation” that creates music and visual art when two people connect deeply with one another. Koziej joined “City Lights” Senior Producer Kim Drobes via Zoom to talk about the science behind feelings of deep interpersonal connection, and to share how participants will be able to see, hear and feel the unique energies of their own relationships.

“I was writing my dissertation at Emory on the connections between people. I was very interested in intimacy and the invisible relationship between humans,” Koziej said. “I just noticed that in philosophy and in our society, we focus a lot on the individual; the autonomous, the singular individual. But I was always interested in the connection between us, and I wanted to let it talk.”

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