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Selected Books by Edmund Blair Bolles

  • Galileo's Commandment: 2500 Years of Great Science Writing
  • The Ice Finders: How a Poet, a Professor, and a Politician Discovered the Ice Age
  • Einstein Defiant: Genius vs Genius in the Quantum Revolution

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giorgio marchetti

Just an observation concerning the "Abstract attention, or decoupled representation".

As far as I understand it (but I have not read the original article), this decouplement between (recognition of the)stimuls and response, could represent a first important step toward, and a precondition for, the formation of a (animal's) mind capable of other and perhaps more important kinds of decouplements, such as the decouplement between sense-organs and attention.

This later kind of decouplement implies and gives the possibility to pilot one's attention independently of the environment, of stimuli etc.: in a word, to control one's own attention.

This possibility represents the origin of abstract thought, of conceiving the same physical objects (an apple) in different ways (an apple, a fruit, an object, a work of art) and of conceiving different physical objects in different ways.

But how does one goes from the first decouplement (between stimuls and response) to the second and most important one (between the sense-organ and attention)?

Do you have any idea? Is there any hint in the article? Thanks.

BLOGGER: This is an interesting and important question, so naturally I don’t have the answer. The relevant portion of Ross’s paper is based on Kim Sterelny, an Australian philosopher whom I plan to read pronto, but I must confess to total ignorance of the man's existence before reading Ross.

Here is what Ross has to say on the subject of decoupling attention: “Sterelny argues that humans exhibit to a uniquely high degree the use of a representational genus that goes a level beyond robustness in achievement of abstraction. Many representations in humans are not merely robust but also decoupled from specific action responses. By this he means that they are not tied to specific, stereotyped classes of behavioral responses…. Decoupling allows information to be looped back out into the external environment…” [pp. 714-15] So there is nothing here about decoupling attention from sensory input.

Attention, by its nature, does include a reduction of irrelevant inputs. I have some hazy recollection of experiments that show when cats focus on a mouse, irrelevant sounds are actually dampened down in their brains (source forgotten). So the capacity to reduce sensory data is not unprecedented in evolutionary history. But it is true that we can concentrate on imaginary sense data to an amazing degree.

One area that may offer some neurological guidance here is dreaming. During dreams the motor system is disconnected, so we can dream a monster is chasing us without actually running out of our beds. Again, cats offer some guidance here. Some experimental disruption of that disconnection in cats has shown that sleeping cats will engage in stalking behavior during their REM sleep (source: long forgotten). Also, in sleep we can turn off our inputs so that noises, etc. produce no response. I wonder if there is any neurological relationship between dreaming, sleeping, paying attention, and concentrating on one’s thoughts.

Gordon Worley

I am suspicious of the claim that culture pushed forward language because I'm not sure there's any real difference in what culture means between humans and other animals. The differentiation between "real" culture and the culture-like behavior of animals seems flimsy to me, resting solely on asking "so what?" to generate "real" culture. Not that "so what?" is a trivial question, but it doesn't explain why pigeons and chimps aren't asking "so what?" too. Either it has low adaptive value for every animal other than humans, in which case we have to ask why it is an adaptation that didn't disappear in humans, or no other animal met some prerequisite to ask "so what?".

It seems much more likely that language has had the effect of making culture more complex, to the point that it looks different from animal culture. Otherwise I think this looks like just moving the magical origin of language from "syntax" to "culture".
BLOGGER: The proposed reason humans ask 'so what' and other animals do not is that the link between stimulus and response has been broken. Animals know what a stimulus means to them while, sometimes, humans have to be told.

There are two reasons I feel that the Ross paper does more than simple move language's magical origin from syntax to culture. First, while the reason for evolving syntax has always been obscure, with culture we have a response to a problem (abstract attention). Second, the reasons syntax takes the form it have never been resolved. Even after all these years, a scholar like Derek Bickerton continues to wonder why this syntax instead of some other syntax. Meanwhile, the rise of culture immediately explains the observed "attention triplet" whose form had previously seemed as mysterious as syntax.


Just a note on your * : chimps may not say recursive things typically in nature, but they are capable of it: Washoe could indeed say 'gimme dat' along with a large variety of other non-recursive gestural utterances that she was taught.

Chomsky would say that capability, not performance, is what is important in the comparison.

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