What is a mental process?

What is a “mental” process? The stuff we’re conscious of or a limbo between real, wet, neural processes and observable behavior?

A well known analogy is the computer. The hardware stuff you can kick is analogous to the brain; the stuff you see on the screen is, I suppose, the phenomenology; then the software, all of which correlates with processes you could detect in the hardware if you looked hard enough, some but not all of which affects the screen, is cognition.

Forget for a moment about minds and consider the engineering perspective; then the point of the levels is clear. When you want, say, to check your email, you probably don’t want to fiddle around directly with the chips in your PC. It’s much less painful to rely on years of abstraction and just click or tap on the appropriate icon. You intervene at the level of software, and care very little about what the hardware is doing being the scenes.

What is the point of the levels for understanding a system? Psychologists want to explain, tell an empirically grounded story about, people-level phenomena, like remembering things, reasoning about things, understanding language, feeling and expressing emotions. Layers of abstraction are necessary to isolate the important points of this story. The effect of phonological similarity on remembering or pragmatic language effects when reasoning would be lost if expressed in terms of (say) gene expression.

I don’t understand when the neural becomes the cognitive or the mental. There are many levels of neural, not all of which you can poke. At the top level I’m thinking here about the sorts of things you can do with EEG where the story is tremendously abstract (for instance event-related potentials or the frequency of oscillations) though dependent on stuff going on in the brain. “Real neuroscientists” sometimes get a bit sniffy about that level: it’s not brain science unless you are able to talk about actual bits of brain like synapses and vesicles. But what are actual bits of brain?

Maybe a clue comes from how you intervene on the system. You can intervene with TMS, you can intervene with drugs, or you can intervene with verbal instructions. How do you intervene cognitively or mentally?  Is this the correct way to think about it?


“… In the matter of boots, I refer to the authority of the bootmaker; concerning houses, canals, or railroads, I consult that of the architect or the engineer. For such or such special knowledge I apply to such or such a savant. But I allow neither the bootmaker nor the architect nor savant to impose his authority upon me. I listen to them freely and with all the respect merited by their intelligence, their character, their knowledge, reserving always my incontestable right of criticism and censure. I do not content myself with consulting a single authority in any special branch; I consult several; I compare their opinions, and choose that which seems to me the soundest. But I recognise no infallible authority, even in special questions; consequently, whatever respect I may have for the honesty and the sincerity of such or such individual, I have no absolute faith in any person. Such a faith would be fatal to my reason, to my liberty, and even to the success of my undertakings; it would immediately transform me into a stupid slave, an instrument of the will and interests of others.

“I bow before the authority of special [people] because it is imposed on me by my own reason. I am conscious of my own inability to grasp, in all its detail, and positive development, any very large portion of human knowledge. […] there is no fixed and constant authority, but a continual exchange of mutual, temporary, and, above all, voluntary authority and subbordination.”

—Mikhail Bakunin, What is Authority?

Žižek, on Malabou, on the brain sciences

Any Hegel scholars around? Žižek (2006, pp. 208–209):

“Where, then,do we find traces of Hegelian themes in the new brain sciences? The three approaches to human intelligence—digital, computer-modeled; the neurobiological study of brain; the evolutionary approach—seem to form a kind of Hegelian triad: in the model of the human mind as a computing (data-processing) machine we get a purely formal symbolic machine; the biological brain studies proper focus on the “piece of meat,” the immediate material support of human intelligence, the organ in which “thought resides”; finally, the evolutionary approach analyzes the rise of human intelligence as part of a complex socio-biological process of interaction between humans and their environment within a shared life-world. Surprisingly, the most “reductionist” approach, that of the brain sciences, is the most dialectical, emphasizing the infinite plasticity of the brain.”

This is the beginning of an interesting (or at least confusing) section on relationships between society, brain, mind, free-will (and so on, and so forth). A reading group would be tremendously helpful. (Page 13 discusses fisting, if that acts as a motivator.)


Slavoj Žižek (2006). The Parallax View. The MIT Press.

Henri Frédéric Amiel’s journal—a couple of quotes

(Wikipedia entry over here; translation of journal here.)

Stimulus oriented versus stimulus independent thought?

“[…] respect in yourself the oscillations of feeling. They are your life and your nature […]. Do not abandon yourself altogether either to instinct or to will. Instinct is a siren, will a despot. Be neither the slave of your impulses and sensations of the moment, nor of an abstract and general plan; be open to what life brings from within and without, and welcome the unforeseen; but give to your life unity, and bring the unforeseen within the lines of your plan. Let what is natural in you raise itself to the level of the spiritual, and let the spiritual become once more natural. Thus will your development be harmonious […]”


“[…] what we call “society” proceeds for the moment on the flattering illusory assumption that it is moving in an ethereal atmosphere and breathing the air of the gods. All vehemence, all natural expression, all real suffering, all careless familiarity, or any frank sign of passion, are startling and distasteful in this delicate milieu; they at once destroy the common work, the cloud palace, the magical architectural whole, which has been raised by the general consent and effort.”

Death and furniture

Found this paper by Edwards, Ashmore, and Potter (1995) amusing as recently I tapped a table to make a point about different levels of analysis. From the intro:

“When relativists talk about the social construction of reality, truth, cognition, scientific knowledge, technical capacity, social structure, and so on, their realist opponents sooner or later start hitting the furniture, invoking the Holocaust, talking about rocks, guns, killings, human misery, tables and chairs. The force of these objections is to introduce a bottom line, a bedrock of reality that places limits on what may be treated as epistemologically constructed or deconstructible. There are two related kinds of moves: Furniture (tables, rocks, stones, etc. — the reality that cannot be denied), and Death (misery, genocide, poverty, power — the reality that should not be denied). Our aim is to show how these “but surely not this” gestures and arguments work, how they trade off each other, and how unconvincing they are, on examination, as refutations of relativism.”

And the point about levels is made:

“It is surprisingly easy and even reasonable to question the table’s given reality. It does not take long, in looking closer, at wood grain and molecule, before you are no longer looking at a “table”. Indeed, physicists might wish to point out that, at a certain level of analysis, there is nothing at all “solid” there, down at the (most basic?) levels of particles, strings and the contested organization of sub-atomic space. Its solidity is then, ineluctably, a perceptual category, a matter of what tables seem to be like to us, in the scale of human perception and bodily action. Reality takes on an intrinsically human dimension, and the most that can be claimed for it is an ‘experiential realism'”


Edwards, D., Ashmore, M., & Potter, J. (1995). Death and furniture: The rhetoric, politics and theology of bottom line arguments against relativism, History of the Human Sciences, 8, 25-49.

Competence vs. performance

It’s all Chomsky’s fault (Chomsky 1965, p. 4):

“We thus make a fundamental distinction between competence (the speaker-hearer’s knowledge of his language) and performance (the actual use of language in concrete situations). […] A record of natural speech will show numerous false starts, deviations from rules, changes of plan in mid-course, and so on. The problem for the linguist, as well as for the child learning the language, is to determine from the data of performance the underlying system of rules that have been mastered by the speaker-hearer and that he puts to use in actual performance.”

So the idea is that people are trying to do C but only manage to do P, because of various constraints. We (children, adults, theorists) see (imperfect) P, and want to infer C. We go to school and go through various rigmaroles to better approximate C. The same distinction is applied in reasoning. Various options: people are irrational (with respect to C); maybe C = P, if we look hard enough to see it. Or bright people have P = C. Or bright people want P = C.

What fascinates me in reasoning is the role played by small groups of experts who produce particular systems of reasoning—logical calculi, probabilistic machinery—along with proofs that they have properties which they argue are reasonable properties to have. Then others come along to use the systems. Hey, this looks like a good logic to know; maybe it’ll help make my arguments better if I use it. Maybe this probability calculus will make it easier to diagnose illness in my patients. And so forth. Then somebody else comes along and decides whether or not we’re consistent with a competence theory’s judgements, or whether we’re interpreting things a different way; whether another competence theory (application thereof) might be more appropriate for a given situation or a different psychological model of the situation.

Easy to get tied up in knots.


Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. MIT Press.

What is cognition?

People often talk about “cognition” as if it means “conscious thinking”. But that’s not how the term is used in cognitive psychology. Here’s a little collection of quotations by folk attempting to define the concept:

1. Williamson (2006):

“Cognition is usually defined as something like the process of acquiring, retaining and applying knowledge. To a first approximation, therefore, cognitive science is the science of knowing. Knowing is a relation between the knower and the known. Typically, although not always, what is known involves the environment external to the knower. Thus knowing typically involves a relation between the agent and the external environment. It is not internal to the agent, for the internal may be the same whether or not it is related to the external in a way that constitutes knowing.”

2. LeDoux (1995)

“If cognition is defined broadly to include sensory information processing, such as that occurring in the sensory thalamus and/or sensory cortex, as well as the processing that occurs in complex association areas of cortex in the frontal lobes or hippocampus, then emotional processing by the amygdala is highly dependent on cognitive processing. If cognitive processing is defined narrowly to include only the higher mental functions most likely mediated by complex association cortex, then emotion is not necessarily dependent on prior cognitive processing.”

3. Clark and Grush (1999):

“Is not the notion of a truly cognitive agent, at root, the notion of something like a reflective agent? What is needed, we believe, is just a principled way to make this idea (of a reflective agent) precise and to purge it of its original (but probably superficial) associations with episodes of conscious reflection. […] Cognizers, on our account, must display the capacity for environmentally decoupled thought and the contemplation of options. The cognizer is thus the being who can think or reason about its world without directly engaging those aspects of the world that its thoughts concern.”

4. Neisser (1967):

“… the term “cognition” refers to all processes by which the sensory input is transformed, reduced, elaborated, stored, recovered, and used. It is concerned with these processes even when they operate in the absence of relevant stimulation, as in images and hallucinations… Given such a sweeping definition, it is apparent that cognition is involved in everything a human being might possibly do; that every psychological phenomenon is a cognitive phenomenon. But although cognitive psychology is concerned with all human activity rather than some fraction of it, the concern is from a particular point of view. Other viewpoints are equally legitimate and necessary.”


Clark, A., & Grush, R. (1999). Towards a cognitive robotics. Adaptive Behavior, 7 (1), 5-16.

LeDoux, J. E. (1995). Emotion: Clues from the brain. Annual Reviews of Psychology, 46, 209-235.

Neisser, U. (1967). Cognitive psychology. Meredith Publishing Company.

Williamson, T. (2006). Can cognition be factorized into internal and external components? In R. J. Stainton (Ed.), Contemporary debates in cognitive science. Malden MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Publish AND perish?

From Exploiting the Young by John R. Lucas:

“The fundamental activity of the university is thinking, but it is only slowly and fitfully that thinking is congealed into publicly accessible thoughts. The intense arguments in the half hour after the seminar and before hall, the afternoon spent with the graduate student, the proof of a lemma vital for a colleague’s theorem thought up over a game of chess in the Mathematical Institute, the unlikely reference vouchsafed during lab tea, the long country walk exploring a new interpretation of an old master—these are pre-eminently the activities of the young, but none register unless in the fullness of time they result in a publication. True, even in old age one seeks to continue in the ways of one’s youth, but as one concentrates on getting one piece of work finished, one has to leave intriguing by-ways unexplored, and resolutely refuse to move on yet to fresh pastures. I am more disciplined, more concentrated in my thinking now than I was when I was young, but for that very reason less wide-ranging, less sparky, less ebullient. I have gained in competence, but lost in fizz.

“Does fizz matter? I think it does. We do not need to have universities in order to encourage people to do well tasks that other people can approve and assess: what is special to universities is that they are places where people are able to think things that others had not thought of before. We damage ourselves if we pressure the young to publish what they hope will be approved-of works in order to get a living wage, we are acting contrary to our most important values if we stick with a pay scale that rewards academics less for doing what is most important than for the later residue of such activities.”

“Usefulness” in psychometrics

… we are surely not seriously considering the idea that we have to rule out rivals to the hypothesis that intelligence tests are useful. The Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS; Wechsler, 1955) comes in a big heavy box, which is very useful to hit people on the head with, but the hypothesis that the WAIS is valid for inflicting physical injury is certainly not the kind of hypothesis we are interested in.

From Borsboom, D., Mellenbergh, G.J., & Van Heerden (2004).  The concept of validity. Psychological Review, 111, 1061-1071