Hypocognition: Beyond Comprehension

Kaidi Wu and David Dunning, ‘Hypocognition: Making Sense of the Landscape Beyond One’s Conceptual Reach’, Review of General Psychology, 22 (2018), 25-25.

When we have to deal with ideas or experiences for which we have no cognitive or linguistic resources, we face the perils of hypocognition, which ‘impoverishes one’s mental world, leaving cognitive deficits in recognition, explanation, and memory while fueling social chauvinism and conflict in political and cultural spheres’. Hypocognition is not usually greeted with self-knowledge, Wu and Dunning say; instead people tend towards ‘hypercognition’, ‘the mistaken overapplication of other available conceptual notions to issues outside their actual relevance’.
      Two of the key stories used to illustrate hypocognition are anthropological in character. They cite Robert Levy’s work on grief in Tahiti: with no word for that emotion, it is restated as a strange feeling or a pain. Levy, they say, sees this as a coping strategy. They also tell the story of Frederic Tudor, who sailed to Martinique in 1806 planning to sell ice to the locals. This failed: ‘never having experienced a cold drink, the islanders could not fathom why ice held any value’. I’m not sure I get this, in that cold drinks are a matter of taste rather than cognitive capacity, aren’t they? Ice does have many uses, though. Wu and Dunning also cite the hypothetical 2-dimensional inhabitants of ‘Flatland’ who cannot conceive ‘up’ or ‘sphere’, and this seems to be a different kind of thing altogether, an ontological prohibition rather than something unlearned.
      The key concept comes across, then, as somewhat loose, but there is a reason for this, I suppose, in that this article deals with thought in the world, at the point where brain and body and culture and politics interact. It draws together evidence from behavioural experiments to enrich what the anthropologists are describing, those situations where for one reason or another people fall short of dealing with the truth. This is what I found interesting, although it doesn’t have the wow-factor of some of the articles featured in this blog.

How does literature expose the hypocognitive and the hypercognitive? I think these terms restate some common features of character and plot, where we see figures taken outside their cognitive comfort zones and faced with situations beyond their comprehension. Shakespeare’s tortured monarchs (Richard II or Lear) confronting the evaporation of their royal selves; his tragic heroes (Othello and Macbeth) incapable of disentangling their predicaments; his cross-dressed heroines encountering angles on life that they had not bargained for.
      It seems like an interesting satirical strategy. The Roman poet Horace has a satirical voice that often wonders why people behave so strangely — why they value the wrong things, why they persist in vices despite apparently knowing better. It has its own quality of hypocognition, in that it professes an inability to comprehend the follies of others. It also observes a kind of hypocognition among those who are unable to free themselves from bad behaviour. Perhaps it shows readers their own potential for hypocognition, confronting them with the paradigm shift required to reform society, a shift they may find hard to fathom.
      It might also make an interesting terminology for thinking through some aspects of science fiction (which themselves may at times have a satirical turn). Depicting strange minds from strange places gives us the chance to replay the cognitive problem suffered by Swift’s Houyhnhnms (the intelligent horses of Gulliver’s Travels) when they try to understand lying. Routine, inevitable things become incomprehensible. I am thinking a bit here of Doris Lessing’s The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five, which portrayed hypocognition-filled interactions between a world dominated by women and one dominated by men.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

Live At The Globe / Psychology Reading List

This is going to be a super-hasty post. I am still reeling (and glowing a bit) after giving the British Academy Shakespeare Lecture last week. This happens at a brilliant venue, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at the Globe Theatre in London. I gave a paper that would never have happened without this blog, and the way it has kept me thinking about emerging ideas in cognitive science. It was all about mind-wandering, a favourite topic for posts, and fairly soon there’ll be an audio version available online.

Meanwhile, I read an article entitled ‘The Ultimate Psychology Reading List’. You can read it here, in the online version of The Psychologist. (I was led to it by a Tweet from Sarah-Jayne Blakemore (from UCL) so it has some decent endorsement.)
      Over the last eight years or so, nearly 100 prominent people in the field were asked: which is the one book any psychologist should read? Needless to say I was thinking: do they think literature knows anything about their brains? Here are the results, organised by rough and ready categories:

Recent Psychology: 24
Classic Psychology: 17
Other Non-Fiction: 25
Fiction: 17
Don’t Know: 2

Now I was pretty sketchy in deciding what was ‘Recent’ and what was ‘Classic’, and what counted as ‘Other Non-Fiction’ and not part of ‘Psychology’. The proportion that interested me was the proportion of fiction, which seems to me decently high, not particularly discouraging.
      I couldn’t help noticing that the proportion of fiction shot up after 2015. It’s not for me to say that this was the influence of this very blog percolating into the psychology world. One reason for me not saying that is that it definitely is not the case. Nonetheless, an OK result with an interesting uptick, well, I can milk some optimistic from that.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

Predictive Coding and Conceptual Thought

* Daniel Williams, ‘Predictive Coding and Thought’, Synthese (2018), https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-018-1768-x.
* Andy Clark, ‘Beyond the “Bayesian Blur”: Predictive Processing and the Nature of Subjective Experience’, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 25 (2018), 71-87.

So regular readers may have noticed that I’ve been taken by aspects of the Predictive Processing / Free Energy school of thought in cognitive science and philosophy. I posted about Andy Clark’s book Surfing Uncertainty here, I used it as a reference point in one of my posts about John Skelton’s poetry, and I wrote here about a conference in which various contributors to the field came to Cambridge and strutted their stuff. And that’s not all.
      Now one of the organizers of that conference has shown his philosophical hand in a very interesting paper. Predictive Processing seems to work very well as a model for perception and action, but it has been hailed as a comprehensive account of cognition that can include conceptual thought as well. Williams argues that the case is as yet incomplete in relation to two particular features of our thought: its generality (‘the fact that we can think and flexibly reason about phenomena at any level of spatial and temporal scale and abstraction’) and its compositionality (‘the specific way in which concepts productively combine to yield our thoughts’). And this seems fair enough, as does Williams’s analysis of the challenges facing the Predictive Processing model if it aspires to account for Everything.
      I really like, a lot, this kind of interface between a philosophical appeal to the characteristics of the ways we consciously think, and a scientific appeal to evidence of phenomena in brain scans and behavioural experiments. There can be ambitious pressure from either side, wary scruples likewise. From the semi-outside, enjoying paradoxes as I do, I like to think of my mind as a-machine-that-isn’t-a-machine. Whether or not you are more committed than I am to resolving such an impasse, I think this essay is well worth reading, and I am interested to see what response there may be.
      And also out now… Andy Clark himself tackling an interesting objection to the Predictive Processing approach, which is that our experience of perception is that it is not a matter of algorithms and probabilities: things are either there for us, or they aren’t, or so it seems. He finds a way round, via the slogan that perception is a ‘slave to action’. The field’s on the move; let’s keep up!

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

Thinking with Space and Time (200th Post!)

* Luca Rinaldi, Tomaso Vecchi, Micaela Fantino, Lotfi B. Merabet, and Zaira Cattaneo, ‘The Ego-Moving Metaphor of Time Relies on Visual Experience: No Representation of Time Along the Sagittal Space in the Blind’, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 147 (2018), 444–450.
* Marc W. Howard, ‘Memory as Perception of the Past: Compressed Time in Mind and Brain’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 22 (2018), 124-36.
* Mark Mills, Paul Boychuk, Alison L. Chasteen, and Jay Pratt, ‘Attention Goes Both Ways: Shifting Attention Influences Lexical Decisions’, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 147 (2018), 282-91.

One of the very first posts on this blog, published on Day 1 if not the actual Post 1, discussed an article in Trends in Cognitive Sciences about our spatial understanding of time. Humans persistently do things like conceiving the future as something in front of us, and the past as something behind. Appropriately enough you can read all about then back, over our shoulders in the hinterland, here. And here in Post no. 200 I am returning to the same theme. So that’s a satisfying thought. I have no other particular thoughts about this being Post no. 200 so I will press on with some brief notes on these three recent essays in related territory.

Rinaldi et al. decided to test whether blind people also think of the past as behind them and the future in front. Their method was a test in which subjects had to respond to words, some referring to past or future, with hand movements forward or back. Sighted participants showed a bias towards future-goes-with-forward (etc.); blind participants did not. Furthermore, sighted participants tended to view future events as closer to them than past events — some sort of forward-facing bias — but blind participants saw both as equidistant. There is intriguing evidence, then, that visual experience is necessary to the sort of spatial time-orientation evident in most people.
      Howard suggests a different analogy between space and time. He says that we could extend the analogy between visual perception and temporal perception. We have quite a developed understanding of how ‘retinal space is compressed such that acuity decreases further from the fovea’. Could this (and its associated equations) be used as a way of understanding the way that time-perception is compressed more when things get further from the present? Howard thinks there are enough parallels between the two for this approach to be promising. I’m not the one to decide, but, you know, brave try, good luck.
      Finally, Mills et al. tested the link between the spatial components of concepts (e.g. God makes us think up, a submarine makes us think down), and responses to targets: perhaps ‘thinking of a spatial metaphor activates an internal spatial representation which in turn influences the allocation of attention in the visual field’. Sure enough, performance in target-spotting is improved by concept-orientation of the right sort. And there’s more: people were better at solving anagrams when the words were located in the appropriate locations in the visual field: up for ‘cdulo’ [cloud], down for ‘dplhion’ [dolphin] and so on. OK, they admit, the background ocean-sky picture seems to have helped, but still, quite wow, because not all the words were ocean-sky words.
      The word-lists themselves are a draw for me — I love experimental word-lists, and here we have up-words, down-words, left-words, right-words, and best of all non-words. And all of this is adding nuances to that very interesting combination I explored on Blog Day 1. There I made what I still think are some neat literary links, especially the bit about fairies and their perception of time in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Here I don’t have any new quotations to offer — no time for much thought at the moment! — but I hope to get back to this one day.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

Thinking Through Skelton (4)

This is the fourth in my Skelton series, which started here, then went here, and kept on track here. It’s the last for now, but not the last ever, I hope. I think the four posts are all connected, in that they all lead to the idea that Skelton knows how to put us under pressure. As I’ve said already, this might be a good thing for a satirist to do: if you want people to face up to the problems you’re castigating, you need to stop them feeling at ease.
      I once had a revelation of something obvious (this happens to me a lot) when I read about Jeffrey Archer’s love for the satirical puppet TV show Spitting Image. He was one of many public figures held up to look foul and ridiculous, but it turned out that some of them (Archer included) were keen to be featured, sent in voice tapes, and wanted to own their puppets after the demise of the show. I was horrified by this: having watched the show as if it were truly subversive, I found others were watching it as if it propped up their sense of importance.
      Some politicians blamed it for their failures, some palpable hits were scored, but this collusion between satire and satirised still troubles me, wherever it comes from, from the hidden nature of this mode of writing in many of its manifestations, or from the skill of the target who dodges — no, accommodates — the bullets. This isn’t something you can avoid around Skelton, because having written brilliant poems attacking Cardinal Wolsey, he ended his literary career writing poems advancing Wolsey’s point of view. Perhaps he had to seek patronage where he could; perhaps the poet and his prey felt a strange intimacy with one another and found a working affinity. There are probably things I will soon read about this that will enhance my understanding further, but the general phenomenon goes well beyond Skelton.
      Anyway, I do think that there is something special and unsettling about the way that Skelton’s poems work, and I hope I will try to put that into a bigger picture in the future.

Here’s the background bit, which I’ll put in every post in this series. John Skelton wrote in the very late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. He was a renowned scholar who had various jobs, including tutor to the future Henry VIII and Rector of Diss in Norfolk. Most of his poetry is satirical. It demonstrates his learning with lots of classical and Biblical references, and lots of ingenious wordplay. However, it also involves wild personal attacks, rough language, voices coming from the streets and taverns as well as the wealthy households and institutions of the day. Some of it is written in a short, sharp metre referred to as ‘Skeltonics’. This in itself gets across the unusualness of his writing: while there are many interesting comparisons in writings of his time (and others), there’s something unique about him. You can read a lot of his work, with helpful notes, at http://www.skeltonproject.org/. Because that resource is available, I won’t do any more than essential annotation of the bits I am discussing. I’ll be quoting, though, from John Scattergood’s edition published by Liverpool University Press, which is an updated version of his classic Penguin Classic. If you ask me, Skelton is at his best in ‘Speke Parott’, ‘Collyn Clout’, and ‘Why Come Ye Nat to Courte?’. Another poem not to be missed is ‘Ware the Hauke’.


After a long preamble, this will be a fairly short discussion. A while ago Emma Firestone and I published an essay (blog-featured) that built on psychological research into embodied morality. Experimental findings show that bodily sensations — disgust and cleanness — have an effect on our moral judgments — making them more and less harsh respectively. We took this idea towards Shakespeare’s problem plays, arguing that the profusion of disgust-inducing vocabulary in plays like Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well could well be related to the moral difficulties they pose. Patterns of language may be the cause of well-attested disorientation among those trying to compose their judgements about actions and characters.
      This same idea could work quite well for Skelton. The mixture of tones in his poetry, the turns towards bodies, fluids, dirt, and general grime, are mixed in with the flamboyantly learned bits he cannot resist. It is this juxtaposition, rather than the volume of disgusting stuff, that seems significant. Perhaps it is also the relentless, frantic way that Skelton unloads on us. Satirists have often listed vile things as they describe the vice and folly of their societies, but there seems something distinctive about the way we suddenly find ourselves among the fylth.
      Here’s a section from ‘Elynoure Rummyng’. This poem is ostensibly about a woman who runs a pub. It may have sharp purposes that have become obscure over time, but generally it seems to be a thick description of society, all the way down to a tavern underclass, a sort of realist street ‘‘. Not surprisingly it gets into some gross physical stuff:

      ‘Soft,’ quod one hyght Sybbyll,
      ‘And let me wyth you bybyll.’
      She sat down in the place,
      With a sory face
      Whey-wormed about;
      Garnysshed was her snout
      Wyth here and there puscull,
      Lyke a scabbyd muscull.
      ‘This ale,’ sayd she, ‘is noppy;
      Let us syppe and soppy,
      And not spyll a droppy,
      For so mote I hoppy,
      It coleth well my croppy.’
      ‘Dame Elynour,’ sayde she,
      ‘Have here is for me,
      A clout of London pynnes.’
      And wyth that she begynnes
      The pot to her plucke,
      And dranke a good lucke.
      She swynged up a quarte
      At ones for her parte.
      Her paunche was so puffed,
      And so wyth ale stuffed,
      Had she not hyed apace,
      She had defoyled the place. (549-73)

The disgust is more front-and-centre in this poem; elsewhere it is less widespread and more unexpected. It seems to me that the link between disgust and morality described above could be one aspect of Skelton’s destabilisation of the reader’s experience, and specifically of moral judgement. I feel assailed by Skelton: it’s not an unpleasurable sensation, in fact I laugh and laugh, but I am not sure how to work with the poem, or how to push back against it, how to identify what it wants to change, and how it wants me to change it. I don’t think this is just a matter of historical difference; it’s also the result of Skelton’s shrewd exploitation of what makes us tick, and what throws us off. Satire often aims to create physical and/or moral disgust in the reader, but it’s interesting to see this done in such a disorderly (or, more accurately, unpredictable, as in this post) manner.

This refers to a contemporary and older tradition, mostly emerging in Scotland, of extravagant invective argument poetry.
E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk