Cognitive Futures in Helsinki

For the first time I was able to attend the annual Cognitive Futures in the Humanities conference, and fortunately for me it was (i) full of interesting stuff I’ll be blogging about for a while, (ii) very well organised, and (iii) in Helsinki. The details are here.


One session emanated from a recent book edited by Amy Cook and Rhonda Blair: Theatre, Performance and Cognition: Languages, Bodies and Ecologies (Bloomsbury, 2016). Amy made a point that cropped up in more than one form at the conference, and which is very much in the spirit of this blog: she said we should remember to work towards insights in our fields in the humanities, rather than aiming for some hybrid space between these and the cognitive sciences. She was referring in particular to her work on theatre, and wanted to stress the need to understand what we use and need theatre for, now.
      Rhonda also said something that got me thinking, blog-wise. After describing the ways in which her theatre practice intersected with the principles of ‘‘, she noted that the science ‘supports what theatre professionals have intuitively known’, namely ‘that we are holistic’. This is an approximate quotation but near enough, I think, to what she said.
      What struck me was what she didn’t say. She didn’t say that ‘cognitive science has finally coughed up a blunt version of what theatre professionals have known, practised, and demonstrated, for a very long time’. As this blog occasionally points out, there is a need to value and evaluate what literature (and other art forms) know. However, I wouldn’t really advocate being so truculent. Far better to make connections. And to recognise that this knowledge has not often been communicated explicitly as such. So I restrained the urge to make the point, and only allowed myself a pro-humanities outburst later in the conference (and that didn’t go all that well).


A brief extra snippet, ahead of further reflections in other posts. One of the plenary speakers was Anne Mangen, from the Norwegian Reading Centre at the University of Stavanger. She is involved in interesting work testing the differences between paper and digital reading. Since I’m increasingly switching over, and I know my students are a few steps ahead, this is a growing issue. Some findings here: Anne Mangen and Don Kuiken, ‘Lost in an iPad: Narrative Engagement on Paper and Tablet’, Scientific Study of Literature, 4 (2014), 150-177.

A key phrase at the conference: many now believe that our thinking is Embodied, Embedded, Extended, and Enactive, i.e. that cognition involves the brain in combination with the body, the environment, other people, objects, and so on.
E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

2 thoughts on “Cognitive Futures in Helsinki

  1. Raphael Post author

    Well, Emily — thanks for asking — there’s going to be a post about the subject later, but it went a bit like this… The ‘problem-solving’ element of the Extended Mind theory was being discussed, and I ended up saying that we shouldn’t be sheepish about the fact that the Humanities could help us critique whether the problem (e.g., in the famous example from which Clark and Chalmers built their theory, Otto getting to the Museum of Modern Art) was really a problem. It takes a certain view of the world to maintain that each individual has to manage their progress through the city space as efficiently and autonomously as possible. Maybe that’s not a very good view of the world. The reason it didn’t go well was that the speaker (Michael Wheeler) and the paper in question (by James Williams, Sophia 2016; post upcoming this month) weren’t really oblivious to this, and I was also dealing with a bit of a stereotype of the Clark / Chalmers work. Still, the righteous indignation, even with its proportion of hot air, was quite cathartic. To be honest I was mainly exercised by the citation of Greg Currie’s description of literary insight as [no more than] ‘acquaintance’ for the reader, which seems to me to be at the reductive end of rigorous. But that’s for yet another post, when I get my head round it.


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