Back! / Cognition in a Dish?

I last posted here more than a year ago. A couple of months back I decided it was time to start again. One reason for stopping was having too much to do, and that hasn’t really changed. The other reason was feeling a bit lacking in the right kind of energy and curiosity, and that has changed. The great thing about blogging as I did for five years was regular exposure to new ideas in Psychology, some of which proved very helpful in my own thinking about literature. I can find time for it — I’m glad to be doing it again.

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* Nicolas Rouleau, Nirosha J. Murugan, and David L. Kaplan, ‘Toward Studying Cognition in a Dish’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 25 (2021), 294-304: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2021.01.005

versus

* H. Clark Barrett, ‘Towards a Cognitive Science of the Human: Cross-Cultural Approaches and Their Urgency’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 24 (2020), 620-38: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2020.05.007

The first couple of things I noticed in my late-summer harvest from / plough through [choose another farming metaphor if you want] Trends in Cognitive Sciences were two articles about the things that cognitive scientists should study. They push in entirely opposite directions, and they raise complex issues.
      Rouleau et al. are excited by the possibility of advancing cognitive science using brain-style cells grown in the lab. Neural tissue engineering could ‘generate minimal cognition’, and that could be experimented on. Now, for the sake of anyone for whom this is not obvious, cognition doesn’t mean consciousness, but the ethical klaxons should probably be blasting out nonetheless. Still, the temptation is there: with the mechanisms out in the open, and no longer wound into the rest of life, maybe some new questions could be asked.
      Barrett, on the other hand, raises a problem that I noted a while back in this post. Instead of dealing with its current ‘unrepresentative samples of the world’s population’, the usual groups drawn into psychological experiments, there should more ‘cross-cultural cognitive science’, a turn towards more wide-ranging experimental subjects, a better representation of the people of the world. This could offer the prospect of a better grasp of ‘processes underlying human variation and cumulative cultural change, including mechanisms of social learning and cultural transmission’, and it might also prevent false claims about the characteristics of species when they are only the characteristics of relatively few groups.
      Although they don’t really see the problem in the same way, the entirely antithetical directions of travel they welcome are suggestive. While for me (and I can’t be alone) it’s easy to like the important idea of diversifying the field of experimental subjects, and difficult to like the idea that the science of the mind will zoom forward when it separates the cells from the brains (and the bodies), the thing that’s shared is some sense of dissatisfaction with the materials available to the scientists in the field. If only they were more tractable; if only they were more convincingly representative.
      For me there is always a lot to learn from, and a lot to like in, the creative tension between the need to get the data organised, and the resistant qualities of the minds and bodies that are meant to deliver the data. It’s partly the problem-solving skills of the scientists, and it’s partly the loveable and elusive complexity of their quarry. Most of all it’s the encounter with a discipline in motion, challenging itself, presenting me not with fixed points around which to organise my own thinking, but with contested patterns of understanding that give me even more to get my teeth into.

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

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