Category Archives: cognition

State of AI progress

An MIT Technology Review article introduces the man responsible for the 30-year-old deep learning approach, explains what deep machine learning is, and questions whether deep learning may be the last significant innovation in the AI field. The article also touches on a potential way forward for developing AIs with qualities more analogous to the human brain’s functioning.

The Metaphorical Brain

Lakoff’s last article was published in this open access Ebook edited by Seana Coulson and Vicky T. Lai, published by Frontiers Media SA in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience (March, 2016). The blurb:

Metaphor has been an issue of intense research and debate for decades (see, for example [1]). Researchers in various disciplines, including linguistics, psychology, computer science, education, and philosophy have developed a variety of theories, and much progress has been made [2]. For one, metaphor is no longer considered a rhetorical flourish that is found mainly in literary texts. Rather, linguists have shown that metaphor is a pervasive phenomenon in everyday language, a major force in the development of new word meanings, and the source of at least some grammatical function words [3]. Indeed, one of the most influential theories of metaphor involves the suggestion that the frequency of metaphoric language results because cross-domain mappings are a major determinant in the organization of semantic memory, as cognitive and neural resources for dealing with concrete domains are recruited for the conceptualization of more abstract ones [4]. Researchers in cognitive neuroscience have explored whether particular kinds of brain damage are associated with metaphor production and comprehension deficits, and whether similar brain regions are recruited when healthy adults understand the literal and metaphorical meanings of the same words (see [5] for a review). Whereas early research on this topic focused on the issue of the role of hemispheric asymmetry in the comprehension and production of metaphors [6], in recent years cognitive neuroscientists have argued that metaphor is not a monolithic category, and that metaphor processing varies as a function of numerous factors, including the novelty or conventionality of a particular metaphoric expression, its part of speech, and the extent of contextual support for the metaphoric meaning (see, e.g., [7], [8], [9]). Moreover, recent developments in cognitive neuroscience point to a sensorimotor basis for many concrete concepts, and raise the issue of whether these mechanisms are ever recruited to process more abstract concepts [10]. This Frontiers Research Topic brings together contributions from researchers in cognitive neuroscience whose work involves the study of metaphor in language and thought in order to promote the development of the neuroscientific investigation of metaphor. Adopting an interdisciplinary perspective, it synthesizes current findings on the cognitive neuroscience of metaphor, provides a forum for voicing novel perspectives, and promotes avenues for new research on the metaphorical brain.

[1] Arbib, M. A. (1989). The metaphorical brain 2: Neural networks and beyond. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
[2] Gibbs Jr, R. W. (Ed.). (2008). The Cambridge handbook of metaphor and thought. Cambridge University Press.
[3] Sweetser, Eve E. “Grammaticalization and semantic bleaching.” Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society. Vol. 14. 2011.
[4] Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the flesh: The embodied mind and its challenge to western thought.
[5] Coulson, S. (2008). Metaphor comprehension and the brain. The Cambridge handbook of metaphor and thought, 177-194.
[6] Winner, E., & Gardner, H. (1977). The comprehension of metaphor in brain-damaged patients. Brain, 100(4), 717-729.
[7] Coulson, S., & Van Petten, C. (2007). A special role for the right hemisphere in metaphor comprehension?: ERP evidence from hemifield presentation. Brain Research, 1146, 128-145.
[8] Lai, V. T., Curran, T., & Menn, L. (2009). Comprehending conventional and novel metaphors: An ERP study. Brain Research, 1284, 145-155.
[9] Schmidt, G. L., Kranjec, A., Cardillo, E. R., & Chatterjee, A. (2010). Beyond laterality: a critical assessment of research on the neural basis of metaphor. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, 16(01), 1-5.
[10] Desai, R. H., Binder, J. R., Conant, L. L., Mano, Q. R., & Seidenberg, M. S. (2011). The neural career of sensory-motor metaphors. Journal of Cognitive Neurosc., 23(9), 2376

Mapping the brain’s metaphor circuitry

By George Lakoff, Frontiers in Human Neureoscience, Hypothesis and Theory Article (link), 2014. Introduction: “An overview of the basics of metaphorical thought and language from the perspective of Neurocognition, the integrated interdisciplinary study of how conceptual thought and language work in the brain. The paper outlines a theory of metaphor circuitry and discusses how everyday reason makes use of embodied metaphor circuitry.” Also see the section on experimental results for the studies.

Embodied philosophy in a nutshell

In this 4-minute clip Lakoff summarizes how philosophy is changed by cognitive science. Particular philosophies get attached to a root metaphor (or blend) that entails certain premises and conclude that it is reality in toto without going further to understand that other metaphors entail different premises with equally logical conclusions. The embodied thesis helps us understand how our body-minds work to correct many of philosophy’s metaphysical assumptions while providing a postmetaphysical frame for an empirical, embodied and multifarious philosophy.

Who am I: the conscious and unconscious self

Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2017; 11: 126. Some excerpts:

“In this article we suggest the idea that the processing of self-referential stimuli in cortical midline structures (CMS) may represent an important part of the conscious self, which may be supplemented by an unconscious part of the self that has been called an ’embodied mind’ (Varela et al., 1991), which relies on other brain structures.”

“When we describe the self as structure and organization we understand it as a system. But the concept of the embodied self states that the self or cognition is not an activity of the mind alone, but is distributed across the entire situation including mind, body, environment (e.g., Beer, 1995), thereby pointing to an embodied and situated self.”

“Furthermore, we argue that through embodiment the self is also embedded in the environment. This means that our self is not isolated but intrinsically social. […] Hence, the self should not be understood as an entity located somewhere in the brain, isolated from both the body and the environment. In contrast, the self can be seen as a brain-based neurosocial structure and organization, always linked to the environment (or the social sphere) via embodiment and embeddedness.”

Memes are like cognitive frames

It occurred to me that memes are a lot like frames as Lakoff describes them. Lakoff has done extensive cognitive scientific work on schemas, metaphors and frames. Check out this lengthy article in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2014; 8: 958, “Mapping the brain’s metaphor circuitry.” Even though they don’t relate this to the concept of memes, there are some striking similarities. E.g.: 

“Reddy had found that the abstract concepts of communication and ideas are understood via a conceptual metaphor: Ideas Are Objects; Language Is a Container for Idea-Objects; Communication Is Sending Idea-Objects in Language-Containers.”

Future discussion topic recommendations

Several of us met on Labor Day with the goal of identifying topics for at least five future monthly meetings. (Thanks, Dave N, for hosting!) Being the overachievers we are, we pushed beyond the goal. Following are the resulting topics, which will each have its own article on this site where we can begin organizing references for the discussion:

  • sex-related influences on emotional memory
    • gross and subtle brain differences (e.g., “walls of the third ventricle – sexual nuclei”)
    • “Are there gender-based brain differences that influence differences in perceptions and experience?”
    • epigenetic factors (may need an overview of epigenetics)
  • embodied cognition
    • computational grounded cognition (possibly the overview and lead-in topic)
    • neuro-reductionist theory vs. enacted theory of mind
    • “Could embodied cognition influence brain differences?” (Whoever suggested this, please clarify.)
  • brain-gut connection (relates to embodied cognition, but can stand on its own as a topic)
  • behavioral priming (one or multiple discussions)
  • neuroscience of empathy – effects on the brain, including on neuroplasticity
  • comparative effects of various meditative practices on the brain
  • comparative effects of various psychedelics on the brain
  • effects of childhood poverty on the brain

If I missed anything, please edit the list (I used HTML in the ‘Text’ view to get sub-bullets). If you’re worried about the formatting, you can email your edits to and Mark will post your changes.

Computational grounded cognition

From this article, which first describes the progress in grounded cognition theories, then goes into how this should be applied to robotics and artificial intelligence. Some excepts:

“Grounded theories assume that there is no central module for cognition. According to this view, all cognitive phenomena, including those considered the province of amodal cognition such as reasoning, numeric, and language processing, are ultimately grounded in (and emerge from) a variety of bodily, affective, perceptual, and motor processes. The development and expression of cognition is constrained by the embodiment of cognitive agents and various contextual factors (physical and social) in which they are immersed. The grounded framework has received numerous empirical confirmations. Still, there are very few explicit computational models that implement grounding in sensory, motor and affective processes as intrinsic to cognition, and demonstrate that grounded theories can mechanistically implement higher cognitive abilities. We propose a new alliance between grounded cognition and computational modeling toward a novel multidisciplinary enterprise: Computational Grounded Cognition. We clarify the defining features of this novel approach and emphasize the importance of using the methodology of Cognitive Robotics, which permits simultaneous consideration of multiple aspects of grounding, embodiment, and situatedness, showing how they constrain the development and expression of cognition.”

“According to grounded theories, cognition is supported by modal representations and associated mechanisms for their processing (e.g., situated simulations), rather than amodal representations, transductions, and abstract rule systems. Recent computational models of sensory processing can be used to study the grounding of internal representations in sensorimotor modalities; for example, generative models show that useful representations can self-organize through unsupervised learning (Hinton, 2007). However, modalities are usually not isolated but form integrated and multimodal assemblies, plausibly in association areas or ‘convergence zones'” (Damasio, 1989; Simmons and Barsalou, 2003).

“An important challenge is explaining how abstract concepts and symbolic capabilities can be constructed from grounded categorical representations, situated simulations and embodied processes. It has been suggested that abstract concepts could be based principally on interoceptive, meta-cognitive and affective states (Barsalou, 2008) and that selective attention and categorical memory integration are essential for creating a symbolic system” (Barsalou, 2003).

The differences between sitting and moving meditative states

Here is Thompson’s talk on the topic. As a dancer and martial artist, as well as an embodied cognitioner, this talk is particularly relevant to me. I’ve been saying since forever that these arts are meditative disciplines in themselves. And one doesn’t necessarily need the sitting still sort of meditation to achieve meta-cognition.

Having done both kinds my anectodic report is that both sitting and moving meditation induce meta-cognition. But there are no studies on movement meditation to confirm it as yet. That’s part of what Thompson is complaining about, and encouraging the scientific meditative researchers to start investigating.

Around 14:20 he said that research has show that perception is different when one initiates movement than when one is passively moved. He did not directly compare perception with movement to perception while completely still, so not sure of those differences.

At 18:20 he reiterates a point made elsewhere, that individual meta-cognition is an internalized form of social cognition, a point I used in the paper on collective enlightenment. He then brings in Vygotsky’s work along this line, different than Piaget’s. In our paper I also brought in Habermas’ use of Mead in this regard. For reference, also see Edwards’ 3-part series at Integral World on the depth of the exteriors. 

At 23:40 is an important point to my initial inquiry about comparing sitting and moving meditation: “If two cognitive systems include different cognitive practices, the two systems can have different cognitive properties, even when the neural network activations are the same.” 

At 30:20 Thompson said that attention has no specific location in the brain but is the whole embodied subject. Attention isn’t a particular process or even a collection of processes, but a mode in which processes are related. I’m reminded of this discussion on amodal and supramodal processing, although that is limited to the brain and not the brain/mind/body/environment enaction Thompson discusses.

Finishing the talk he reiterates the need to extend scientific meditative research to the movement arts. From the above he seems to suggest that movement mediation, which perhaps activating the same brain areas, means something very different via its enaction than sitting meditation. So it is not the same meta-cognitive experience with the two forms.

Having done both kinds I find moving meditation activates and refines the spatial-temporal bodily image schema in a way that sitting meditation does not. In so doing it literally gives multiple views of objects within an immediate field of attention, thereby opening to multiple points of view rather than a fixed point of reference in sitting.

However the attention in sitting meditation, while opening to whatever arises, be it a sound or a thought, or even by focusing one one object, is still within a fixed center or perspective, this notion of a bare attention that theoretically has no center or ego reference. But that rests on an assumption that bare attention itself is beyond reference or perspective, while moving meditation’s sort of bare attention makes no such assumption given its ever shifting physical perspective. It seems that sitting mediation is literally fixated while moving meditation is multi-perspectival with no fixed center.

Just some biased ruminations that are sure to fire up the sitters! Have at it.