Cognitive Science and Social Systems

Ryutaro Uchiyama
PhD Student in Psychology

As the website for our Cognitive Science program is relaunched this week, one of its new features will be this blog, which will consist mainly of content contributed by graduate students. I am privileged to write the first entry, and will start out by promoting a student organization that has recently become active on the Cornell Ithaca campus. It’s an interdisciplinary journal club that focuses on the study of emergent collective behavior:

I won’t go into details about the club or its subject matter here because this information is available on the website, and will instead try to make a case for why research on self-organizing social systems has something to offer for cognitive science at large. Thanks to the writer for the outstanding academic writing jobs. I love the way it is completed. Thanks a lot.”If you find any of the following interesting, you might enjoy the topics that we discuss in our journal club, although they extend beyond the subject of this entry. The ideas below derive from various sources both old and new, and none originate from me. Although I will not list any formal citations here, I would be more than happy to refer anyone who is interested to the relevant literature.

Let’s start from the early days: When pioneering cognitive scientists like Newell and Simon began expounding on the idea of decomposing intelligent behavior into simple logical operations performed on abstract symbols, it must have seemed like it would soon be possible to understand the nature of mental processes by integrating concepts from logic, engineering, and experimental psychology. This was roughly half a century ago, but today, due in large part to advances in our understanding of the physiological processes that occur within the darkness of our skulls, it has become fairly clear that the primitive units of biological cognition are not the static, referent-specifying symbols that early researchers had invoked, although the specific details of the actual coding system are less certain.

It’s not surprising that the relationship between symbolic representation and mental processes seemed intrinsic. The early designers of automated computers were able to realize intelligence-like phenomena with devices that process symbols in a step-wise fashion. Even considering human intelligence, it was clear that symbolic reference played a key role in supporting sapient behavior in manifestations ranging from shopping lists to mathematical proofs.

Now that we recognize that referent-specifying symbols are unlikely to be the key to understanding the biological substrate of mental processes, does this mean that symbols have collapsed into scientific anachronism, at best being relevant as a crude approximation of a finer level of reality that more accurately mirrors the essential phenomena? I would agree that this perspective is sound for most brains on Earth, but would argue that humans pose an exception. This sort of claim for species exceptionalism is unpopular in many scientific circles today (and rightly so) but it was for the most part human minds that the early cognitive scientists were intending to model. It’s worth at least considering what differences might be present between us and the rest of the zoological universe.

I’m going to claim that the difference is symbols. The link between human intelligence and symbolic representation is real. It’s just that the early researchers were attributing symbolic representation to the wrong level of organization. Symbols are grounded not in the minds of individual agents, but rather in social systems, or rather, in one particular aspect of social systems—coordination structures that persist through time and allow participating agents to communicate and integrate information about the world through collectively distributed processes. As various theorists have argued, symbolic systems such as language arise as bottom-up solutions to the class of problems that game theorists call coordination problems.

Symbols are useful because there are norms regarding their mappings from symbolic form to referent, and we compel others to adhere to these referential norms through a variety of means ranging from pedagogical encouragement to legal prosecution. Because human populations have the capacity to stabilize such norms, it becomes possible for us to use quality custom essay symbolic communication not only to infer features of the world that are beyond the immediate experience of any single agent, but also to generate and maintain collectively-constructed models of the world that can guide coordinated action for aggregates of agents. These shared models commonly take the form of narrative, and are built from a complex process in which factors like the possibility of deception and other forms of intrinsic noise play subtle roles. One signature of this kind of socially emergent representation is the time course over which the informational content is updated: The rate at which the fit from model to world is amended is typically much slower, and possibly different along other parameters as well, than the rate at which the constituent individuals can update the component data that serve as the input to the shared representation.

Symbolic representations are different from neural representations. They are situated in a different order of organizational hierarchy. Whereas the operation of nervous systems is fundamentally of a statistical nature, symbolic representations are characterized by their normative structure, which arises from coordination demands. Coordination demands constitute a set of constraints that qualitatively differs from the sensorimotor demands that shape brains. It is clear that the information pathways that connect individuals are far more sparse than the information pathways within brains; one way for such sparsely connected information-processors to function together systemically is by satisfying coordination demands.

Of course, brains do play an important role in these processes. To make use of symbols, the neural substrate must be equipped to do so: a candidate mechanism might by the indirection-like prefrontal–basal ganglia interactions that have been proposed by Randall O’Reilly and colleagues. It is, however, the social embeddedness of human minds that allows us to converge upon the symbolic representations that such a circuit would be able to exploit. A system of normative representations serves as an additional layer of constraint that is imposed onto brains, and because it is a constraint that originates from the population level, individuals who act under it are presented with the opportunity to dynamically cohere with other agents at a distance, as well as the the opportunity to explore novel ways to cohere by culturally modifying the normative constraints that generate the emergent collective behavior.

A symbolically sophisticated social system is able to propagate not only norms regarding representations, but also norms regarding relations between representations. This sort of system enables the development of interesting capacities, such as the capacity to approximate logical computations of the kind that were promoted by the early cognitive scientists. So the link between static, referent-specifying symbols and human intelligence is real, but mediated by sociocultural processes. To see logic-approximating procedures in action, just observe the way groups of people use language when deliberating over some issue, or how we frequently make decisions in accord with rule-based heuristics that resemble algorithms or flowcharts rather than depend entirely on statistical associations. A paradigmatic case is the way in which legal systems operate. In these examples, information is at least partly processed symbolically, and behavior is at least partly structured by symbolic representations.

I’ll stop here. I’ve tried to convey some of the reasons why I think there is a natural link between cognitive science and the study of collective behavior. There are already an appreciable number of researchers who work at this intersection, and I anticipate that this subpopulation will continue to grow. Although a large part of the most fruitful contemporary work on emergent collective behavior comes from the study of nonhuman animals, I am led to believe that the situation under which this framework will become most indispensible is when we begin to unravel the quirks of our own minds.

2 thoughts on “Cognitive Science and Social Systems

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