Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Recursive Mind

In her review of Michael C. Corballis’s The Recursive Mind (TLS, 10/28/11), Barbara King brings up the Gobekli Tepe site in ancient turkey as a an example of a hunter gatherer society which had contrary to common wisdom mastered advanced forms of planning and thinking. Gobekli Tepe has also been the subject of a recent piece in The NewYorker by Elif Batuman (“The Sanctuary,” 12/19/11). But the chief thrust of King’s review is to dispute the claim that humans are superior to other animals due to their possession of recursive thinking, two qualities of which  are  “mental time travel” and  “theory of mind. “During mental time travel, an experience we’ve had in the past or that we imagine for ourselves in the future is ‘inserted into [our] present consciousness,’” King remarks in summarizing and quoting from Corballis. “Similarly, in theory of mind, we insert what we believe to be someone else’s state of mind into our own.” King’s point is that these traits are not unique to man at all. Even crows crow about it. “I wonder if, after viewing the documentary film A Murder of Crows, Corballis would still refuse to credit corvids—ravens and crows—with the recursive skills already outlined,” King complains. “In one striking scene, a New Caledonian crow (a bird admired by Corballis, though he thinks it incapable of recursive thinking) solves a complex experimental three part tool using problem.” Sure crows and chimps all have patterns that look like thought, but is King perhaps failing to distinguish between instinctual behavior based on survival with the self-referential patterns of consciousness. It’s doubtful that many crows would crow about the good old days or the past and still fewer chimps are likely to open the first volume of The Remembrance of Things Past. Sure the whale in Free Willy may intuit danger. He may even have been trained enough to realize that danger lurks behind a particular bend in the coral, but that’s a hell of a lot different than being able to think “I am the whale in Free Willy. I realize there is danger lurking in them waters and by George the Proustian madeleine is an example of Bergson’s concept of involuntary memory.”


1 comment:

  1. Two important points:

    1.) "Mental time travel" is synonymous with (and reducible to) what others have customarily called "memory." Likewise, "theory of mind" is a synonym for what is called "empathy." Corballis's theory appears to be trying to put old in new bottles.

    Properly speaking, we should not not use the term "recursive" to describe these processes, since recursion is an operation performed upon on a given element in a set to generate the next element of that set.

    Memory cannot be said to work in such a mechanical manner. Far better would be to use a term like "re-entry," which suggests the recall of memories that are similar without being exact copies of each other.

    2.) A distinction should be made between the functioning of the brains of cetaceans and those of the apes, since there is strong evidence to suggest that the former are self-aware and possessed of complicated memory in ways that the latter are not.


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