Seminar in cognition (version 08.3)

Language, thought, and consciousness-- ontogeny and phylogeny

The seminar would take up these topics as described below.  The first goal will be to establish a succinct working knowledge of current cognitive psychology on these topics. We have Pinker's book to read but what do basic good texts say about thought and consciousness?



Note that I consider this description a work in progress – I will update this online as it grows.  Participants are expected to read, discuss, and present their ideas and interpretations to the seminar – verbally and in writing. Each week some of you will be expected to report to the class on various issues.



Current state of these topics ?

What is language? How does it work?  (See Pinker, 1994).  Ditto for consciousness and mind – thought and memory?

How do these develop? (Ontogeny)

Classically, Piaget and Vygotsky sought to understand the mix of these topics in the development of mind.  To what extent is the modern mind a function of a hundred thousand year old brain?  Is there anything new on the development of mind that is relevant?  Has recent brain imaging technology revealed something totally out the realm of these classical theories?  What does it support?  What about recent discoveries on “theory of mind” or “primate cognition?” Do cultural artifacts like numbers or video games change our minds?

More specific to my own interests, what role does language play in human development?  When and how does it fit in?

What do we know about the evolution of the human mind? (phylogeny)

While multi-celled life on earth is roughly 500 million years old, bipedal ape-like creatures with chimp sized brains – apparently our ancestors – inhabited east Africa some three or four million years ago.  Yet the oldest human fossils of modern humans are only about 100,000 years old.  Agriculture is less than 15,000 years old and writing was invented less than five thousand years ago – probably in Iraq!  Somehow over the past million years, brain size and complexity increased and we became capable of "programming" ourselves with increasingly sophisticated "mind tools" – language, mathematics, theories of other minds.  These abstract artifacts or inventions, coevolving with the rapidly changing brain, extended the representational/computational powers of minds -- just as material tools – axes, spears, and wheels – became part of our heritage extending the physical powers of our hands and feet.


How do they interact?—the main focus

 What aspects of mind rely on language? Is consciousness dependent on language?  What about will, thought and episodic memory --  are these part of consciousness?  Do we think 'in' language?  What does that mean?  Can an organism think without language?  What do you mean by “thinking?  Can language interfere with cognition?  What drives confabulation?



I expect everyone to contribute to the class in discussion, presentations, short weekly papers, and a final project of some sort related to the topics of the course. For example one might do a complete research proposal, a pilot study on some issue....? I will talk with everyone about this as the semester moves on.


Some references

Books are ordered at Durham Book Exchange (Main Street, Durham). We will read Pinker and especially Wegner quite rapidly. Then take on H&S (2007). At the same time, we will various articles and hear reports from the class on others.

Hurlburt, R. T., & Schwitzgebel, E. (2007). Describing inner experience?  Proponent meets skeptic. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct. New York: William Morrow and Company.  (paperback available)

Wegner, D. M. (2002). The illusion of conscious will. Cambridge: MIT Press. (paperback available)

OTHER REFERENCES (many of these will be on Blackboard or in box above the mailboxes in Conant 123.)

(These are just to give you an idea of my past and current thinking; the actual readings may vary depending..)


Coqueugniot, H., J. J. Hublin, et al. (2004). "Early brain growth in Homo erectus and implications for cognitive ability." Nature 431: 299-302.


Cook, A. E., J. E. Limber, & E. O'Brien (2001). "Situation-Based context and the availability of predictive inferences." Journal of Memory and Language 44: 1-16.





Fivush, R. and R. Nelson (2004). "Culture and language in the emergence of autobiographical memory." Psychological Science 15(9): 573-577.


Gazzaniga, M. (1997). Why can't I control my brain? In M. Ito, Y. Miyashita, & E. T. Rolls (Eds.), Cognition, computation, and consciousness (pp. 69-79). Oxford: Oxford University Press.



Jaynes, J. (1990). The origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind. (Second edition ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin. (some fragments, anyway)


Limber, J. (1977). "Language in child and chimp?" American Psychologist 32: 280-295 (Reprinted in Sebeok, T.  & Sebeok, J. (Eds.) (1980).  Speaking of Apes (pp.197-218).  New York: Plenum Press.).


Limber, J. (1978). "Goodbye Behaviorism!" The Behavioral and Brain Sciences 4: 535-536.


Linde, C. (1993). Life stories: The creation of coherence. New York, Oxford University Press.


Nisbett, R. E. and T. D. Wilson (1977). "Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes." Psychological Review 84: 231-259.


Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct. New York, William Morrow and Company.


Resiberg, D. (2001). Cognition. New York, Norton.


Ruffman, T., L. Slade, et al. (2002). "The relation between children's and mother's mental state language and theory-of-mind understanding." Child Development 73: 734-751.


Sacks, O. (1987). The man who mistook his wife for a hat. New York, Harper & Row.


(ch. 12 a matter of identity: "Deprived of continuity, of a quiet, continuous, inner narrative, he is driven to a sort of narrational frenzy -- hence his ceaseless tales, his confabulations, his mythomania..he comes across as an ebullient comic.")


Schaller, S. (1991). A man without words. New York, Summit Books.


Schooler, J. W. and T. Y. Engstler-Schooler (1990). "Verbal overshadowing of visual memories: Some things are better left unsaid." Cognitive Psychology 22: 36-71.


Simcock, G. and H. Hayne (2002). "Breaking the barrier?  Children fail to translate their preverbal memories into language." Psychological Science 13: 225-231.


Tomasello, M. and J. Call (1997). Primate cognition. New York, Oxford.  (This is my Psychology of Primates text; it has a fair account of Piaget’s basic cognitive theory of “genetic epistemology.”


Vygotsky, L. (1934/1986). Language and thought. Cambridge, MIT Press.


Wegner, D. M. (2002). The illusion of conscious will. Cambridge, MIT Press.