Monday, August 14, 2006

THE BRAIN IS NOT
AN ALL PURPOSE
LEARNING MACHINE


This is not the first time I’ve passed on this idea, but here it is, again, in the Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, pp. 42-44. And it goes into even more detail than other entries in this blog. Evolutionary psychology does not lend itself to the idea that the brain is a general purpose learning machine. This is one of the conflicts between old and new psychology. If evolutionary psychologists are correct, many changes will sweep through the field of psychology.

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The traditional view of the mind is radically at variance with the view that emerges from evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychologists expect a mind packed with domain-specific, content-rich programs specialized for solving ancestral problems, For example, evolutionary psychologists would view attention not as a single mechanism, but as an umbrella term for a whole suite of mechanisms, each designed to select different information from a scene for different processing purposes. Some of these may be relatively domain-general and deployed via volitional systems to any task-relevant element in a scene—these are the attentional mechanisms that have been studied most, using artificial stimuli. The mistake is not to think these exist, but to think they are all that exist (Braun, 2003). for example, research with change detection and attentional blink paradigms is uncovering attentional systems that are highly domain-specific and deployed in the absence of any specific task demand. One system preferentially attends to human faces (Ro, Russell, & Lavie, 2001). A similar system snaps attention to the location at which a pair of eyes is gazing (Friesen & Kingstone, 2003). Yet another monitors animals for changes in their state and location: Changes to animals are detected more quickly and reliably than changes to buildings, plants, tools-even vehicles (New, Cosmides, & Tooby, under review). Better change detection for animals than vehicles is significant because it shows a monitoring system tuned to ancestral rather than modern priorities. Our ability to quickly detect changes in the state and location of cars on the highway has life or death consequences and is a highly trained ability in twenty-first century America, where the studies were done. Yet, we are better at detecting changes in the states and locations of animals—an ability that had foraging or sometimes predatory consequences for our hunter-gatherer ancestors but is merely a distraction in modern cities and suburbs.

The point is not just that attention will be composed of many different domain-specific mechanisms, but that each domain-specialized attentional mechanism will be part of a vertically integrated system linking the attended objects to domain-specialized inferential, learning, and memory systems. True, animals needed to be closely monitored because they presented either danger (e.g., predators) or opportunities for hunting (prey). But once detected, other specialized processing is needed. Barrett has shown that a predator-prey inference system develops early, regardless of relevant experiences: 3- and 4-year-old children have a sophisticated understanding of predator-prey interactions, whether they grow up in urban Berlin or in a Shuar village in the jaguar- and crocodile-infested Amazon, eating animals that their fathers hunted and killed (Barrett, Chapter 7, this volume; Barrett, Tooby, & Cosmides, (in press). Steen and Owens (2001) have shown that chase play in toddlers and preschoolers has features of special design as a system for practicing and perfecting escape from predators (see also Marks, 1987).

Learning about animals is specialized as well. Mandler and McDonough (1998) have shown that babies distinguish animals from vehicles by 7 months of age and make different inferences about the two by 11 to 14 months. A detailed knowledge of animal behavior is necessary for successful hunting (Blurton Jones & Konner, 1976; Walker, Hill, Kaplan, & McMillan, 2002), and preschoolers as well as adults are equipped with systems specialized for making inductive inferences about the properties of animals (Keil, 1994; Markman, 1989; Springer, 1992; and discussion thereof in Barrett, Cosmides, et al., in press; Boyer, 2001; Boyer & Barrett, Chapter 3, this volume).

Atran and colleagues (Atran, 1998; Lopez, Atran, Coley, Medin, & Smith, 1997) provide cross-cultural evidence for a system specialized for sorting living kinds into hierarchically organized, mutually exclusive taxonomic categories that organize inductive inferences: The closer two species are in this taxonomic structure, the more likely someone is to assume that a trait of one is present in the other. Barrett, Cosmides, et al. (in press) have found a second parallel inductive system that uses predatory role to guide inferences. This system assumes that two species are more likely to share a trait if they are both predators than if one is a predator and the other an herbivore. This system categorizes animals as predators or not on the basis of minimal dietary information scattered amid other facts about the species' natural history. That is, the category predator is triggered by the information "eats animals" and guides inductive learning; the effect on trait induction is strongtwice the size of the taxonomic effect (Barrett, Chapter 7, this volume; Barrett et al., in press-a). Animal-specialized memory systems appear to exist as well. For example, Caramazza provides neuropsychological evidence that information about animals is stored in a category-specific memory system, functionally and neurally separate from that which stores information about artifacts (Caramazza, 2000; Caramazza & Shelton, 1998). From a traditional psychological perspective, content effects concerning animals are no more significant than hypothetical effects about door knobs, floorings, or words that rhyme with Quetzlcoatl. From an evolutionary perspective, however, animals were a selective agent of great magnitude and duration, and it would be a surprise if our brains were not strongly shaped by their hundreds of millions of years of interaction with other species.

We are emphasizing the content-specialized nature of processing about animals to illustrate an important point. The benefit of an attentional system specialized for monitoring animals is enhanced if its output is fed into inferential systems that infer their mental states and use this information to predict their likely behavior. The inferences and predictions generated by the mental state system are more useful if they are reliably fed into decision rules that determine whether escape is necessary. The monitoring system should also feed learning mechanisms that incidentally acquire information about the animal's properties; these, in turn, should feed memory systems designed to encode, store, and retrieve information about the animals monitored, according to ecologically relevant categories such as predator, taxonomically related, and so on. Animal-specialized attentional, inferen¬tial, behavioral, learning, and memory systems should be functionally integrated with one another, forming a distinct, category-based system. The same should be true for other content domains. Distinct, content-based information processing systems will exist to the extent that the computational requirements for adaptive problem solving for one content area are functionally incompatible with those for another (Sherry & Shacter, 1987; Tooby & Cosmides, 1992; Tooby, Cosmides, & Barrett, 2005).

Seen from this perspective, the ordinary categories of psychology dissolve. To have a textbook chapter on attention and a separate one on memory and then learning and reasoning does not necessarily divide the mind in the most appropriate way.
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2 comments:

vesimutt said...

I like your pictures. I think they are good.

Geo said...

Thank you, Vesimutt in Estonia.