Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Dual Processing System

Dealing with Difference: From cognition to semiotic cognition
Barend van Heusden. Department of Arts, Culture, and Media Studies, University of Groningen, The Netherlands.
Cognitive Semiotics, Issue 4 (Spring 2009), pp. 116–132

I have clipped what I consider to be some interesting parts of a very powerful article on the nature of thought:

In this paper, it will be argued that semiotic cognition can be conceived as a distinctive form of cognition, which evolved out of earlier forms of non-semiotic cognition. Semiotic cognition depends on the use of signs and it will be shown that a sign is not a ‘thing’, but rather the name given to a specific organization, or structure, of the cognitive process. Once semiotic cognition was available to humans, its structure may have provided the ground for an evolutionary development that was no longer strictly Darwinian, but followed its own semiotic logic. Semiotic cognition confronts humans with a difference that cannot be eliminated, and it is in the ways in which this difference is dealt with that we may discover a logic of cultural evolution that determines the course of long term cultural change. (p116)

If we want to explain this absence of meaning and with it the emergence of a specifically human sense of reality, of time, space, and self, we have to assume that human cognition is based upon a very peculiar system of representation (or ‘pattern matching’) which allows us to process what is seen and heard at the same time, both in terms of stable patterns and of global, concrete and necessarily ‘fuzzy’ patterns. This double processing generates a difference between the stable pattern, which corresponds to what we have called memory, on the one hand, and an instable, always changing pattern corresponding to what one could name the ‘here and now’ or the ‘present’, on the other hand. In a conscious human mind the two patterns never merge completely. (p122)

[Difference] may have freed humans from immediacy, from the continuous ‘now’ in which most, if not all, other organisms live and it probably enabled us to deal with our environment independently of what is simply ‘the case’ in fantasy, myths, religion, technology, the arts and sciences, philosophy. These worlds that we construct in our imagination allow us to cope with change in a more sophisticated way than other organisms do. It does not take long to figure out the profit. What distinguishes human cognition and culture from that of other organisms is not meaning, but the absence of meaning. (p123)

If the assumption put forward here is correct we may investigate further in two directions. ‘Backward’, in order to try to find out and explain how such a double processing could have come about in the evolution of hominids, which is the subject of evolutionary psychology. And ‘forward,’ to find out if and how the peculiar structure of human cognition may have influenced the evolution of human culture. Let us first try to go ‘backward’, finding out about the possible evolutionary development of the human capacity for double processing. It is highly probable that this development made use of the strong lateralization of the human brain. I do not want to suggest that lateralization caused human culture, but what I do suspect is that a lateralization, which was already present (and which is related in primates to handedness*), allowed for the double processing, in terms of stable and changing patterns, of visual and acoustic information in animals with full stereoscopic vision, resulting in a 100% identity of the visual input in the two hemispheres. The coordinating process required a substantial enlargement of the equally present ‘comparator’ or ‘cockpit’, according to the term coined by Elkhonon Goldberg. (p123)

The double processing of the stream of incoming information results in a combination of two types of patterns: stable structures, on the one hand (which we can now identify as ‘schemata’, ‘scripts’, ‘concepts’, ‘structures’, or ‘signs’) and a changing situation, on the other hand (identified as ‘reality’, ‘substance’, ‘object’, ‘the thing itself’, etc.). Memories can now be stored and worked upon independently of the actual situation. Evidently, the most could be made of this development if the set of available memories were considerable. Both factors (a large set of memories and a strong comparator) required brain space. This could be that ‘compelling reason’ why the human brain got so large between 2 and 1.5 million years ago and why the costs of such a large brain were worth paying. (p124)

The stable pattern (memory) is related to a changing pattern (an occurrence). It is this activity of relating that turns the stable patterns into signs, which are used to recognize (to give form to, to interpret, to signify) that other more floating set of patterns constituting actuality. The here and now of the situation, in turn, is what is not a sign. It is ‘reality’, ‘the world’, ‘the object’. Although we immediately admit that this too is a construction based on memories. But the difference between the two is not a construction of our memory, and that is crucial. Thus cognition becomes intentional or semiotic. (p124-5)

The first step in the evolution of culture, as we have seen, must have been that of the doubling of the information processing system: basically the doubling of the representation of perception. (p126)

Semiotic mimetic actions are fundamentally different from imitations, as imitation involves the copying of behaviour, whereas mimesis comes with a new way of representing behaviour, namely without actually performing it (cf. Donald 1991, 2006). Through mimesis, the stable memories, or signs, are acted out and become audible and visible.*

*This corresponds to Piaget’s (1962) notion of “representative imitation”, which according to him emerges out of sensory-motor imitation, via deferred imitation (cf. Zlatev 2007).

Human culture is the process in which more or less stable memories are used to deal with the difference that the world forces upon us. (p127)

Our identity as human beings is thus a process in which we continuously invest energy. […] We exist as a set of memories and as a process in which these memories are used to deal with a dynamic environment. I am, we are, ‘in the making’. Viewing the self as a process rather than as an object therefore becomes more natural (Noble 2006). (p128)

Self-consciousness, both individual and collective, is thus a form of recursion; not formal, but semiotic recursion. Whereas in formal recursion a form consists of elements that reproduce that same form (as in a triangle consisting of three smaller triangles, each of which again consists of three smaller triangles, etc.), in semiotic recursion the process of representation (of ‘aboutness’) is about that process itself. This is what we call reflexivity, meta-representation or meta-cognition. The self is always a constructed self as well as a remembered self or, rather, a self ‘under construction’. (p128-9)

Moreover, the process as such is again remembered, which gives us a strong feeling of being, and having been, alive (cf. Metzinger 2003). […] Art and philosophy are two important forms of meta-cognition in modern and in contemporary culture. Whereas art reflects our life in concrete images, sounds, and stories, philosophy does so through abstract conceptualizations. (p129)

The ‘double processing’ hypothesis presented in this paper would allow us to shed light on the evolution of human culture and on cultural evolution as well. Semiotic cognition became possible because of a change in the primate information processing system. Once this system was in place, a new logic of development could emerge. The logic of cultural evolution seems to be based on what is, in the end, a very simple criterion, namely: whether a sign or sign system offers better chances of dealing with the difference arising in a specific personal, social and natural context, and in so doing also offers better chances of prediction and survival. Which brings us back to biology. This search for better solutions to the problem of difference can explain individual, social, and geographical variations in culture, as well as the steady increase of both abstraction and cultural complexity. (p129-30)

Even though culture certainly is a fact of human biology, what makes it so interesting is the fact that out of biology, in this case, emerges a form of cognition that became free, at least to a certain extent, of the laws of biology by adding a new dimension to these laws, namely the dimension of the semiotic. (p130)

The approach is deeply and truly Darwinian, in the sense that it applies Darwin’s perspective where it can and should be applied, and uses it to explain how and why a non-Darwinian evolutionary system, though nested in biological evolution and fulfilling the same goals, could emerge. Neo- Darwinism is fruitful, but only up to a certain point – which is that of the semiotic. Beyond that point, the laws of development change: instead of ‘BVSR = Blind Variation + Selective Retention’, the logic of the semiotic process, involving mimesis, imagination, conceptualization, and analysis will determine the course of human evolution.* Whereas selective retention may continue to function as it did in animal life, cultural variation is not blind, but informed by semiosis and driven by semiotic strategies.**

* Lassègue (2007) develops a related ‘alternative’ view (to neo-Darwinism, that is), strongly oriented towards the work of Ernst Cassirer. See also Wolfgang Wildgen’s (2003) work on the evolution of human language.

** See Wheeler, Ziman & Boden, eds. (2002) on cultural evolution and neo Darwinism. See also David Premack’s review article ‘Human and animal cognition: Continuity and discontinuity’ (2007) where the significant differences between human and animal cognition are stressed.


Donald, M. (1991). Origins of the modern mind. Three stages in the evolution of culture and cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Donald, M. (2006). Art and cognitive evolution. In M. Turner (Ed.), The artful mind.

Goldberg, E. (2001). The executive brain. Frontal lobes and the civilized mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lassègue, J. (2007). Une réinterprétation de la notion de forme symbolique dans un scénario récent d’émergence de la culture. Revue de métaphysique et de morale 2 (2007), 221–236.

Metzinger, T. (2003). Being no one: the self-model theory of subjectivity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Noble, D. (2006). The music of life. Biology beyond genes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Piaget, J. (1962). Play, dreams, and imitation in childhood. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Premack, D. (2007). Human and animal cognition: Continuity and discontinuity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 104 (35), 13861–13867.

Wheeler, M., Ziman, J., & Boden, M. A. (Eds.) (2002). The evolution of cultural entities. Oxford: Oxford University Press, for The British Academy.

Wildgen, W. (2003). The evolution of human language. Scenarios, principles and cultural dynamics. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Zlatev, J. (2007). Embodiment, language, and mimesis. In T. Ziemke, J. Zlatev & R. Franck (Eds.), Body, Language, Mind. Vol. 1: Embodiment (pp. 297–333). New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

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