Sunday, December 12, 2010

On Tomasello

Tomasello, M., Carpenter, M., Call, J., Behne, T., & Moll, H. (2005). Understanding and sharing intentions: The origins of cultural cognition. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 28, 675-735.
We propose that the crucial difference between human cognition and that of other species is the ability to participate with others in collaborative activities with shared goals and intentions: shared intentionality. Participation in such activities requires not only especially powerful forms of intention reading and cultural learning, but also a unique motivation to share psychological states with others and unique forms of cognitive representation for doing so. The result of participating in these activities is species-unique forms of cultural cognition and evolution, enabling everything from the creation and use of linguistic symbols to the construction of social norms and individual beliefs to the establishment of social institutions. In support of this proposal we argue and present evidence that great apes (and some children with autism) understand the basics of intentional action, but they still do not participate in activities involving joint intentions and attention (shared intentionality). Human children’s skills of shared intentionality develop gradually during the first14 months of life as two ontogenetic pathways intertwine: (1) the general ape line of understanding others as animate, goal-directed, and intentional agents; and (2) a species-unique motivation to share emotions, experience, and activities with other persons. The developmental outcome is children’s ability to construct dialogic cognitive representations, which enable them to participate in earnest in the collectivity that is human cognition.
Some quick notes on the article
Before I begin, I want to say that my reservations and questions below do not change the fact that I admire Tomasello’s work. This article is a wonderful article to read and the commentaries following the article are worth reading too.

For Tomasello et al. what distinguishes human beings from other animals is shared intentionality. They define shared intentionality as “the ability to participate with others in collaborative activities with shared goals and intentions” (p. 675). However, on page 676 they add “a motivation to share these things in interaction with others—and perhaps special forms of dialogic cognitive representation for doing so.” I’m not sure if ability to read intentions is what distinguishes human beings. It seems like there are some research that suggest apes can do that too, at least to some extent. A motivation for sharing, or being more collaborative might be Tomasello et al’s attempt to solve this issue. I wonder if Tomasello’s former position was just intention reading makes a difference and if his current position is an improvement of that position. Also, the part on cognitive representation argument is not well developed yet. Do we really need a bird’s eye view representation for role-reversal or is it enough to be able to imagine oneself in the shoes of another person? On page 680, Tomasello et al define shared intentionality or we intentionality as “collaborative interactions in which participants have a shared goal (shared commitment) and coordinated action roles for pursuing that shared goal.” Here again there is no mention of motivation for sharing. I am confused about how that motivation fits with the rest of his proposals. Is shared intentionality plus motivation to share that makes a difference, or is that motivation a part of shared intentionality? I am not quite sure if Tomasello et al’s approach is overly simplistic or unnecessarily complicated.
In this article Tomasello et al claim that what distinguishes humans from other species is shared intentionality (p. 675). What strikes me is the fact that both Chomsky and Tomasello are interested in what distinguishes humans from other species but they end up arguing quite different views. Actually their questions are a little bit different. Chomsky wants to know what distinguishes human language whereas Tomasello is after the difference in terms of cognition.
Tomasello et al. begin their article by saying that “Human beings are the world’s experts at mind reading” (p. 675). It is hard to disagree with that but I have to say that I’m a little concerned that the term mind reading can be misleading. I agree with the reading part however I’m not sure if what we read is the mind. It seems that the authors either assume that there are other things we read but mind is the one that matters or they think we read minds, period. I do not think they are aware of the presupposition they make, that is the Cartesian dichotomy of the mind and the body. I think this might be problematic. Honestly, I am not sure what we read. The thing is even our own minds are only partially accessible to us, or in other words, consciousness is only a small part of our cognition. To my mind at least, mind reading implies something conscious. I think what we read is the body. This is not to say that we do not make inferences about what people think or feel. I have difficulty expressing myself here because to me what we feel and what we think are not two different things. In my opinion, the dichotomy is not valid but I don’t know a word that encompasses both feeling and thought to replace mind. I don’t know if I’m going down the behaviorist path too much here.
Moreover, I do not think what we understand is just intentions. For example, let’s say you and I are talking and I think you are feeling happy based on your body language and facial expression. It doesn’t matter whether you are actually sad or not. I think that you are. According to this scenario, what I read is your emotional state, not your intention. Of course there must be a relationship between the two. When I think that you may cry, you may want to be alone, you may get angry with me for not leaving you alone, or you may want a shoulder to cry on. So one emotion may lead to many different intentions and behaviors. In other words, even if I read your psychological state I don’t have a way of knowing your intention exactly about what you intend to do next. This lack of certainty in predicting human intentions can be illustrated in one experiment. When I extend my arm to give you a book and you raise your arm to get it from my hand, I’m certain that you intend to get the book. I know your intention. However, I cannot know exactly how you are going to do that. So I cannot help but raise my hand the moment you grasp the book. This is an automatic response for all humans. In contrast, when I want to pick up the book from my left hand with my right hand I do not raise my left hand during the exchange because I know what my right hand is going to do. Even this is not a perfect prediction but it explains why human beings cannot tickle themselves.
In the article, Tomasello et al. delineate the features that make shared intentionality possible. These are mind reading and cultural learning. The authors seem to focus on reading intentions and say little about cultural learning as if it is something that developmentally takes place later. I seriously doubt that. The underlying assumption seems to be the early stages of cognitive development are universal. I believe this should be an empirical question.
Tomasello et al seem to like things that come in threes.  For example, dyadic engagement, triadic engagement, collaborative engagement; developmental, evolutionary, and pathological evidence; goal, intention, attention; action, result, reaction; successful, unsuccessful, and accidental events, acting animately, pursuing goals, choosing plans. The figure on page 689 is another example. This pattern makes me suspicious.
“We employ a “control systems” approach (from cybernetic theory) to characterize the structure of intentional action and a “shared intentionality” approach (from the philosophy of action) to characterize the types of cognitive skills and social engagements that make possible uniquely human activities such as the creation and use of linguistic and mathematical symbols, the creation and use of artifacts and technologies that accumulate modifications over generations in cultural evolution, and the creation of social practices and institutions such as marriage and government that depend on collective belief—in short, what we will call skills of cultural cognition” (p. 676). This quote made me think that here Tomasello et al think what distinguishes human beings is actually cultural cognition and what makes this possible is shared intentionality. At least this was my impression. Theirs is a very indirect way of approaching the issue. Instead of trying to find what makes us unique and investigate that, they seem to pick an explanation for that uniqueness and try to find the elements that make it possible. As much as I find some aesthetic value in the simplicity of his approach, like I do in Chomskyan trees, I do not think this is the best way to understand cultural cognition.
In their model decision-making has an important part but Tomasello et al do not elaborate on that. They occasionally mention emotions. I wonder if they think that there is a relationship between decision-making or monitoring and emotions. How we make decisions and how we assign reference values to our goals is much more interesting to me.
“Attention may thus be thought of as intentional perception (selective attention). This monitoring process thus completes the circular arrangement characteristic of intentional action, the organism acts so as to bring reality (as it perceives it) into line with its goals” (p. 677). This is such a western masculine way of looking. I wonder how much of this claim is real and how much of it is a metaphor, an extension of a specific philosophical tradition.
When Tomasello et al talk about hierarchical nature of goals they get pretty close to Complexity Theory (p. 677). I suppose they are also close to Vygotskyan approaches because first they mention Vygotsky and second they use the term internalization several times.
Tomasello et al assume that there is a parallelism between evolution of human cognition and the early cognitive development of human infants. I wonder if this assumption is justified.
The section on cultural learning is very short (p. 680). I wish they had written more on this issue.
I think I mostly agree with the developmental sequence of human interactions and emerging cognitive abilities accompanying them. The sections on developmental side of their arguments are much better developed than the sections on evolution and autism.
On page 685, Tomasello et al write “Although it is a complex social activity, as it develops over time each individual simply assesses the state of the chase at each moment and decides what is best for it to do” on group hunting of apes. I believe the description of the hunt is similar to Complexity Theory and alignment but it is my impression that Tomasello et al look down to such alignment as if what we humans do is much more complicated and sophisticated.
At the end of the article, Tomasello et al propose two hypotheses 1) human beings evolved to be more cooperative than their relatives 2) that cooperativeness depends on motivation to share feelings, experiences, etc. I like the following quote from that section. “The key motivational substrate required for collaboration is the motivation to share feelings, experiences, and activities with other persons—where again sharing means having psychological states that include within them as content the psychological states of others” (p. 687). I wonder why Tomasello et al do not mention anything about human infants learning the distinction between themselves and the others. I think that should be an important part of the picture as well.
Human infants have the capacity to read intentions and a motivation to share psychological states and in the first year of their infancy we observe development of these two abilities.

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