Sunday, November 4, 2012

Tomasello Lecture

Last week, I went to Tomasello's talk at Koc University, where I went to college. It was really nice to visit my university and to realize that some of my college friends were now faculty there. Where did the time go? Anyway, needless to say I was looking forward to Tomasello's talk. Engin (my husband) was going to take his psychology students to the talk and I would not miss the opportunity. This is the bus that took us to Koc University

and here is me scanning Tomasello's book to remind myself his arguments. It had been a while. I was quite comfortable for a stowaway :-)

 The auditorium was quite crowded. I love the excitement just before something I have been looking forward to begins.


 The presentation was entitled Communication Before Language and it focused on the main claims of his two books Origins of Human Communication and Why We Cooperate. The presentation was nice.


I think the paper by Tomasello et al pretty much summarizes the talk I attended and the response papers published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences were very stimulating in case you're interested.  I could not find the abstract for the lecture but the abstract of the paper gives a general idea about the content of the lecture. There was not anything new for me but still I enjoyed seeing Tomasello in person.


Abstract: 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 first 14 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.


I found this personal note on the article by Tomasello et al. Apparently this was my first impression of the article. 
In this stimulating article, Tomasello et al claim that what distinguishes human cognition is shared intentionality. They define shared intentionality as "the ability to participate with others in collaborative activities with shared goals and intentions" (p. 675). According to the authors the ingredients for shared intentionality are: intention reading, cultural learning, motivation to share psychological states, and cognitive representation that is unique to humans. I have been reading about what is unique about humans. Explanations on this vary from smiling to language. However there seems to be an exception to each and every explanation from the animal kingdom and I have to admit that I have difficulty in buying any one of the explanations. In most cases it seems like the difference is not of kind but degree. I do believe that there is something unique about each species, so I believe there must be something unique to human beings as well. However, I'm not sure what that difference that makes a difference is for human beings. I find it hard to believe that animals do not read intentions--why would a gazelle run away from a lion if it couldn't read the lion's intentions or a female firefly accept or reject the courtship proposal of a male after watching its elegant dance? I still do not have an answer, what is the difference between humans and other animals?

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