COGNITIVE ARCHITECTURE EVOLVES
Thinking is singing. Humans are the singers and the world provides the essentials of music: tempo, pitch, variation and persistence, the rhythm, the lag that become expressive. It’s an interaction as spontaneous as bird song.
A person in a place is in a conversation about nets, patterns, one thing leading to another. The code that gets through the skin, the cells that signal up and down or close and far, the organs that telegraph sight, sound, smell and all the rest, are all part of the cross-talk.
Then the communications portrait of the body— face, breath, heart beat, skin flush, mouth swell — have developed so now we have what we call empathy. This next advance we cannot sense as sensory because we have crossed over into the virtual, and we are both creating and taking note of the cognitive architecture (or better, cognitive organic evolution) of how things relate, a map of the ecosystem and what to do about it.
Handling-and-regarding line out the virtual progress of the interaction. Discovering something like how fire starts and how to feed it, leads to its control. When we see what it can do to defend us and to change bits of the world by warming us and cooking food, it occurs to us that we could bake clay, creating tougher mud bricks to build better shelters. Then we could build little heat-houses we call ovens to bake bread. Pretty soon we understand how to make charcoal and see that fire can get so hot that we can make ceramics — then melt metal and we are on the way to the controlled explosions of engines and the whole industrial revolution.
Or think about this sequential evolution. Someone throws a bit of sweetgrass, balsam fir, sage, just incidentally but then noticed. So first there was incense, a bit of aromatic plant, maybe only igniting by being alongside the fire, held back to look at. The scent was attractive even before the psychogenic effects. But that was hypnotic so the main fire was joined by a smaller fire carefully attended off to the side so it would produce the most fragrant smoke.
Next a small bowl was devised of bone or maybe of stone that could be blown on and inhaled, and then a stem was added to make it possible to handle, to hold. Many of these smells were psychoactive, like tobacco and marijuana, and so humans began to smoke, some of them to the point of addiction.
In the evenings Bob Scriver began to smoke a pipe, experimenting with mixtures he remembered from being around the old people when he was a boy. Kinnikinick, dried out in the oven and possibly oiled, was his preoccupation. His ancient dad smoked a pipe, forgetting to draw on it if he were talking, so that it had to be relit. We joked that he was smoking matches instead of tobacco. When he didn’t want to talk, he was wreathed in smoke. Scriver himself was hooked on cigarettes, more like little torches than fires in a bowl. He tried rolling his mixtures in paper but again ended up smoking matches.
Everyone, catching the language of gesture from French movies and wartime self-presentation in congenial or intimate settings, learned how to hold the little cylinders from the top, pinching them; or wedge them deep in the v of the first two fingers or out at the fingertips or like a ranch cook in the v of the smallest two fingers.
People learned to blow smoke circles and how to play brinksmanship with the ash — how long before it fell, where would it scatter — or would the smoldering ember reach down to the flesh of the smoker. Little holes burned in clothing. Cigarettes as an instrument of torture. These were a language of self-expression, saying something to the observer, carrying defiance as their clothing as the psychoactive became the moral flirt with cancer and evil, making it sexier.
These lines of thought are called “the extended mind” and proposs that in addition to what is inside the skin, what the senses feel as seen and heard in what we call reality, the mind also includes premises about virtual structures that extend as far as we can think.
It also points out that the mind works like a symphony, the action of sorting and managing neurons throughout the brain share and alternate areas, often actually changing the physical neurons, adding and subtracting. This can be seen on an fMRI. The brain constructs the world and the world constructs the brain.
The first book in this category that I read was “Making: Anthropology, Archeology, Art and Architecture” by Tim Ingold. It was truly about making things and understanding how that felt, developed, and became something both “real” and shared.
The most recent book I read was “How Things Shape the Mind: a Theory of Material Engagement” by Lambros Malafouris which lingers over flint-knapping and the Acheulean hand ax, a stone tool that persisted for thousands of years.
These books seek to pry us loose from our grammatical obsession with nouns and to move to the processes between things, which the mind can use to think. We already do this, but we are unaware and limiting ourselves. Perhaps you’ve noticed already how often we are converting nouns into verbs, often by adding -ing as though thinking of Whorf’s premises about Hopi grammar. This fits with what we see now is reality moving, interacting, and contradicting.
The explanatory power of cognitive architecture is crucial for understanding the growth of guns from firecrackers to predator drones, of Republicans from backyard dictators to Putin Wannabes, of government itself from tribes with a Papa to the United Nations or the Roman Catholic Church. But we need to tackle the dismantling of virtual evolutions gone awry, “dead” ends,
which can result in our death in order to kill it. We can pull down the nicotine addiction but the allure of smoking gestures is much more difficult and just as real. Religion is near the heart of this, a constructed virtuality that is always going out of date and forming institutions to maintain power and prevent change in the way we invent explanations for the web of the way things work.
As we look farther and farther across the cosmos, premise deeper and deeper into the cell or the atom, extend empathy to those who see the world through a different virtuality, we change but we are no less “real.”