Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Gibbs: Embodiment and Cognitive Science, ch. 4 (2005)

It's a bit surprising that someone as keen on criticizing introspective psychology as Ray Gibbs should find himself doing it extensively when the lights are dimmed. Pages 90–114 of his most recent book almost reads as an illustration of the kind of speculative neuroscience that he warns others against.

The Defective Mouth

For example, in a discussion of the idioms chew the fat and chew the rag — based on discussions in Goossens et al. (1995) — he motivates the meaning of the phrase as follows:
Given that both fat and rags can be chewed a long time, with little nutritional value coming from these activities, these idiomatic phrases express the idea of talking about something a long time with little new information to be gained from this experience. (p. 100)
Even if we accept this link, when did fat ever become low on nutrition?

More factual weirdness crops up as Gibbs discusses how people experience various bodily processes:
The metaphor "spit out" reflect the idea that has something of value in the body, which through effort he or she is able to gather up (like spit or phlegm) and say (or expectorate). (p. 100)
That's a bit gross, but it's also inaccurate: When was spit ever "valuable," and when did we ever have a reoccurring experience of desiring other people's spit? Even if the connection was unproblematic, the imagery wouldn't work.

Similarly, without any open reservations, Gibbs links the experience of coughing something up to a state of well-being:
"Getting something off one's chest," just like "blowing off steam" and "coughing something up," restores a sense of balance or well-being to an individual. (p. 103)
Even more oddly, the idiom lie through one's teeth is explained by means of an image of the truth being located inside the mouth of the speaker:
When people "lie through their teeth," the [mouth which is perceived as a] container is perceived as a hiding place where true information resides, but the container is somewhat defective, and we can see through the speaker's shameless attempt to lie about something when the truth can partly be seen. (p. 104)
It wouldn't matter that this image strikes me as completely bizarre if we only got some evidence that it is psychologically plausible. The problem is that, of course, we don't.

Murphy–Gibbs Revisited

Gibbs still has an old axe to grind with Gregory Murphy, who pointed out some serious gaps in his theory back in 1996. In the book, Gibbs essentially reiterates his defense of cognitive metaphor theory — constrain the theory so everything it claims is prefaced by "optionally."

So let's take the conclusions first: In the last section of the chapter on concepts, Gibbs repeats that "conceptual simulations surely … create imaginative understandings of events" (p. 122), and that
… human conceptual processing is deeply grounded in embodied metaphor, especially in regard to abstract understandings of experience. (p. 122)
On the previous page, he also talks about "embodied simulation in the creation of concepts in context" and "the sensorimotor nature of conceptual processing" (p. 121).

All of this talk of online simulation and temporary constructs seems quite consistent with the idea that comprehension isn't a matter of word-for-word recall, but rather of constructing something like a little film clip in the head which represents the meaning of a sentence. In the process of creating such a film, common bodily experiences may take precedence over other contextual cues.

I take this to be the idea behind his talk of emergence and self-organization, although the whole thing is a bit vague:
My suggestion is that image schemas are attractors within human self-organizing systems. The important point here is that attractors are not localized representations, but emerging patterns of entire systems in action (i.e., interplay of brain, body, and world). In this way, the stable properties of image schemas (e.g., the topographic structure of something like SOURCE-PATH-GOAL) are not separate from sensorimotor activity. Image schemas should not be reduced to sensorimotor activity, but it is a mistake to view image schemas as mental representations that are abstracted away from experience. (p. 115)
The problem is that this seems to contradict his claim that certain "attractors" can be ignored when we feel like it:
Each metaphoric construal of a concept [e.g., LOVE] in some context results in a concept that is independent as a temporary representation apart from embodied source domain information in long-term memory. My suggestion, then, is that conceptual metaphors may not preexist in the sense of continually structuring specific conceptual domains. But conceptual metaphors may be used to access different knowledge on different occasions as people immediately conceptualize some abstract target domain given a particular task. Conceptual metaphors may also simply emerge as the product of conceptualizing processes, rather than serve as the underlying cause of these processes. (p. 121)
As Murphy pointed out in the original debate, this leaves wide open the question of how people select the appropriate metaphor, and after the metaphor is chosen, how to select the correct properties from the source domain. Whenever someone postulates a context-sensitive selection, they also implicitly postulate a mechanism that can perform this selection.

What Does This Leaves Us With?

It's a part of this picture that Gibbs wholeheartedly supports Joe Grady's corrective to cognitive metaphor theory (1997), i.e., that non-primary metaphors are constructed out of several primary metaphors glued together. This means that the theory essentially only applies to primary metaphors.

So in sum, the picture that seems to emerge is the following: Whenever you understand affection, normality, power, quantity, etc., you do so by means of mental simulations of a bodily process. Comprehension is a matter of choosing he right analogy between a bodily process and an abstract concept. Because some experiences are more salient, they are also more likely to be used.

So that's at least a theory. It's probably wrong, though, since many sentences are understood perfectly fine without the use of any bodily simulation — in fact, bodily simulation can even be an obstacle to correct understanding in many cases.

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