Alas, PsycCritiques has a pretty short word limit, and so there are many aspects of the book worth discussing that were left undiscussed. Thus I am going to start throwing some comments, positive and negative, up here on the blog for the next few weeks (i.e., I do not feel it is fair to duplicate my review here, but will be discussing things that could not be included in the review). This isn't going to be a chapter by chapter book-club sort of things as some blogs do (good examples: Heft's book and Chemero's book), though I hope some day to do a few of those. Rather, this will jump around, and draw from different parts of the book as needed. Who knows, maybe I can even get Dr. Barrett to engage in a little back and forth. If anyone out there knows her, please pass this invitation along.
Let's start with an overview.
This book contains a wide number of my favorite things. It overlays human work, animal work, robotics and even a few computer simulations to give a broad vision of an embedded, embodied, and extended explanation of cognition. It starts off explaining the problems with anthropomorphizing animal behavior, and over-intellectualizing human behavior. There are examples of how very smart behavior can happen in animals of very little brain, including a chapter on the premier example of this, the Portia spider. This includes a pretty through bashing of the nature vs. nurture / learned vs. innate distinction, complete with examples from Tinbergen and Gottlieb. After showing that big brains are not necessary for flexible and adaptive behavior, it tries to explain what big brains actually help you do. This takes us into ecological psychology and unpacking of the faulty metaphors of traditional cognitive psychology. Next come several examples of how properly constructed physical bodies can - without any centralized control - lead to many of the behavioral phenomena we might otherwise think need a big brain. A shout out is given here to the work on rat pup huddling that my old adviser did, including the experiments showing that robots could produce many of the same huddling patterns with only random movement, if they were shaped like pups, i.e., the body shape itself gets you most of the way to a functionally adaptive outcome. Also here are several examples of how developing and living in the right environment can produce adaptive variation we might otherwise think required intellectual foresight. Finally the book ends with a discussion of 'extended cognition' which is the idea that anything used to produce a 'cognitive' activity is part of that activity. This might have been the weirdest part of the book, especially when the concept is applied broadly. However basic examples can be very straightforward: If I use a list on my refrigerator to help me remember what to buy at the supermarket, then that list functions as external 'memory' (a quintessentially 'cognitive' thing)... and it is not absurd to say that the list is as essential to my remembering what to buy as is my brain.
Names in the reference section that made me smile included: Karen Adolph, Jeff Alberts, Mark Blumberg, Richard Byrne, Tony Chemero, Andy Clark, Alan Costall, Franz de Waal, James Gibson, Gilbert Gottlieb, Konrad Lorenz, Alva Noe, Lloyd Morgan, Ed Reed, John Searle, B.F. Skinner, Linda Smith, John Sutton, Ester Thelen, Niko Tinbergen, Jakob Von Uexkull, Lev Vygotsky, Andrew Whiten, and Robert Wozniak, oh, and Chris May, who was a grad student with me. There were also quite a few names I did not recognize, but will have to look up after reading about there work in the book.
Alright, I know a names list is a bit boring, but hopefully it gives a feel for the breadth of the book and the types of ideas it is pulling together. My prior familiarity with Barrett's work was her textbook on Human Evolutionary Psychology, which I had mixed feelings about -- it was a great textbook, but it was really about human behavioral ecology and sociobiology, without much psychology proper -- and so I was worried about having to review this new book. But I worried needlessly, the book was solidly about rethinking psychology. A few possible thesis statements include:
a reduced focus on the nature of animals' "inner lives" and greater attention to how their brains, bodies, and environments work together will give us a deeper understanding of how intelligent, adaptive behavior is produced. (p. 18)and
In the same way that a "mutualistic" view pays dividends when we endeavor to understand evolutionary processes, a similarly mutualistic view of behavior and psychology is equally valuable. (p. 93)and maybe
What goes for physiology applies equally well to cognition: we shouldn't expect evolved organisms to store or process information in costly ways when they can use the structure of the environment, and their ability to act in it, to bear some of that cognitive load (p. 216).That's all for now, but more soon. Hopefully it has piqued your interest.