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Friday, January 28, 2005

A Cognitive Un-revolution

In science, more often than not common sense gets in the way of the acceptance of ideas that don’t make sense, but are nonetheless true. The Copernican, Darwinian, and Einsteinian revolutions are a case in point, as rotating earths, natural selection, and a mutable time and space certainly go against the grain of what our senses and sensibilities tell us is true. In terms of psychology, and how we think about how we think, common sense is of two minds, both literally and figuratively. It’s a common place truism that we behave because we follow some rational order or calculus of logically considered values, but it’s equally true that we recognize that emotions or drives have a hand in how we act. This eternal battle between reason and emotion is great stuff for drama, pop psychologists, and Freudian psychology, but for many psychologists, it’s a bit too messy. For cognitive scientists, evolutionary psychologists, and behaviorists, incorporating the metaphors of emotion is a risky thing, since talking about feelings can degenerate into undisciplined metaphor, and have psychologists ending up talking and behaving like ‘Dear Abby’, or worse, like Dr.Phil! So they quarantine all that touchy feeling lingo, and come up with their own language that is logical, rational, and maps to a brain that obligingly works in a computational way that such logic requires. And of course they trumpet this fact as a revolution, since like the scientific revolutions of yore, it breaks the bonds of common sense.

The problem is, breaking the bonds of common sense is one thing, but a scientific revolution requires a bit more than a neat logic that seems to imply a new worldly state of affairs. You have to have the ability to test that knowledge and to apply it. Missing either of these and all you have is a nice tale to tell that to paraphrase Shakespeare is full of sound and furious rhetoric, yet signifies nothing. And the rub is, these sub-disciplines in psychology have no practical meaning to the great un-lectured masses, who promptly ignore their revolutionary wisdom. So, in spite of the ‘cognitive revolution’ or the assorted revolutions heralded by behaviorists, evolutionary psychologists, and even neuroscientists, people will still refer to wisdom that embodies comfortable and familiar emotional metaphors and seems applicable to their daily concerns, namely the wisdom of the Dr. Phils of the world.

When common sense is replaced with new metaphors that describe new and unfamiliar realities, our inconvenience is assuaged by new procedures that help us understand and predict new things. If not, we ignore it, and allow it to gather mold in the confines of an academic journal, as is the case with cognitive, evolutionary and behavioristic psychology. Which brings us affectionately to a new branch of psychology called appropriately ‘affective neuroscience’. Affective neuroscience simply puts back emotion or affect into the equations for behavior, saying no less that we can speak of feelings in the same breath as the neural processes that allow them to be. So for psychology, emotion is back in the game, and perhaps unlike the other affect-less branches of psychology, it may make meaningful predictions, and create procedures that have more practical value than the Barnum and Bailey nostrums of pop psychologists. One thing for sure, it will all seem in the end like common sense. We shall see.

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