Disclaimer 1: This is not a post about cats.
Disclaimer 2: No cats were harmed in the writing of this piece.
There's a curious inclination we have in the interpretation of findings in cognitive psychology and neuroscience. And that is to assume that there is a single true reading of a situation that can be then applied across a range of other (not necessarily similar) situations. That one way of theorizing trumps the rest. All you need to do is to prove it once. An extreme winner-takes-all principle. A recent example of the vehemence with which such interpretations are made was epitomized within a recent AEON article by Roger Epstein on "The empty brain" which lead to an uproar within the online scientific community and resulted in some rather scathing rebuttals.
What is noteworthy in these discussions is that it is rare to hear views which suggest that we might need more than one metaphor to "represent" (for want of a better word) what it is that the brain does. Let's take the case of the McBeath study that Epstein favors. Even if one was to be fully on board with the finding that the action of a baseball outfielder catching a fly ball can be carried out without resorting to a representational view of the mind, this in itself does not mean that every aspect of human cognition and behavior can be explained away in the same manner and follows the same principles. What about situations in which we are not merely reacting to an external cue? What if there is no overt motor response to speak of? What about imaginative aspects of our daily mental life, like the happenings in my mind while I conceive of this post?
It is not unfair to say that the dominant ideas in cognitive psychology and neuroscience regarding the workings of the human mind are primarily based on stimulus-oriented thought and action in the form of behavioral and/or brain reactions to stimuli. But how do the theories fare when applied to the kind of contexts that draw on the human imagination? One can't answer that question because most do not even broach these stimulus-independent worlds to be able to provide explanations for the same.
What is clear though is that one size almost certainly does not fit all. And if one subscribes to the belief that it does, then the onus is on the experts who propound a seemingly monolithic view of the mind - representational or non-representational - to provide the necessary explanations which will account for how they believe both reactive and proactive aspects of human cognition and behavior are instantiated.
It later occurred to me that a good demonstration of the "there is more than one to skin a cat" notion as applied in the neurosciences was recently accomplished by Güntürkün & Bugnyar (2016). In this paper, they accommodate the fact that certain bird species can perform cognitive skills to the level of primates despite having no neocortex. And they do this not by saying - "Hey people! This means the cortex does not underpin cognition." Their argumentation is more nuanced and hence more powerful. As birds have a functional analog to the prefrontal cortex - "several large pallial aggregations without apparent laminar structure" - they propose that over the course of the long parallel evolution of birds and mammals, both developed similar brain organizations which converge for cognition and complex behaviors.
Disclaimer 3: The lead author - Onur Güntürkün - was my PhD Advisor. A decade ago. And unfortunately (for me), I played no part in the conceptualization of the said 2016 paper.
This is ...
an entirely unstructured & zany exploration of all things that are or could be relevant to understanding the human imagination.