Blossom’s Dance, Cognitive Science, and Being in the World

About two weeks ago, my wife and I were going out to dinner, and a little cockatiel flew down and landed on the roof of the car. Even for a home where animals are not only part of the family, but also tend to flock to the yard in large numbers, this was unusual. What was stranger is that when I put out my finger, the little fellow stepped onto it quite nonchalantly, and has been living happily with us while we’ve been searching for her owners.

I have not had a bird since I was a child, so living with Blossom (we had called her Buddy until a bit of web research suggested the name might not fit) has been something of an adventure. Perhaps what has been most interesting to me is learning that Blossom not only likes music, but also likes to dance to it. I first noticed this when she started bouncing her head to a Mozart piano sonata on the stereo one afternoon. I soon learned that she also enjoys standing on my knee and dancing when I’m practicing the guitar.

Over the course of these few weeks, I’ve noticed that she frequently bobs her head to recorded music, always does so when there is live music, and never bobs when music is absent, so I have become convinced that the two are connected. Blossom, it would seem, likes to dance.

So, what does this have to do with Cognitive Science?

In the early years of my career, I was deeply involved in research into Cognitive Science and the possibility of Artificial Intelligence. For reasons I will talk about in this posting, reasons evident in Blossom’s little dance, I have come to question the legitimacy of this research agenda (at least in its pure form). Although I believe that human and animal intelligence are fully explainable by natural processes, traditional approaches to cognitive science make a number of assumptions that have lead it down a narrow, isolated, and ultimately fruitless path. Blossom’s little dance represents a challenge to these assumptions.

One of them is the idea that intelligence is symbolic reasoning. An early, and still dominant line of thinking equates cognition with symbolic reasoning. Under this line of thinking, when we reason about something like a bird, we are making logical inferences on symbols like “bird,” “wing,” “flying,” and so forth. When I wonder if I should let Blossom out while the window is open, I am mentally manipulating logical propositions like:

if bird(X) AND window(Y) AND open(Y) THEN flies_through(X,Y)

or, if X is a bird, and Y is an open window, then X will fly through it.

This idea fits our conscious sense of what goes on in our minds when we think. We do have a sense of manipulating linguistic propositions like my little example. It also has the benefit of being a form of reasoning that we can implement on a computer. Although I do not have the space in this entry to refute this, I would refer you to the growing literature on embodied cognition which challenges this through an analysis of the roles that perception, emotion, development, the physical structure of our bodies, and other non-symbolic processes play in intelligent activity. For now, it may be sufficient to ask if the inner stream of linguistic manipulations about birds and windows really causes me to leave Blossom in her cage, or if it is just the visible component of something deeper, more complex, much, much more subtle.

An unfortunate consequence of this symbolic bias is a tendency to ignore animal intelligence. Clearly, Blossom does not have the same sort of mind as humans do (that is something I love about animals), but her behaviors do overlap ours. She not only dances, but solves a range of problems like getting out of her cage if I forget to lock the door, finding food, avoiding capture, finding a mate, and so on. When humans do these things, we regard them as cognitive activities, and try to explain them through symbolic reasoning. What does this mean for Blossom, who has no need for symbolic language in the same sense as humans? I find it hard to believe that nature would create duplicate mechanisms for these kinds of activities.

Another problematic assumption is that intelligence is a form of information processing. Under the information-processing model, intelligence is a cycle of taking in information about the world, reasoning about it to plan our own actions, and then carrying out those plans. Blossom’s little dance represents a challenge to this idea. Do we really believe that dancing, either in birds or people, is really a sequential process of translating rhythm and sound into information, analyzing it, and planning a response? Although this may explain why engineers are notoriously bad dancers, it does not seem to be an adequate explanation.

Perhaps we should replace the information-processing model with a better metaphor. Is dancing – like intelligence as a whole – a form of sympathetic resonance? When I hold my acoustic guitar near a music source, I can feel it vibrating in resonance with the source, even though I have not plucked the strings. Could it be that our nervous systems are designed to resonate in a similar fashion with the vastly more complex stimuli in the world around us? Rather than a cycle of perceive-analyze-act, could it be that intelligent behavior is a dance of constant interaction with the world, where our personal harmonic is both shaped by resonance with the world and by our own, internal rhythms and timbres? Could it be that this process predominantly takes place at an unconscious level, with conscious reasoning only being one part of the larger dance of intelligence in the world? Perhaps trying to explain intelligence in terms of the workings of our conscious mind is as limiting as trying to appreciate a symphony by watching a silent film of the conductor waving his baton.

Watching Blossom dance, even though she has no notion of “4 beats to the measure,” choreography, the separate roles of musician and dancer, or similar ideas, does suggest this kind of resonance with the world around her.

The leads to a final idea that I would like to challenge: the idea that minds and brains are co-extensive. Most traditional scientific and philosophical explanations of mind begin with the idea that minds are created by brains, with one mind per brain, and that everything needed to understand mind goes on in the brain. This reflects the information-processing model, viewing the mind/brain as a self-contained processing engine that draws information about the world through a narrow pipeline of perception. Looking at Blossom’s little dance suggests again that this may be limiting our understanding.

Could it be that nervous systems, in animals and people alike, are better understood as networks in resonance with the entire world around us? That they were shaped by millions of years of evolution to perform this resonance perfectly, instantaneously? If this is the case, than it would stand to reason that our minds do in some sense extend out into the world around us. Intelligence, it would seem, is not so much a matter of reasoning about the world, as it is one of being in the world, and continuously resonating with the processes of nature, human artifacts, other creatures, and our own voices across endless interpenetrating harmonics.

Look again at Blossom’s little dance. There are at least two minds here: mine which is playing the guitar, and Blossom’s which is engaged in her dance. Is that the best way to understand the video? Does thinking of two independent mind/brains bringing in information about the world and performing computationally intensive reasoning tasks to keep the music, the guitar, and the dance synchronized provide the best fit to the evidence before us? Does it rise to the standards of simplicity and elegance shared by the most satisfying, most enduring scientific theories?

Or is a more elegant explanation – one suiting the elegance of dance and music – that for a few minutes in time, a pair of separate songs, spreading out from separate brains in separate bodies, engage in a single, shared act of mind? Perhaps we can think of the music and the dance as a third mind, a passing intersection of the mind of the guitarist and the inhuman mind of the beautiful, improbable, undeniable dancing bird.

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