Making meaning

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Chapter 6 endnote 22, from How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Some context is:

To make meaning is to go beyond the information given.

Credit here goes to the influential cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner, who coined the term “acts of meaning” in his book of the same name.[1] Bruner was a leader in the cognitive revolution, a paradigm shift in the 1950s and 1960s that set out to replace behaviorism. Bruner championed a constructivist theory that was focused on understanding how people make meaning of themselves in the world.

Other research by the eminent cognitive psychologists Doug Medin and Greg Murphy indicates that people’s theories of the world are contained in their concepts.[2] (Scientists who study concepts understand explanation to be a central function of concepts and conceptual representations.)[3][4][5][6] Ironically, Bruner thought that meaning was achieved in a narrative way, and not through concepts. He also did not think that biology was a necessary part of the story. In these regards, I think he was misguided.</ref> Recent theorizing in predictive coding argues that the brain treats perception as causal inference.[7][8] Concepts (i.e., predictions) are the brain’s hypothesis of the cause.  The sensory inputs are the effects. The same set of sensations can have more than one cause.  A cause can have more than one pattern of effects.  How does the brain know which instance of a concept to construct for the purposes of explaining incoming sensory input and preparing the more effective action? The brain is trying to explain the cause of sensory inputs using its internal mental model, fueled by past experience. This is what predictions and concepts are — the brain's internal model of world from the perspective of an agent with a body.

So, an instance of a concept is like a hypothesis for what is causing the sensory changes. If the predictions (that embody the concept) capture the incoming sensory inputs well, then this functions as an explanation for what caused the sensations.  It is also a prediction for how to deal with the sensations. This achieves the goals of categorization — what is it? what caused it?  what do I do about it?

The brain does not divorce the moment to moment variations in low level sensory inputs from its theory of what is happening. This entire story is embedded within the neural patterns that are being passed back and forth from sensory particulars to multisensory summaries in limbic and other multimodal brain regions, and back again as the brain constructs an instance of a concept using predictions, shaped by prediction errors, during categorization. This is what it means to apply conceptual knowledge to incoming sensory input, to categorize that input.

Concepts are tools for meaning-making. Categorization is an act of meaning-making. The biology of categorization is the biology of meaning-making.


Notes on the Notes

  1. Bruner, Jerome S. 1990. Acts of Meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  2. Murphy, Gregory L., and Douglas L. Medin. 1985. "The role of theories in conceptual coherence." Psychological Review 92 (3): 289-316.
  3. Carey, Susan. 1985. Conceptual Change in Childhood. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  4. Murphy, Gregory L. 2002. The Big Book of Concepts. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  5. Keil, Frank C. 2003. "Folkscience: Coarse interpretations of a complex reality." Trends in Cognitive Sciences 7 (8): 368-373.
  6. For a discussion, see Lombrozo, Tania. 2006. "The structure and function of explanations." Trends in Cognitive sciences 10 (10): 464-470.
  7. Hohwy, Jakob. 2013. The Predictive Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  8. Lochmann, Timm, and Sophie Deneve. 2011. "Neural processing as causal inference." Current Opinion in Neurobiology 21 (5): 774-781.