June 18, 2019

The Architecture of the Mind

“In 2014, the Swedish philosopher and cognitive scientist Peter Gärdenfors went to Krakow, Poland, for a conference on the mind. He was to lecture at Jagiellonian University, courtesy of the Copernicus Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, on his theory of conceptual, or “cognitive,” spaces. Gärdenfors had been working on his idea of cognitive spaces, which explain how our brains represent concepts and objects, for decades. In his book Conceptual Spaces, from 2000, he wrote, “It has long been a common prejudice in cognitive science that the brain is either a Turing machine working with symbols or a connectionist system using neural networks.” In Krakow, Gärdenfors pushed against that prejudice. In his talk, “The Geometry of Thinking,” he suggested that humans are able to do things that today’s powerful computers can’t do—like learn language quickly and generalize from particulars with ease (to see, in other words, without much training, that lions and tigers are four-legged felines)—because we, unlike our computers, represent information in geometrical space.

In a 2018 Science paper, co-authored with Jacob Bellmund, Christian Doeller, and Edvard Moser—neuroscientists from the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig and the Kavli Institute in Trondheim—Gärdenfors, of the University of Lund, buttressed his idea with recent advances in brain science. He argued that the brain represents concepts in the same way that it represents space and your location, by using the same neural circuitry for the brain’s “inner GPS.”

“Cognitive spaces are a way of thinking about how our brain might organize our knowledge of the world,” Bellmund said. It’s an approach that concerns not only geographical data, but also relationships between objects and experience. “We were intrigued by evidence from many different groups that suggested that the principles of spatial coding in the hippocampus seem to be relevant beyond the realms of just spatial navigation,” Bellmund said. The hippocampus’ place and grid cells, in other words, map not only physical space but conceptual space. It appears that our representation of objects and concepts is very tightly linked with our representation of space.”

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