Mixing Memory

The first thing to say about Chapter 1 is that it’s much better written than the Introduction. In fact, if you buy the book, I recommend skipping the introduction, and starting with Chapter 1. Chapter 1 is, in fact, the best chapter in the book. That’s because it contains a pretty good discussion of scripts, schemas, frames, and the like, and how important they are in our thinking. The discussion is dotted with what I’ve taken to calling “gratuitous neuroscience” (I even mark “g.n.” in the margins any time he uses it, and he uses it a lot throughout the book), but overall it’s pretty good. If the chapter didn’t end with a section titled “We Are In the Melodrama,” which is just a bunch of speculation and pseudoscience, I’d even say the chapter was very good. As it is, though, good’s modifier will have to be “pretty.”

The goal of this chapter, and the book itself, is (as the intro suggests), all about the New Enlightenment. Lakoff writes:

In a New Enlightenment, cultural narratives will not be gone, replaced by cold, hard reason. Cultural narratives are part of the permanent furniture of our brains. But in the New Enlightenment, we will at least be self-aware. We will recognize that we are all living out narratives. It will be normal to discuss what they might be, to raise the question of what influence they have, and whether we can or should put them aside. (p. 34)

Since to do this requires understanding how our thinking relies on “narratives” (“narratives” is a good word for this sort of book, but more technically, you can think of them as scripts, schemas, and/or frames), this is Lakoff’s first task, and he accomplishes it with Anna Nicole Smith. Well, using her as an example. He notes that when she died, all of the narratives of her life came to the fore. He lists the “Rags to Riches” narrative, the “Gold Digger” narrative, the “Reinvention of Self” narrative, the “Woman’s Lot” narrative, and several others, and discusses how the particular narrative lens through which you see her life determines how you evaluate her actions, her death, and everything else about her.

And since this is about politics, he also looks at some political narratives. He uses the first Gulf War as his primary political example, noting that the first Bush administration initially used a “Self-Defense” narrative to justify potential war with Iraq, because Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait threatened our oil supply. When polls showed that the country was not willing to go to war for oil, Bush Sr. immediately changed the narrative to the “Rescue” narrative, telling us that innocent, weak Kuwait needed to be rescued from the clutches of the evil, powerful Iraq with its Hitler-like leader Saddam Hussein. When Bush shifted his rhetorical strategy, people began to think about the war differently, and public support skyrocketed. This, at least, is the story that Lakoff’s been telling for more than a decade now, and repeats in this book.

The only blemishes on the narrative sections of Chapter 1 are the sections on neural binding (a topic he revisits frequently throughout the rest of the book). In case you’re not familiar with the concept of binding, consider how visual information gets processed. The input, of course, is reflected light that strikes your retina, and the end-result is what you consciously see. But in between, different types of visual information get sent off to different parts of the brain. For example, color and motion information are processed not just by different cells, but by entirely different brain regions (color in the early visual system, motion higher up, and independent of color). Somehow, between the time that color and motion get divided up in the visual system, and the time that you actually experience seeing colored objects moving, the two information streams are put back together to form a complete image. Otherwise, we’d just see color and colorless moving things separately, and that’d be pretty weird. This combing of different information streams is called binding, and the binding problem, which is just the problem of how binding works, is one of the most difficult unsolved problems in cognitive science today. No one really knows how it works for low-level perceptual information. Trying to figure out how it works for high-level conceptual information would be a nightmare.

What’s more, we don’t know enough about how conceptual processing goes on in the brain, particularly at the level of “narratives,” to have any idea whether binding of the sort that we deal with, but Lakoff has decided, for reasons that I can’t figure out (he doesn’t cite anyone for this, he just states it as fact) that for narratives, “neural binding is the mechanism that creates a linkage between such highly general even structures and particular kinds of actions or narratives.” That is, we have what you might call “meta-narratives,” or very general event structures (e.g., actor, goal, action, end state, and the relationships between them), and attaching them to particular narratives (say an election narrative, with candidate, the goal of winning an election, campaigning, and actually winning/losing the election), occurs through neural binding. Honestly, there are much simpler potential explanations (e.g., associations, as in episodic memory), but Lakoff’s going to go with the highly speculative and implausible one, ’cause that’s his wont. As I said at the beginning, this nonsense feels to me like little more than gratuitous neuroscience, perhaps to make his discussion of narratives seem more scientific to lay readers, but I think Lakoff really believes it. So much the worse for him, I suppose, and definitely so much the worse for his readers.

The chapter ends on a really, really bad note. He claims that the reason we can and often do become so personally involved in politics is because:

The same part of the brain we use in seeing is also used in imagining what we are seeing, in remembering seeing, in dreaming what we see, and in understanding language about seeing. The same is true of moving. The same parts of the brain used in really moving are used in imagining that we are moving, remembering moving, dreaming about moving, and in understanding language about moving. (p. 39)

In other words, we get interested in politics because of mental simulation and perceptual symbol systems. If you’ve hung around this blog for a while, you may know what I think of the concepts of mental simulation and perceptual symbol systems: they range from vague nonsense (mental simulation) to vague and largely unsupported hypothesis that relies on creating a straw man view of traditional theories of mental representation (perceptual symbol systems). That’s essentially what they are: no one really has any clue what mental simulation is, or how it would work, and there’s certainly no empirical support for the idea (how can you empirically support an idea with no real content?); and perceptual symbol systems theory (the idea that we process our concepts in the sensorimotor systems) has, as people have tested it, remained empirically indistinguishable from its opponent theories. That is, it’s pretty much untestable in the strict sense. But again, Lakoff doesn’t care — these are his pets, and he’s going to trot them out any chance he gets.

Finally, he gives us mirror neurons. I think that’s all I need to say about that.

In sum, then, Chapter 1 contains a pretty good discussion of our use of narratives in everyday thinking, which he diminishes with pseudoscientific talk of neural binding, and he concludes the chapter with speculation and more pseudoscience, in the form of mental simulation and mirror neurons. It’s a frustrating chapter, because it had promise, but this sort of frustration with Lakoff has been the way I’ve experienced him since Metaphors We Live By, so I guess it would be unreasonable for me to expect more from him.

Comments

  1. #1 Monte Davis
    July 3, 2008

    …very general event structures (e.g., actor, goal, action, end state, and the relationships between them)…

    This neatly recapitulates Kenneth Burke’s “pentad” of analytical/critical terms: act, scene, agent, agency, purpose.

    (Burke, BTW, had framing sussed out about the time Lakoff was born.)

  2. #2 Mike
    July 24, 2008

    How do we know for sure that there IS a binding problem – IOW that the different parts of the image are not just being ANALYSED and classified by all the various parts of the visual cortex, as opposed to literally being fragmented and then put together again?

  3. #3 DAN HOWITT
    December 3, 2008

    Great article. Dan Howitt

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