We develop the capacity to reason before we can speak

The Verge reports:

One-year-old babies may not be able to speak, but they are able to think logically, according to new research that shows the earliest known foundation of our ability to reason.

Legendary psychologist Jean Piaget believed that we didn’t have logical reasoning abilities until we were seven, but scientists scanned the eyes of 48 babies and found that they’re able to reason through the process of elimination. The research was published today in the journal Science.

The type of reasoning in question, process of elimination, is formally called “disjunctive syllogism.” It goes like this: if only A or B can be true, and A is false, then B must be true. So, if the cup is either red or blue, and it is not red, then it is blue. Process of elimination isn’t necessarily the easiest form of reasoning, says Justin Halberda, a psychologist and child development expert at Johns Hopkins University who was not involved in today’s study, but it’s a crucial one for higher thinking. “One of the central pieces that separates human reasoning from all other forms is to negate a premise — you see that if it’s not A, it’s something else,” he says. “That’s quite fancy stuff.” [Continue reading…]

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New paper links ancient drawings and the origins of language

Peter Dizikes, Massachusetts Institute of Technology:

When and where did humans develop language? To find out, look deep inside caves, suggests an MIT professor.

More precisely, some specific features of cave art may provide clues about how our symbolic, multifaceted language capabilities evolved, according to a new paper co-authored by MIT linguist Shigeru Miyagawa.

A key to this idea is that cave art is often located in acoustic “hot spots,” where sound echoes strongly, as some scholars have observed. Those drawings are located in deeper, harder-to-access parts of caves, indicating that acoustics was a principal reason for the placement of drawings within caves. The drawings, in turn, may represent the sounds that early humans generated in those spots.

In the new paper, this convergence of sound and drawing is what the authors call a “cross-modality information transfer,” a convergence of auditory information and visual art that, the authors write, “allowed early humans to enhance their ability to convey symbolic thinking.” The combination of sounds and images is one of the things that characterizes human language today, along with its symbolic aspect and its ability to generate infinite new sentences.

“Cave art was part of the package deal in terms of how homo sapiens came to have this very high-level cognitive processing,” says Miyagawa, a professor of linguistics and the Kochi-Manjiro Professor of Japanese Language and Culture at MIT. “You have this very concrete cognitive process that converts an acoustic signal into some mental representation and externalizes it as a visual.”

Cave artists were thus not just early-day Monets, drawing impressions of the outdoors at their leisure. Rather, they may have been engaged in a process of communication.

“I think it’s very clear that these artists were talking to one another,” Miyagawa says. “It’s a communal effort.”

The paper, “Cross-modality information transfer: A hypothesis about the relationship among prehistoric cave paintings, symbolic thinking, and the emergence of language,” is being published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. The authors are Miyagawa; Cora Lesure, a Ph.D. student in MIT’s Department of Linguistics; and Vitor A. Nobrega, a Ph.D. student in linguistics at the University of Sao Paulo, in Brazil. [Continue reading…]

With the very best technology, humanity is digging its own grave

Technology is generally thought of as extending human capabilities by facilitating everyday actions more easily or allowing us to do things that would otherwise be impossible.

From this expansive perspective, technological advance has become synonymous with human progress. Conversely, the less technology populations possess, the more they are viewed as developing or even less evolved.

What these views mask are the multiplicity of ways in which technology feeds human regression.

The regressive mechanism built into technology in most of its manifestations is its propensity to externalize human skills.

If there’s something a person can do but a machine can do with greater economy, then the human skill soon becomes redundant. Having become redundant, it falls into disuse and soon atrophies.

This is not a small problem. It’s the reason that humanity is rapidly filling its ranks with a mass of diseased and disfigured bodies.

Any time I walk down the concourse in a busy airport (a place in which it’s possible and reasonable to start making generalizations about the current condition of the human body), I’m struck and shocked by the fact that, at least in the United States, the majority of people have impaired walking abilities. The causes are obvious: obesity and/or lack of exercise.

The technology that allowed Americans to have the greatest mobility of any population in human history has created people who have less capacity to mobilize themselves than ever.

Pandemic chronic disease largely resulting from physical neglect (which itself mostly results from mass distribution of the most addictive drug ever created: convenience) along with an atmosphere dangerously over-burdened by carbon, are both direct consequences of our lethal dependence on technology.

Picture the world that’s just around the corner in which we will move around in self-driving cars, permanently attached to mobile devices, shopping in stores where we don’t need to talk to anyone or staying at home where virtually anything can now be delivered.

Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon, would have you believe that this world of maximized convenience will be some kind of utopia. But have no doubt: this is how humanity is digging its own grave.

The problem of externalizing human skills was anticipated long ago by Socrates when he warned about the impact of the first social medium and most widely replicated piece of technology: the written word.

Socrates warned that writing:

will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own. You have not discovered a potion for remembering [the purported inventor of writing, Theuth, was advised], but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality. Your invention will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know nothing. And they will be difficult to get along with, since they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so.

But if Socrates couldn’t dissuade Plato from diligently writing down this warning about the danger of writing, it’s hardly surprising that concerns about the risks involved in the externalization of memory (and other externalized human skills) have never exerted much influence in Silicon Valley.

Nevertheless, an organization has come together with the aim of “realigning technology with humanity’s best interests.”

A quixotic ambition?

Maybe, but at least the Center for Humane Technology has been created by industry insiders who have an intimate understanding of the technologies and business practices they are challenging.

When people like Tristan Harris warn that “our society is being hijacked by technology,” don’t mistake this as sniping from some anti-technology curmudgeon.

Harris and his cohorts were until recently active participants in the hijacking. They understand exactly how this operation has been conceived, implemented, and is having its intended effects.