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An Interview

Interview #1 with Prof. Eleanor Rosch

On "Cognitive Science"

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 {This is the first in a series of interviews with Eleanor Rosch, professor of psychology at U.C. Berkeley.}


{In some WoK interviews, I will concentrate specifically on noted figures in psychology and cognitive science, because I want to explore the extent to which the “ways of knowing” issues that Piet and I are concerned with can be addressed within a scientific perspective. Here I initiate this series by interviewing Prof. Eleanor Rosch, at U.C. Berkeley. The first topic I wanted to explore with her was how the field of cognitive science, and her own understanding of it, have changed over recent years.  She began by replying "what field?"}

ST: (laughs). You're a tough case.  Do you think the term "cognitive science" refers to anything?  In past discussions I've had with you, you basically said "no", but obviously some people think otherwise.

ER: at the sociological level, yes, it refers to "cognitive science" as that is taught. And it refers to all the cognitive science courses, the journals, people who identify themselves with the field, etc.

ST: yes.  Well the term didn't even exist when I was an undergrad, although the component disciplines did: psychology and mathematical linguistics, mathematical logic and automata theory, etc.—those I studied back in the 60s.  And in grad school I remember studying AI in its early forms... but I never heard of any "cognitive science" until perhaps the mid-1970’s. And a little later, when you and other people started to make notable contributions to the field, it was still largely an umbrella for those other disciplines. And then it gradually changed.

ER: well it developed works that now look and sound like "cognitive science.”  You can recognize it—there are some clear cases of it. When a department wants to hire someone in that field, there’s usually a debate about whether a candidate is doing “cognitive science” or not—so people treat it as something that has a definition, but they don’t agree about what it is.  Also it's still the case that we here at Berkeley don't have full appointments in it; they're all half-time within a given cognitive science-related department. There are a few places that offer cognitive science as a full-time department.

ST: U.C. San Diego, for instance.

ER: yes.  But a lot of places have—I'm still talking about the sociological angle—an interdisciplinary organized research unit with an undergraduate major but not a graduate major, so cognitive science is still not a separate department.  In those cases, faculty will be half time in cognitive science and then half-time in psychology or linguistics or computer science, etc.

ST: so in your case, it's psychology?

ER: Actually I'm a full-time psychology professor (which, by the way, doesn’t mean I have anything to do with clinical psychology—academic psychology is completely separate from “shrinks.”)

ST: so you don't think of yourself as a cognitive scientist?

ER: most of the people in the cognitive science group, which is what it is, have a home department; they are permanent in some home department.  I'm in psychology, the linguists are in linguistics, etc.

ST: well I’ll let you decide what we should concentrate on today.  Normally when I interview people, I talk with them about their professional field... but in this case, you seem to want to avoid that.

ER: Originally I was enthusiastic about cognitive science.  When it started, I worked on it, helped organize it here, and actually was the president of the then new Cognitive Science Society.  I saw cognitive science as an alternative to behaviorism, which was still rampant then in its original form—

ST: you're talking about Skinnerian stuff, or something else?

ER: not necessarily Skinner-type behaviorism; also the verbal learning/verbal behavior kind—Leo Postman, Geoffrey Keppel—the whole point of view that went along with that.  It seemed to me that, unlike behaviorism, in the new discipline of cognitive science, people could use their intelligence and their knowledge of themselves as humans. It was the computer science aspect that allowed that, because all you had to do was to construct a functioning program to make your human knowledge legitimate and publishable.  You didn't have to do all the usual constrained compulsive experiments.  How do you come up with the computer program? Well you know, you notice how things go—

ST: you formalize them.

ER: yes.  And that seemed to me like a fantastic idea.  It was exciting—you could bring in people from all these different fields and have an interdisciplinary festival, which it was at first.  But that changed.

ST: well maybe it changed for good reasons... rather than what you would take as just evidence for the dark forces being at work.

ER: (laughs).  Yes.

ST: I mean, I would respect a scientific impulse that has trouble accepting some of the things that you and I might like for various reasons.  I accept that science has to find its own way to come to grips with these things, and as long as it doesn't, I would expect it to forage elsewhere, or even object strenuously.  I'm not sure that resistance in this case is inappropriate.

ER: well yes, if physics objected to it, that would be fine.  But psychology and perhaps cognitive science are alleged to be about what human beings actually are and the full story of how they function.

ST: so if physics could find a meaningful basis on which to object…

ER: yes, but it doesn't, because it doesn't have anything to do with anything outside its accepted paradigm.

ST: right.

ER: and that's the point.  Basically, I have two objections to "cognitive science" and, actually, also to psychology.  One of them, which is just my hobbyhorse, is that I think they are operating out of a false vision of what a human being is and what the material world is.

ST: could you unpack that notion?

ER: yes... I have in a number of papers!

{Both laugh}

ST: no, no... can you describe this “false vision” now, for a less specialized audience?

ER: well, you have this image of an isolated little information processing system that is confined in its head, and you hold that things are the way we assume they are—I mean, it's really much more folk psychology than the things that you and I want to deal with, which they would ignore as “non-science”. And so in this—in my opinion, too limited—view, the material world is the material world, and this little isolated thing peers out with its limited sensory organs. It looks around for the things that, because of evolution, will allow it to survive and reproduce. And that's the basis of all its knowledge and values, and, in fact, its scientific impulses. If you believe some of the "scientist in the crib" ideas now fashionable in some circles... it's supposedly all set up to—

ST: form hypotheses.

ER: right, form hypotheses, evaluate probabilities, and act on that basis... and that's all it is!  This thing then builds up its own internal schemas—that's the only way it can know anything—it's a kind of Kantian notion.  And so it proceeds.  There's allegedly nothing else!  And all of this is said to derive from the brain, forget the rest of the body, let alone anything else.  This is the current fad: all we need to do is look at the brain and see which things light up a little bit more (i.e. have a little more blood flow) and a little bit less when the system is doing something.  Then we have the complete explanation.  Okay, so I think this is not an adequate vision of either the organism or its environment.  That's my objection number one.  It’s the main objection, but it gives birth to a corollary problem.  Because people don’t have vision outside the paradigm, they also become blind to ordinary scientific logic inside the paradigm.

So, objection number two is that most of the people taking this approach just don't think!  They are trained and socialized into exactly what they do, and they do it the way they're supposed to—at least the good ones do—but then when they talk about what it means, its applications, nothing happens.  They have no vision, even at the "scientific" level.  So all these discoveries are not really as interesting as they are alleged to be.  And people don't change their minds when you point this out. Would you like an example?

ST: sure.

ER: okay, Let’s start with the second issue, because you don’t have to go outside ordinary accepted scientific assumptions and logic to understand it.  Let’s use the topic of dreams to find examples. People in general are interested in dreams, and you teach dream practices. I'm not sure how familiar you are with the scientific study of dreams...

ST: well we'll see.

ER: okay.  We have the old classic findings that normally people dream during REM [Rapid Eye Movement] sleep.  The same data suggested that dreams that occur in non-REM sleep aren't really dream-like; they're infrequent and more like waking thought.  So the scientist makes the correspondence between REM and dreaming.  Then if you're going to study dreaming scientifically, what do you study?  You study REM!  So we have J. Allan Hobson, who argues that what initiates REM comes from the brainstem, that there are waves of activation from the brain stem, and therefore dreams are all random … because things get stimulated randomly.  Only afterwards does the dreamer do what Freud would call "secondary elaboration" (even though Hobson is an anti-Freudian), i.e. turn the dream into some kind of story, just as you do when you're awake.

ST: yes, his work goes back to the early 90s, and I am familiar with it.

ER: yes, OK.  We're getting there.  Now the person who has argued most against this, is Mark Solms.

{Editor's note: examples of their debate can be found on the internet by searching their names together.}

ST: I don't know his work.

ER: ah, then you only know half the story.  Solms is a Freudian psychoanalyst, an M.D. and a neuroscientist.  He approaches dreams through a different technique; he looks at the clinical literature on brain injuries and pathologies.  He asks "in what pathological conditions does human dreaming disappear, and when doesn't it" and how is this linked to which sorts of injuries and in what parts of the brain?  His claim is that REM is initiated by higher brain centers that have to do with your fears, desires, and emotional system—so Freud is right!  Hobson and Solms argue vigorously about this; the debate is still raging. 

Meanwhile, neuroscience has gone on to show that actually you have lots of dreamlike dreams during non-REM sleep at particular times of the night­-researchers just had to do the right studies to see this.  Previously, researchers were so impressed by the discovery of the connection between REM and dreams that to study dreams they'd mostly only wake the person up during REM sleep; that way they just kept "confirming" that dreams are REM.  But if you start looking more closely at non-REM sleep, you discover not only that you have “REM-type” dreams during non-REM periods, but that regarding the question of "when do dreams start, reliably?" —the answer is, right before you go into REM sleep! So the dreaming starts before you're in REM sleep.  Furthermore, when people wake up in the morning and remember a dream, that's normally the dream they just had, and usually that's not REM.  You tend not to wake up in REM.  So whatever it is that leads you towards waking up, that stimulates the full-scale alternative realities or whatever in dreams.

My suggestion is: isn’t it possible that dreaming is what provokes REM, and that we don't have any idea what initiates the dreams themselves?  In no way do either Hobson or Solms acknowledge this sort of possibility or any of the data I just mentioned, even though it comes from fMRI scans and other state-of-the-art methods.

ST: would you explain "fMRI"?

ER: It’s the acronym for "functional magnetic resonance imaging". That's the kind of MRI that is used in this kind of research.  An ordinary medical MRI shows structures at one moment only, whereas the fMRI shows the blood flow over time.  Anyway, this unwillingness to cope with the full range of data that's available is part of what disturbs me. It’s commonplace now.

ST: I see.  Well it's a difficult problem.  They would want to find some way to test your idea, but the only way that's currently available includes features that you would consider to be begging the question by systematically forcing their interpretation of the data.  Aren't you arguing for an approach that doesn't assume at the outset that some sort of brain function is responsible?

{Editor's note: here and in what follows, I raise the possibility that the 'standard' research that Eleanor and I are critiquing is in fact properly adhering to a certain, reasonable sense of how to proceed. Part of what prompted me to suggest this as often as I do is that in the actual live interview, we discussed many more--and sometimes complicated or ambiguous--cases than appear in this edited text. My quibbles are not as motivated here in this final version, but I preserved them anyway just to preserve the flow of the chat.}

ER: well for the present discussion, I'm perfectly willing to say that dreaming is a brain state.  But just at the science level, if they considered all the data, they’d have the difficult process of trying to find what’s happening during non-REM REM-like dreaming, and in particular, what happens before you go into REM when you're not getting Hobson's PGO waves and you're not getting Solms' higher centers doing their thing, etc.  Nobody's addressing that, because the approach is already set in its groove.

ST: I see... still, either it's the case that there is something about a brain-based approach to studying this that would systematically rule out the kind of approach that you are recommending be tried, or there is a way of doing what they're doing that would legitimately test what you are talking about, and that you would agree is fair. In the latter case, you would just be claiming that there could be such a way of interpreting and studying and testing, but that they are not doing it because they're just stuck in the habit of pursuing their current lines of research.

ER: yes, well I told you this was the boring part of the complaint.  It’s illustrative of not really thinking even about matters that could fall entirely within the present research paradigm. Okay now let’s turn to the larger issue of matters outside that paradigm, and let’s look at another dream research example that I think points toward that larger field. Do you know Rosalyn Cartwright's work?  She studied depressed people, particularly people who just had a divorce and were depressed about it.  She studied their dreams.

Let me begin by giving you some background about this.  One of the main findings coming out of the newest dream research—and it really is very interesting—is that in your first dream period of the night, whether you're a human being or a mouse, your dreams are about day residue (i.e. events of the preceding day). The most stunning illustration of this is with mice who rerun mazes they’ve just learned, as soon as they go to sleep (a lot of cutting edge technology is used to find this out).  There are corresponding human examples—I don’t want to belabor the point.  But as the night goes on, dreams go on to other material.

Cartwright’s depressed subjects come into the sleep lab at night.  During the day they're just going about their ordinary lives, albeit depressed.  Not surprisingly, the first dream of the night for most of them consists of depressing day-time residue.  But as the night goes on, other sorts of dreams occur, all kinds of dreams about one thing or another.  After a year, most of the subjects were not depressed anymore; they'd just gone on with their lives.  But some people were still depressed.  And they had a different dreaming pattern. 

By now a lot of other research has been done on this, so it's not just a matter of waking subjects up and asking what they’re dreaming, but of also doing PET and fMRI scans while they sleep and measuring blood flow to different regions in the brain .  Here’s the pattern: for non-depressed people and for people who later recover from depressions that were brought on by life circumstances (it’s called reactive depression), during their sleep and dreams, the areas of the frontal lobes of the brain that are involved in logic and planning become less active (researchers often say they “shut down,” but what they’re measuring is that there’s less blood flow in those regions) while other areas of the brain become more active.  But with chronically-depressed people and people in a reactive depression who don’t recover, the blood flow to the logic and planning areas does not decrease; it may even go up a little. 

Now the question I’m getting to is: how do researchers interpret this anomaly? What they say is that people who recover from reactive depression must be accessing happy childhood memories in the later part of the night, and that cheers them up.  There isn’t really any evidence for that.  Actually there are all kinds of things that these people's minds and their being could be doing at night that are interesting... including that they may be dipping down into deeper levels of the mind (or of reality if you will) where that whole human being knows that whatever is happening that seems so distressing, wasn't really that bad or at least wasn't the whole story.

ST: yes, this is what I've been calling the realization of "what else is true?" in my meditation courses.

ER: I would like to propose that versions of this alternative view be considered.

ST: I would too, for reasons that we've discussed and could bring out here at some point.

ER: yes, people have at least the possibility of enjoying a kind of lucidity that they’re typically not aware of in waking life.

ST: and contact, yes... we're always "in" a reality that is significant to the whole being and has a sort of a "positive" character in some sense.

ER: right, exactly.

ST: that's a very important thesis, which I'd like to unpack at length somewhere.

ER: yes, I made that the guiding light of my dream course here.

ST: and it's related to the essence of my own dream-practice teachings, which you participated in some years ago.

ER: yes.  But some people can't get into that contact with “a reality significant to the whole being that is, in a certain sense, positive,” because they maintain their "daytime mind" at night.  And there is a physiological component, namely that the parts of the brain that are usually yelling so much, need to amp down or "surrender", or whatever words you want to use.  So isn't that nice? Unfortunately, the problem is not just that people would not understand that hypothesis.  Once researchers land on the notion that it must involve remembering some happy experiences in your dreams, that's it!  End of story.

ST: no more thinking, yes.  So do you feel they are being untrue to their own standards?  Is it reasonable, in a sense, for them to take the position they're taking?

ER:  Consider the examples I've just outlined.  In the first case, the Hobson-Solms debate, it is even more true to ordinary scientific standards to consider the evidence.  In the second case, it does take a leap.  But that’s what shifting paradigms in science are about.  The thing is that scientists need to have contact with the levels and possibilities of their own minds and greater being, to be able to handle that; otherwise they either ignore the possibilities or treat them as phenomena, just like what they already assume—phenomena that are going to give them standard “data.”  It’s like trying to invade the deeper levels of being, establish a colonial government, and force the natives to grow coffee and rubber for you.

ST: I'm happy to have the examples, they are very useful.  My point is... on the one hand, I'm very sympathetic to what you're saying—a lot of it matches things I've been saying too, as a teacher of contemplative traditions.  The question is whether the people who want to do "straight science" are within their rights to resist alternate perspectives which can't be really firmed up into a clear, testable hypothesis.

ER: the REM sleep research I mentioned earlier involved a testable hypothesis.

ST: yes, perhaps.

ER: As a pure scientist, the first thing to do would be to look at what's happening in the whole physiology right before an organism goes into REM.  You don't even need to study humans; you can use cats or whatever. My point is that because the cognitive scientists don't have a larger perspective, they have this scientific tunnel vision no matter what they’re studying.

ST: ah, that's exactly the question I'm most concerned with here.  On the one hand, I think that what you're calling the larger perspective is of tremendous importance ... I've dedicated my whole life to trying to unpack that for people, at least directly, existentially.

ER: yes.

ST: the question is whether there are legitimate reasons for science to resist assimilating it, because it's just not methodologically possible yet to do so.  Are they simply being obstructionists, or are they being reasonable? 

ER: well it's never going to be methodologically possible as long as people don't realize it and don't in some sense train in it, because they’re not going to see the need for it or invent the requisite methods!

ST: I think that's a very good answer.  There are lots of grounds on which you could argue that.  In a sense one simply can't know what one is trying to let in or represent or even consider, if one hasn't experienced it as a human being first.

ER: right!  And there's where you don't know what methods to use or create.

ST: it's a very cogent response.  It's not one that they may care about, perhaps, but in that case they'd have stepped off of any scientific basis for rejecting it.

ER: exactly, it's just their metaphysics, pure and simple.

ST: and habit, and institutional variants of those, etc..

ER: yes, all of those fit together... when I say "metaphysics", what I'm thereby trying to get myself out of is saying it's their "theory".

ST: I hope you can find ways of pressing this point.  I found you, as a participant in some of the things I was teaching, to be unusual, because you were willing to try to see things as a whole human being, and most people I know who’ve had various "positions" that sound similar to yours simply couldn't go that far... they want to hold a narrower view and then fit what they can actually see as a living human being inside a picture, which is something one “thinks” only in the abstract sense, rather than preserving it as something a person can fully find and appreciate.

ER: exactly.

ST: you're unusual in this respect.

ER: well, that leads to some difficulties too (laughs).

ST: I’m sure, but in a sense, that's what has to change then.  It's not that you should have to cram yourself into an unnecessarily limited view of the field, but that the field has to open up … to be practiced by people in a fuller sense.

ER: it's clear that I'm not going to do that in my lifetime.

ST: of course, it's a very long-term project.  And there are many factors that will bear on its success. At any rate, thank you very much for your comments.

ER: you’re very welcome.

Eleanor and Steven, 12/15/06.

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