Invisibility and cognition

Currently in a reading group, we were reading some definitions of “What is Cognition” (

1. There were criteria

  • that were very vague (“complex, human-like”, “something more complex than associative learning”) or very “all-inclusive” in order to include animals;
  • others that IMHO were too narrow: to involve “sentence-like mental representations”, “the use of concepts”, or “the ability to use a model”, “causal reasoning”, or to involve “intentional states” — all of which McGilchrist would probably attribute to the narrow view of the left hemisphere.

Other criteria made sense to me: that cognition is

  • not just automatic/ scripted (“behaviors that escape characterization as a […] scripted program”, or “effortful [distinguished from] automatic”),
  • and conscious (“typically available to conscious awareness”).

Now it struck me that many resonating criteria involved invisibility:

  • absence (“absence of direct stimulation” (Suddendorf), “freedom from immediacy” (Shadlen), “stimulus-independent” (Bayne), “exclude any behaviour to a goal stimulus that is actually present to the animal’s senses” (Webb), “processes that originate in the brain rather than solely with environmental stimuli” (Chittka)),
  • abstraction (“certain abstract operations in between [peripheral senses and motor output]”, Intro),
  • and imagination (Bayne, Mather).

Dashed contours of a rabitt in a magician's cylinder

Some others could at least be related to invisibility:

  • predictions (Chittka, Suddendorf) — of an unknown (invisible) future,
  • transfer (Chittka, Clayton) to new contexts — and to the invisible future,

and maybe even the following ones:

  • flexibility (“behavioral flexibility” (Chittka), “flexible problem solving” (Clayton), “flexibility, as in predating routines” (Mather), “elemental features: flexibility […]” (Shedlon)),
  • adapting (“handling information in an adaptive way” (Heyes), “adapting to environments that were unanticipated”  (Shadlen)).
  • adjusting (“adjust to changes in the world”, Webb),
  • and even the intention mentioned above — which has to do with that unknown future!

2. So, what does this prominent role of invisibility mean for our relationship with artificial intelligence and tools?

First, I think, it emphasizes the importance of externalizing tools (as discussed in week 3), to make invisibles more visible and thus alleviate the cognitive tasks. So, @gsiemens was spot on when he pointed to external devices as early as 2005. (And I cannot resist a hint to my own tool here :-))

Second, it makes it even more difficult to define a relationship between human and artificial cognition: All machine ‘cognition’ is in some way invisible, it is all virtual. So, dealing with the invisible, with the absent, from a reality and presence starting point, as humans do, is strictly speaking impossible for a machine. Or is there an error in my reasoning?

This entry was posted in Visualization. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Invisibility and cognition

  1. x28 says:

    Thanks to @downes for the interesting comment and further elaboration.

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