Perceptual symbol systems

Behavioral and Brain Sciences 22 (4):577-660 (1999)
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Abstract

Prior to the twentieth century, theories of knowledge were inherently perceptual. Since then, developments in logic, statis- tics, and programming languages have inspired amodal theories that rest on principles fundamentally different from those underlying perception. In addition, perceptual approaches have become widely viewed as untenable because they are assumed to implement record- ing systems, not conceptual systems. A perceptual theory of knowledge is developed here in the context of current cognitive science and neuroscience. During perceptual experience, association areas in the brain capture bottom-up patterns of activation in sensory-motor areas. Later, in a top-down manner, association areas partially reactivate sensory-motor areas to implement perceptual symbols. The stor- age and reactivation of perceptual symbols operates at the level of perceptual components – not at the level of holistic perceptual expe- riences. Through the use of selective attention, schematic representations of perceptual components are extracted from experience and stored in memory (e.g., individual memories of green, purr, hot). As memories of the same component become organized around a com- mon frame, they implement a simulator that produces limitless simulations of the component (e.g., simulations of purr). Not only do such simulators develop for aspects of sensory experience, they also develop for aspects of proprioception (e.g., lift, run) and introspec- tion (e.g., compare, memory, happy, hungry). Once established, these simulators implement a basic conceptual system that represents types, supports categorization, and produces categorical inferences. These simulators further support productivity, propositions, and ab- stract concepts, thereby implementing a fully functional conceptual system. Productivity results from integrating simulators combinato- rially and recursively to produce complex simulations. Propositions result from binding simulators to perceived individuals to represent type-token relations. Abstract concepts are grounded in complex simulations of combined physical and introspective events. Thus, a per- ceptual theory of knowledge can implement a fully functional conceptual system while avoiding problems associated with amodal sym- bol systems. Implications for cognition, neuroscience, evolution, development, and artificial intelligence are explored.

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Citations of this work

Explanation: a mechanist alternative.William Bechtel & Adele Abrahamsen - 2005 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 36 (2):421-441.
Does thought require sensory grounding? From pure thinkers to large language models.David J. Chalmers - 2023 - Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 97:22-45.
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Metaphors we live by.George Lakoff & Mark Johnson - 1980 - Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Edited by Mark Johnson.

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