Thinking through other minds: A variational approach to cognition and culture

Behavioral and Brain Sciences 43:e90 (2020)
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The processes underwriting the acquisition of culture remain unclear. How are shared habits, norms, and expectations learned and maintained with precision and reliability across large-scale sociocultural ensembles? Is there a unifying account of the mechanisms involved in the acquisition of culture? Notions such as “shared expectations,” the “selective patterning of attention and behaviour,” “cultural evolution,” “cultural inheritance,” and “implicit learning” are the main candidates to underpin a unifying account of cognition and the acquisition of culture; however, their interactions require greater specification and clarification. In this article, we integrate these candidates using the variational (free-energy) approach to human cognition and culture in theoretical neuroscience. We describe the construction by humans of social niches that afford epistemic resources called cultural affordances. We argue that human agents learn the shared habits, norms, and expectations of their culture through immersive participation in patterned cultural practices that selectively pattern attention and behaviour. We call this process “thinking through other minds” (TTOM) – in effect, the process of inferring other agents’ expectations about the world and how to behave in social context. We argue that for humans, information from and about other people's expectations constitutes the primary domain of statistical regularities that humans leverage to predict and organize behaviour. The integrative model we offer has implications that can advance theories of cognition, enculturation, adaptation, and psychopathology. Crucially, this formal (variational) treatment seeks to resolve key debates in current cognitive science, such as the distinction between internalist and externalist accounts of theory of mind abilities and the more fundamental distinction between dynamical and representational accounts of enactivism.



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The extended mind.Andy Clark & David J. Chalmers - 1998 - Analysis 58 (1):7-19.
The Enigma of Reason.Dan Sperber & Hugo Mercier (eds.) - 2017 - Cambridge, MA, USA: Harvard University Press.
The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity.Charles Taylor - 2016 - Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

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