Wisdom and the Mind

7 De-Centering Humans within Cognitive Systems

Marcus Baynes-Rock

In this chapter I draw on several theoretical positions and the experience of one human and three canids to argue that human cognition is embedded in relations with the more-than-human world. As Tim Ingold argues, this is wisdom evolving in the minor key, a consequence of mind as a process, as a nexus of unfolding relations. Ingold’s dwelling perspective is of note because it demonstrates how traditional dualist conceptions of cognition are not only minorly flawed, but do not reflect the way cognition actually works.[1] Ingold synthesizes the work of Gregory Bateson, Gilles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari with ethnographic material to argue that the mind cannot be considered a separate realm from that which we inhabit physically. Contrary to the intuitions of Enlightenment philosophy, we do not collect perceptions of the physical world and send them off as sensory data to be processed by a separate “mind.” Indeed, there is no evidence whatsoever of a central processing unit in our brains that could be called “mind” and certainly the dualist conception of mind as non-physical is equally tenuous.[2] Instead, Ingold argues that “mind” unfolds as we move through physical worlds: “Mind [then] is not added on to life but is immanent in the intentional engagement, in perception and action, of living beings with the constituents of their environments.”[3]

In line with this approach, cognitive psychologist Neil Kirsh proposes the notion of mind as incorporated into networks of things. Kirsh argues that humans do not sit at the top of systems of cognition, processing information from the world. Rather, humans are bound up in what he calls “distributed cognitive systems,” which can include anything from other animals to inanimate objects.[4] In many ways, this resonates with actor-network theory in that humans are conceived of as components of systems in which all the parts affect each other.[5] An example would be two cafés where the cashiers write the names of customers on coffee cups. If one cafe uses plain coffee cups while the other uses cups with an intricate pattern, then we would see a difference in accuracy as the baristas called out the customers’ names. This is a cognitive difference, but one in which the particular humans are not central, because we could swap the baristas and get the same result; it is a difference in the characteristics of the coffee cups as components of cognitive systems.[6]

These propositions are in turn supported by results from neuroscience. Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee synthesize numerous findings to show us the neural processes of distributed cognition.[7] One aspect of this is the existence of “body maps.” These are created as our brains map our bodies onto perceived physical space. At the most basic level, your brain maps your body to the limits of your physical extremities such as your fingertips. This explains why we are able to navigate the world without bumping into things too often. But our body maps are quite malleable in that they can extend out into the world to incorporate things that are not otherwise considered parts of our bodies. For example, when we hold tools our body maps extend to incorporate the tools, and when we drive cars our body maps incorporate the physical extent of the cars. There is now interesting work being done with virtual reality where peoples’ brains are being tricked into comprehending that they have the bodies of lobsters. Not only are the lobster bodies assimilated into the body map schemata of these people but they actually learn to move their lobster appendages.[8]

Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee also describe the science around “mirror systems.” These are neurological mechanisms for mapping our experiences onto parts of the world that are not explicitly connected to our bodies. An example of this would be a football fan watching someone kick a football. The same parts of their brains that show activity when they kick a ball themselves also show activity when they see someone else kicking a ball. Moreover, these parts of the brain are not those that fire in accordance with the muscle movement of kicking or the sensation of the ball hitting the foot. Rather, they are associated with goal-directedness and action. Blakeslee and Blakeslee apply this to trans-species potentialities. Their example is a dog whose ears betray his mental states and intentions.[9] When we see his ears held in a particular way, even though we have immobile ears, we perceive his mental state as though we were experiencing it. These authors argue that the mirror mechanism is responsible for much of what makes humans distinct, in that it facilitates mimesis, empathy, theory of mind, language, and culture.

According to these models, brains are not just processors for sensory information but parts of a system of information gathering by which neurons and sense organs operate with continual feedback, so that our bodies interface with environments to map ourselves onto the physical world. What all of these models have in common is a challenge to dualistic notions that hold the mind to be a constructor of worlds using material information gathered by the body. For Blakeslee and Blakeslee, mind is body is perception is environment. And we must not mistake them for disparate parts because, in terms of cognition, they are a whole. This is the first step toward recognizing that human cognition is not only extra-bodily but that it cuts across species.

Here Paul Keil’s ethnographic material on sheepdog trialing is highly informative.[10] Sheepdog trialing is a sport in which dog handlers and dogs must cooperate to guide sheep through obstacle courses and into enclosures. What makes the sport challenging is that handlers cannot directly intervene in guiding sheep but must do so remotely by giving signals to their dogs. Keil’s work is groundbreaking in that he conceives of sheepdogs and handlers as a cognitive system. In sheepdog trialing, the human takes an executive role and is aware of the goal of the activity, but the sheepdog micromanages the sheep. Drawing on the work of David Wood and colleagues, Keil calls this “cognitive scaffolding,” with one being taking up the cognitive slack in the actions of the other being.[11] Keil also notes how handlers empathize with the sheep while giving instructions to dogs. If they see the sheep unsettled and about to bolt, they will instruct a dog to sit and allow the sheep to calm down. In this way, sheep, dog, and handler constitute the system. This example stands in contrast to the case study I present next, in that the humans involved are key components of the cognitive system in terms of its functioning. My case study comes from my ethnographic fieldwork in the mountains of northern New South Wales where a woman named Angie raises wild-born dingo pups to be rehomed.

It is important to note that dingoes are dissimilar to domestic dogs in many respects. Their semi-domesticated ancestors were introduced to Australia about four thousand years ago, and since that time dingoes have become established as top predators in Australian ecosystems, as well as being loosely associated with Aboriginal people.[12] Comparative studies have shown that unlike “domestic” dogs, dingoes excel at independent problem-solving. They use their paws more than dogs and have shown innovative tool use in a case where an individual dingo moved a table in order to reach a food reward.[13] Physiologically, dingoes differ in their ability to rotate their paws and heads more than dogs; they also differ in reproductive rates—only having one litter per year. Anecdotally they have been found to be consummate escape artists, difficult to train, and possessors of a strong prey drive.[14] They are also notorious climbers. As such, they make difficult pets, but, for the right human, dingoes can provide a rewarding experience. I will show below how these distinctions from dogs are important to my thesis, because a difference in human cognition can amount to the difference between a dingo and a dog.

The setting for this case study is the mountainous region of northern New South Wales, where Angie lives in a remote corner of the forest with (at the time of my study) her four dingoes and one dingo/dog half-breed. Angie’s dingoes are wild-born rescues that were given to her as pups. She has had many dingoes, most of whom she has socialized and rehomed. She devotes a lot of time and energy to her dingoes, paying particular attention to their socialization and needs with respect to living with humans. Dingoes need constant training reinforcement; hence, they demand a lot from human caregivers, although as Angie will attest, there are no real “problem dingoes, just problem humans.” But dingoes also make demands in terms of managing their position within what they perceive to be a pack including humans, and this is what Angie focuses on.

Angie is a self-proclaimed free spirit, who says that she is attracted to this characteristic of dingoes. While she keeps them indoors at night to prevent them from getting into trouble with the wild dingo packs that live in the forest surrounding her cabin, she lets them out in the daytime and takes them walking in the forest. Angie distinguishes in cognitive terms between walking alone in the forest and walking with dingoes. When she is alone she becomes absorbed in what she calls an “existential state,” reflecting on her own life, her feelings, and her place in the world. But she notices when she’s going “inside her head” and often pauses and reminds herself to be aware of her present time and place, to “smell the smells, feel the air, plug into the universe.” She turns her attention to the bush and its colors, smells, sounds, and to the present experience of being among the trees. However, according to Angie, her awareness when alone is much diminished in comparison to its state when she is with her dingoes.

Angie reports that the forest comes alive when she is with her dingoes. According to her, there is a marked difference between her dingoes and her dingo/dog hybrid when it comes to how at home they are in the forest. While the hybrid is often dependent on Angie for guidance, the dingoes glide across the landscape like flowing water, completely in tune with their surroundings. She constantly watches them at these times: “They keep me there in the present.” On the one hand, this is so she can keep them under a certain degree of control. If they go too far ahead, or if they look like they are going to head in the direction of a neighboring farm, she calls them back to her. But this constant attention to the dingoes opens up a cognitive realm that is beyond what her body alone can experience. A clear example of this is the way her dingoes interact with the scent marks of dingoes from neighboring packs. A tree stump would be innocuous to Angie were she to encounter it on her own, but when her dingoes discover the scents of others on the stump it takes on added meaning. Through attending to the places where dingo packs share boundaries, Angie becomes aware of a realm of territories, pathways, and day-to-day movements that, due to her comparatively limited human olfactory sense, would otherwise be hidden.[15] When the dingoes encounter snakes and goannas, Angie knows from their body language even though she has not seen the creature they are reacting to. When the dingoes see a goanna, they go into “hunt mode.” They become very alert, but not wary, with their ears pricked forward, and seem poised to pounce. When they see a snake, however, they assume a different disposition. They are equally alert, but their movements become very sharp as if they are ready to jump back in a split second. Angie says that she experiences the same disposition as her dingoes—keen intent or poised readiness. She says that she is never so aware of the forest as when she is with her dingoes, but ironically this is when she pays the least amount of attention to the forest itself. Her attention is focused on the dingoes, and she experiences her environment through them.

Back at the cabin, Angie’s cognitive realm is expanded dramatically again due to the presence of her dingoes. If a vehicle arrives at her home, Angie knows about it in advance because the dingoes give a warning howl as soon as they hear it approaching on the long track leading to her home. In fact, Angie is able to distinguish between different vehicles because the dingoes react differently to the engine noises of strange and familiar vehicles and even distinguish familiar vehicles belonging to different people. Inside her cabin Angie is also cognizant of the movements of the wild dingo packs that live in the surrounding bush. Her dingoes react to the faintest of howls, which Angie cannot hear due to the noise of the TV. She sees her dingoes react and mutes the TV, whereupon she can hear wild dingoes communicating up the valley. During the course of my field research, Angie was trying to recapture two dingo pups who had escaped an enclosure and were due to be relocated to Sydney in two weeks. As part of the recapture process, she was laying food out to lure them. While we were in the cabin discussing her dingoes, one suddenly sat up and gave a howl, at which point Angie knew immediately that one of the pups was near the food. When we went out to check, one of the dingo pups was indeed at the edge of the clearing. Neither of us would have known had the dingo in the cabin not informed us.

In light of this case study, a question emerges: where is the boundary of human cognition and, by extension, human wisdom? Is human cognition really embedded in systems, or is that one way of framing the way human bodies interact with the world? The answer lies in setting aside mind-body dualisms and recognizing that neural networks in our bodies recognize the world in any way they find possible. As such, a brain will incorporate a hand or a tool in hand or a tool in somebody else’s hand into mapping the world, because that is something that constitutes human wisdom. When Angie sees her dingoes raise their hackles and immediately feels their state of aggression, she is not processing sense perceptions in a rational disembodied mind. Rather, she is immersed in an expanded cognitive world that is mediated, not delimited, by her sense perceptions. But even more interesting is that she is not a crucial component of these cognitive systems. The dingoes would still react more or less the same way to snakes, goannas, and scents of other dingoes if Angie were not present. In this way, Angie is embedded in the cognitive system as a passive participant; the human component is de-centered and the subject of analysis becomes the system itself. To speak of human cognition as an expression of wisdom—assuming it is uncontroversial to do so—is to highlight the way in which human wisdom disseminates into, and is sometimes added onto, a very complex world. Rather than an inherited capacity or a combination of genes and learning in the individual, human wisdom is in fact immanent in human relations with a plethora of beings and things. This complicates the entire conception of human wisdom because, as I have demonstrated with respect to cognitive systems, these can function quite well without human involvement even though the emplacement of a human seems to lend them some sort of cognitive cachet. Human wisdom then is difficult to concretize because of its dependence on relations; it manifests sprite-like through human engagement in cognitive systems and confounds attempts to deconstruct it as a solely human capacity.

MARCUS BAYNES-ROCK is an anthropologist. He was a Postdoctoral Research Associate on the Human Distinctiveness project at the University of Notre Dame until 2018. His interests lie in the intersection of humans and animals and how these reflect human conceptions of their worlds. His early research was concerned with urban hyenas in Ethiopia and ways in which Ethiopian people integrate hyenas into social and spiritual worlds. He has also researched ways in which Oromo men in Ethiopia conflate identities of humans and horses and how these influence conceptions of self. His current research is concerned with domestication processes in Australia where native animals are being farmed and kept as pets. His publications include Among the Bone Eaters: Encounters with Hyenas in Harar (2015).

References

[1] Tim Ingold, The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill (London: Routledge, 2000).
[2] See Antonio R. Damasio, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain (New York: Avon, 1994).
[3] Ingold, The Perception of the Environment, 108.
[4] David Kirsh, “Distributed Cognition: A Methodological Note,” Pragmatics and Cognition 14.2 (2006): 249–62.
[5] Bruno Latour, Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, translated by Catherine Porter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 75.
[6] Kirsh, “Distributed Cognition,” 62.
[7] Sandra Blakeslee and Matthew Blakeslee, The Body has a Mind of its Own: How Body Maps in Your Brain Help You Do (Almost) Everything Better (New York: Random House, 2007).
[8] Ibid., 151.
[9] Ibid., 167.
[10] Paul G. Keil, “Human-Sheepdog Distributed Cognitive Systems: An Analysis of Interspecies Cognitive Scaffolding in a Sheepdog Trial,” Journal of Cognition and Culture 15.5 (2015): 508–29.
[11] David Wood, Jerome S. Bruner, and Gail Ross, “The Role of Tutoring in Problem Solving,” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 17.2 (1976): 89–100.
[12] Lawrence K. Corbett, The Dingo in Australia and Asia (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 1995).
[13] Bradley Philip Smith, Robert George Appleby, and Carla Anita Litchfield, “Spontaneous Tool-Use: An Observation of a Dingo (Canis Dingo) Using a Table to Access an Out-Of-Reach Food Reward,” Behavioural Processes 89.3 (2012): 219–24.
[14] Roland Breckwoldt, A Very Elegant Animal: The Dingo (North Ryde: Angus and Robertson, 1988).
[15] For another example of intra-action with dogs, see Agustín Fuentes and M.A. Park, “Walking with Dogs: Sharing Meaning, Sensation, and Inspiration across the Species Boundary,” in Living With Animals: Bonds Across Species, edited by Natalie Porter and Ilana Gershon (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2018), 71–82.

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