The re-tooled mind: how culture re-engineers cognition


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Abstract

One of the main goals of cognitive science is to discover the underlying principles that characterize human cognition, but this enterprise is complicated by culturally-driven variability. While much fruitful work has focused on how culture influences the contents of cognition, here I argue that culture can in addition exercise a profound effect on the how of cognition—the mechanisms by which cognitive tasks get done. I argue that much of the fundamental processes of daily cognitive activity involve the operation of cognitive tools that are not genetically determined but instead are invented and culturally transmitted. Further, these cognitive inventions become ‘firmware’, consituting a re-engineering of the individual’s cognitive architecture. That is, ontogenetic experience from one’s cultural context serves to re-tool the developing mind into a variety of disparate cognitive phenotypes. Drawing on several mutually isolated literatures, I advance four claims to the effect that cognitive tools (i) are ubitquitous in everyday cognition, (ii) result in reorganization of the neural system, (iii) are founded in embodied representations and (iv) were made possible by the evolution of an unprecedented degree of voluntary control over the body. I conclude by discussing the implications for the agenda of cognitive science.

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