Caveat lector: This blog is where I try out new ideas. I will often be wrong, but that's the point.

Home | Personal | Entertainment | Professional | Publications | Blog

Search Archive


The New York Times on the "Cognitive Neuroscience REVOLUTION"

The New York Times is at it once again in their Opinion Pages, this time with a book advertisement titled "Seeing the Building for the Trees".

It starts out with an all-caps pronouncement, which cognitive neuroscience has taught me means what is being said is VERY SERIOUS BUSINESS:

A REVOLUTION in cognitive neuroscience is changing the kinds of experiments that scientists conduct, the kinds of questions economists ask and, increasingly, the ways that architects, landscape architects and urban designers shape our built environment.

(EDIT: It's been pointed out to me that the all-caps beginning is a NYT style convention, however as a cognitive neuroscientist it's clear to me that the author is subverting the standard convention of all-caps to her own purpose because prefrontal cortex, evolutionary psychology, dopamine.)

The article then goes on to say that... embodied cognition tells us that our heads are in the clouds, therefore architecture is like trees and that, something... something... Avatar?

Honestly I don't get the neuroscience connection at all.

This metaphorical, embodied quality shapes how we relate to abstract concepts, emotions and human activity. Across cultures, "important" is big and "unimportant" is small, just as your caretakers were once much larger than you. Sometimes your head is "in the clouds." You approach a task "step by step."

Some architects are catching on to human cognition's embodied nature. A few are especially intrigued by metaphors that express bodily experience in the world.

Take the visual metaphor of a tree as shelter. Most people live around, use and look at trees. Children climb them. People gather under them. Nearly everyone at some point uses one to escape the sun.

That's a direct quote, from one paragraph to the next, in the appropriate order in which they appear in the article. I have not removed any words, rearranged any text, or done anything but hit ctrl-c and then ctrl-v.

The logic connecting one paragraph to the next--and one idea to the next--escapes me.

Even the author abandons the whole "cognitive neuroscience" device somewhere half-way through the article, and instead says something more likely grounded in reality:

Architects may also like tree metaphors because a tree's overall structure is regular, while its fine-grained composition, its tangles of branches, are irregular, an arrangement conducive to the kind of design experimentation offered by new digital technologies.

No need for any cognitive neuroscience here! Hell, by the end the author admits that the cognitive neuroscience angle may not even exist:

How many designers are clued in to the ongoing cognitive revolution and its potential for the built environment is unclear.

Blah. Whatever.

I'm too confused to even be annoyed enough to write a rebuttal. At least the New York Times iPhone piece that Russ Poldrack so deftly countered (and that I signed) was a coherent misapplication of neuroscience.

This latest Avatar, neuroscience, architecture piece is at least as silly as their "neuroscientists go canoeing" article. Or whatever that one was about.

Maybe they've got some pop-neuro quota to fulfill?