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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?


  1. Hey, I guess you better get used to the fact that neuroscientists are the new chefs :).

  2. Hey! I liked the "neuroscientists go canoeing" article. It showed that we don't always live in the lab (after we get tenure).

  3. @Jonas: but we'd make for far less entertaining television.
    @T2: but was it worthy of a NYT article?

  4. What on earth (again!!! :-)). Did you see the stuff about "sin" being hardwired into our brains at The Neuro Times? Its all just a bit too crazy.

  5. Hmmm - it *is* a bit vague and unfocused.

    I think the basic mistake here is to misunderstand the difference between cognition and conception. Sadly, this happens quite a bit and I think that perhaps quite a few people have linked psychology to neuroscience and come up with 5^n + 3.

    It's a shame because there is actually some value to studying how the brain deals with spatial environments and it is *interesting* to then relate that to the *value* we place on it psychologically **all the while bearing in mind that correlation and causality are very hard to apply**. And, of course, realising that it is only interesting...

    Or is this a simple mis-application of the word neuroscience? The phrase cognitive neuroscience is used at the start but there is no neuroscience at all and quickly goes into cognitive psychology (albeit very superficially) then ends up in philosophy (phenomenology).

    For example, (Carson, 2010) talks about 'cognitive maps' of buildings but these are not cognitive neuroscience maps - they are based on speaking to people to find out what is happening.

    If you were to take a straw poll, would cognitive mean physiological events or psychological events?

    Having said all that, you should grab a copy of Bachelard's The Poetics of Space - you'd love it.

    Carlson, L. a. et al., 2010. Getting Lost in Buildings. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 19(5), pp.284-289. Available at: http://cdp.sagepub.com/lookup/doi/10.1177/0963721410383243 [Accessed August 27, 2011].

    Bachelard, G. (1994). The poetics of space (M. Jolas Trans.). (2nd ed.). Boston: Beacon Press Books.

  6. @Stephen: yeah, saw that when I went over to comment. This stuff is ridiculous. I should be keeping a folder of bad neurosci.
    @Derek: This is money: "Or is this a simple mis-application of the word neuroscience? The phrase cognitive neuroscience is used at the start but there is no neuroscience at all and quickly goes into cognitive psychology (albeit very superficially) then ends up in philosophy (phenomenology)." And thanks for the book recommendation... not sure I'll have time to get around to it, but I'll try.

  7. The article is pretty frustrating because some of the neuroscience/psychology ideas they allude to are so cool. As a motor person, I am forever fascinated by how our brain is influenced by the body it lives in (and vice-versa). There's a lot of potential for this idea to be further fleshed out into a great article, but this one just serves to confuse.

    The early paragraphs immediately made me think of this paper, http://www.sciencemag.org/content/328/5986/1712.abstract which is one of the most amusing, clean demonstrations I've seen of the interaction between our physical selves, language, and experience of the world.

  8. That cognitive psychology, or the study of spatial cognition, has something to tell us about architecture shouldn't be very controversial. Perhaps if the writer at started there rather than with some sort of half-cocked nonsense about embodied cognition, it would've gone better.

    I had such high hopes for the piece, at first, but that only really lasted until I began sentence #2. Sadly, people would rather hear about how leaning to the left makes you feel larger than a more complicated (more interesting, more based on evidence) story about geometric reorientation or spatial navigation.

  9. I was reading this too; got past the few paragraphs, maybe, until I had to abandon the story as I no longer put any faith in the story actually having a point. Thanks for confirming my reasoning.

    PS. there was a nice pic from Seville in the article, clicked on it to see it full size..

  10. Deborah Budding19:51

    I agree with Amy. If anyone is interested in a review of some aspects of this material, The Cerebellum is currently offering free peeks behind the paywall, and you can download a review article co-authored with Len Koziol and Dana Chidekel ("From Movement to Thought..")http://www.springer.com/biomed/neuroscience/journal/12311?hideChart=1#realtime

  11. Amy, Jason, & Deborah: I agree, there was a really cool concept in here, but I just never *got* it. You might want to check Daniel Lende's response here though:

    Joona: Yeah, it seems like there are two camps here, and some people really did enjoy the piece. I feel like I'm stupid or something for just *not* getting it.

  12. Where are these people who enjoyed it??? I shall smite them, lol. I did enjoy Daniel's piece, though.

  13. Dear All:
    I am pleased that my NYT piece roused you and your readers into a discussion, even if the tenor of some of the contributions is what it is. The book that I am writing ranges widely through many fields: cognitive neuroscience, cognitive neuropsychology, cognitive linguistics, many other different branches of psychology (cognitive, environmental, ecological, evolutionary), architectural and urban studies, philosophical phenomenology, and more. The most important link between cognitive neuroscience and the issues discussed in the NYT article is simply that recent findings in cognitive neuroscience are giving ever firmer scientific foundation to the principles of embodied cognition. By your responses it seems that this link might have been more explicitly drawn in the article, which quite obviously focuses on discussing aspects of embodied cognition rather than cognitive neuroscience per se. The original essay was nearly twice as long as what ended up in print, owing to the NYT’s typical space limitations.
    I share your views that spatial cognition, cognitive maps, place-based long term memory, and many of the other issues related to cognition and experience raised in your comments are critically important. They have been nearly completely ignored by the people who are actually making the built environment in which we all live. It’s time for that to change. That’s why I’m writing my book.
    In the meantime, you might be interested in a more sympathetic response to my piece: http://blogs.plos.org/neuroanthropology/2012/01/10/brainy-trees-metaphorical-forests-on-neuroscience-embodiment-and-architecture/
    Many thanks,
    Sarah Goldhagen

  14. Sarah:

    Thanks for taking the time to discuss this with us here! Indeed, you'll see that two comments above yours I, too, link to Daniel's piece. I'm sympathetic that your full article was edited down. You'll note that most people feel like there's something very cool in the ideas you present, but perhaps the New York Times was not the best forum in which to try and advertise your book.