Knowing How We Think – Representation Formats

Reading an interesting book at the moment by Stephen Pinker How the Mind Works.  Only part of the way through it but he is pushing some good logic about the computational theory of the mind and how humans have evolved to be amazingly smart at doing quite complex things.  And that a lot of how we think can be attibuted to how our brains have evolved and the brain’s role in dealing with its environment.

 Pinker (page 89) talks about four major formats of representation that the brain uses. These are:

  1. Visual image: two-dimensional picture-like mosaic.
  2. Phonological: a stretch of syllables we play like a tape recording – using it for short-term memory like a phone number before we dial it.  It lasts between one and five seconds and can hold from 4 to 7 chunks. 
  3. Grammatical: nouns and verbs, phrases and clauses etc arranged into hierarchical trees determining what goes into a sentence and how we play with language.
  4. Mentalese: the language of thought in which our conceptual knowledge is couched – the medium in which content or gist is captured.  For example, after you put down a book, you don’t remember the words or typefaces or location of parts but you remember the content, storyline and themes. 

I like this simple categorisation as it clearly shows how we construct knowledge and make sense of situations.  If I say “Picture a scene of water cascading down a waterfall”, do you see a picture of it, memorise the exact wording of that phrase,  think of the phrase grammatically (and whether I have asked you to paint it, imagine it, recall it, etc) or recall a particular waterfall that you have visited or a scene from a story, etc. 

These are all different representations that use different parts of the brain to make sense of that phrase.  And your mind can chop and change from one form of representation to another in the blink of an eye (or the activation of a synapse!) if you are asked to. 

More on this book as I delve deeper into it.


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