February 2011


So I started working on a sketch today that links two ideas, and the combination is surprising.

On the one hand we have O’Regan and Noe’s take on sensorimotor correspondences.  This is actually not far from a lot of Gibsonian work within Ecological Psychology.  The basic idea is that in perceiving, we are skillfully engaging with the world, and that practiced and tuned action gives rise to a corresponding characteristic change in the sensory array.  Gibsonians would say this is the basis of direct perception.  Enaction-heads would say this is skillful coping, or some such.

On the other hand, we have the peculiar issue of sensorimotor synchronization, perhaps best illustrated by a group of people dancing or beating drums together.  In the scientific literature, this has withered to a laboratory situation in which people tap in time to a metronome. (The horror, the horror.)  This is a singularly human achievement, the very odd animal counterexample notwithstanding (yes, Snowball, I’m looking at you and the Gelada baboons).  A fuller account of the basis for sensorimotor synchronization would help us enormously.  It may underpin a burgeoning theory of memes; it speaks to Gibson’s intuition that the nervous system displays resonant properties; it fits with a range of specific situations, from air guitar to stuttering.  All can be described, in some fuzzy essence, with a conceptually simple model in which two processes enter into a coupled form of synergy which looks like resonance within and among coupled systems with many degrees of freedom.

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Chomsky claims of late that recursion is the one formal property that singles out human language from sophisticated social signaling more generally.*   I think he may have a point. It is not that recursion is that great per se.  As we are well aware, we don’t make unlimited use of it – nothing that requires such an awesomely creative tool.  With center embedding, we get lost after about the third recursive element.

But recursion is a sign that we are free of the restrictions of the meat.  Animal “syntaxes” are, in fact, more akin to prosodic structures, with parts made out of the coordinative affordances of the vocal tract.  They do not have recursion, as it would make no sense to have a unit like the syllable inside another syllable, or a foot inside a foot.  These units are performative, and deeply engrained in the meat.

The recent work of Stan Dehaene, Liz Spelke and Susan Carey suggests something similar.  There, language is seen as a fluid vehicle for passing meaning around between domains of organization that have long phylogenetic histories, and that are, thus, special-purpose.  The emerging notion I am developing of the P-domain may help here.

*This has given rise to some discomfort with the claim that has recently arisen that the Amazonian Piraha tribe speak a non-recursive language – the jury is still out on that one.