Culture in Mind: Toward a Sociology of Culture and Cognition

By Karen A. Cerulo | Go to book overview

Representationand Integration: An Introduction

Section II focused on the techniques and strategies by which we sort and organize information. But according to cognitive scientists, these processes are inexorably tied to two distinct characteristics of the brain: the brain’s warehouse of representational constructs (including concepts, frames, formats, and schemata), and its capacity to integrate new information with such constructs. For cognitive scientists, representational constructs constitute the very fuel of thought; they are critical data banks within the brain’s elaborate processing apparatus.

For decades, cognitive scientists have probed the nature of representational constructs. They have also explored the ways in which the structure of such constructs directs cognitive activity. The earliest inquiries focused on “concepts,” the most basic of the brain’s representational tools. One can define concepts as mental categories that partition and cluster information in the brain according to certain essential attributes or characteristic properties. According to cognitive scientists, all concepts display three specific qualities: each possesses certain critical features; each possesses a set of rules that relates its features; and each possesses a set of rules that distinguishes its features from those that define other concepts.

Cognitive scientists tell us that concepts serve multiple functions in the complex process of thought. First, concepts become a benchmark by which to measure and assess new information. Thus, armed with the concept “dog,” the healthy functioning brain can correctly classify an encounter with a neighbor’s German shepherd, a colleague’s mutt, or a passerby’s Chihuahua. Similarly, the concept “automobile” directs the healthy functioning brain to the shared attributes of Volkswagen Beetles, Honda Accords, and Chevrolet Corvettes. Second, concepts enable interpretation. For example, if one recognizes a neighbor’s pet as a wolf rather than a dog, one can interpret the situation as dangerous and tailor one’s actions accordingly. Similarly,

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