Review of The Way We Think (Fauconnier and Turner, 2002), written by Jonathan Smallwood.

My experience (and my colleagues assure me that I am not alone) of undergraduate psychology, particularly in my first year, can be summarised in one statement: neither nature nor nurture, in isolation, can provide a comprehensive account of human behaviour.  I was certainly curious about how this interaction occurred and was, therefore, somewhat perplexed to find that psychology in the main is a discipline which over the last hundred years has been dominated by extreme accounts of behaviour, focused on the importance of the environment (such as behaviourism) or genetics (such as psychobiology). Whilst many psychologists favour extreme explanations of behaviour, often the only interactionist explanations of behaviour are little more than a succession of boxes and arrows (one for environment and one for genetic influences).  Whilst, these boxes are named appropriately, I never felt that they offered an explanation of how these two influences interact.

The way we think (Fauconnier and Turner, 2002) approaches this issue in a different manner.  This landmark volume summarises what has become known as the Theory of Conceptual Blending.  In brief, they argue that a critical event in the evolution of the human species was the ability to engage in a particular type of conceptual integration.  Whilst there are some complicated technical details, in short these networks, often  called ‘double-scope networks’, are important because they facilitate the blending of two existing conceptual structures.  A good way to imagine this process is the notion of a metaphor in which the characteristics of one concepts is used to illuminate an important point about another.  The way we think, takes this idea one step further: the critical point of the theory of conceptual blending, is that these networks are capable of using the emergent structure of this blending process, as the input for a subsequent iteration of conceptual blending.  It is at least theoretically possible, that through this process, called compression, the networks can build increasingly complicated and abstract conceptual structures.  This process is known as bootstrapping to philosophers of the mind.

What makes this framework so important to psychology as a discipline, in my opinion, is that it offers an account of a mechanism for how the two most powerful influences on human behaviour (nature ands nurture) could actually interact.  It works in the following manner: the development of the ability to compress information in the conceptual blend facilitates the development of increasingly abstract forms of behaviour (such as language, rituals and technology).  Once developed by a group of individuals, Fauconnier & Turner suggest that these forms of behaviour are made explicit by the culture of that society, and are therefore available to future members as the input spaces for their subsequent conceptual blends. 

A good example of how this process facilitates the compression of environmental structure can be found in the chapter entitled‘Things’.  This chapter illustrates how the development of material technology alters the conceptual tools available to subsequent generations.  Consider the example of a clock.  Over a long historical period, successive generations have built more and more sophisticated tools for the explicit division of time (for example, Stonehenge, sundials and then clocks).  Whatever, processes the inventors have to go through to invent this technology their successors need only learn to use the technology as it stands.  In this sense, successive generations use the output of these items of technology to build increasingly complex conceptual blends themselves.  For example, whilst the development of Stonehenge makes explicit the timing of the seasons, the development of a clock makes explicit the concept of an hour.  In both these examples, the conceptual work necessary to develop the initial technology quickly becomes redundant, allowing successive generations to merely process the products of the technological advancements.

Possibly the most satisfying aspect of the theory of conceptual blending, in my opinion, is that it provides a hypothesis to explain one of the most longstanding controversies in our knowledge of the evolution of the species.  Both archaeological and genetic evidence suggest that anatomically modern humans arose about 150,000 years ago, and yet approximately 50,000 years ago marked changes occur in the archaeological record with a sudden dramatic increase in cave art and the complexity of stone tools.  The question is: what was going on for the intervening 100,000 years?  Many authors argue about whether the genetic or the archaeological record is correct, or propose hidden biological changes unavailable to the fossil record.  By contrast, the notion of conceptual blending provides a much more elegant resolution of the conflict between the two dates.  Because conceptual blending takes place over cultural time, there should be a time lag between the development of genetic form and the subsequent development of a complex behavioural repertoire.  From this viewpoint, therefore, it becomes an empirical issue whether the time lag is sufficient for the boot strapping process described by Fauconnier and Turner to take place.

Overall, The Way we Think is an important book because contains a detailed and mechanistic account of how the two most important influences on human information processing could interact.  It may or may not be supported by future empirical research, but at the very least it provides an account of the infamous nature/nurture interaction could occur.  It is only with such a framework that we can move beyond the dogmatic approaches to psychology which has typified psychological explanations over the last century.