Douglas Hofstadter gave a lecture at Stanford University on the topic Analogy as the Core of Cognition in February of 2006. Just to start off with, I thought the guy was brilliant before, and I am even more impressed after hearing him speak. You could call me a total fangirl. Everything he talked about was very accessible and entertaining. I summarized the concepts below, but I am afraid they are not delivered nearly as well by me, so my apologies:

Analogy is the mechanism that drives categorization and therefore cognition. Analogy making expands the personal concept. There was an interesting idea here about the personal concept being different from the public concept, but "no less valid" which I liked. Two examples were given of repeated analogy expanding concepts, one being the concept of a shadow. A tree on a sunny day casts a shadow. This same tree on a cloudy winter day has a shadow beneath it where snow fell all around the tree but did not reach the ground underneath, and therefore casts a "snow" shadow. We take this a step further when discussing rain shadows cast by mountains that keep the clouds from moving past them. The second example was the concept of numbers where first we learn integers, then fractions, then things like negative numbers, then concepts such as e, pi, i, etc, using analogy to build on the concept. He then made the point that one of the magic things about the human mind is our endless capacity for chunking, or taking primitive concepts and chunking them into a larger idea. Imagine all of conceptual layers you would have to go through to explain the concept of Wikipedia to someone from 2000 years ago--and how easily you yourself deal with this complex concept. Basically, there is no fundamental difference between dealing with the simplest of concepts and the most complex after you have performed this categorization/chunking.

He then proceeded to discuss lexical item choice, how every time we choose a word there is actually a fight going on internally. Most of the time this is pretty cut and dry, but there are times when two words or phrases are "competing" and sometimes they both try to come out--this is evidence of the internal competition. When speaking a foreign language with several options for greeting someone based on your relationship with them, how do know how to greet them? You could perform the mental calculation of how formal your relationship is each and every time, or you could group by analogy. D.H. then makes the leap that this concept actually applies across the board and that every effortless category assignment is actually a "seething subterranean battle of analogies." Once the category assignment is made however, we can move on to a higher level of abstraction and deal with the concept easily--thinking is seeking the highest level of abstraction.

The last point he made was regarding Einstein and how he came up with the concept of the photon. He made this leap by looking at the curve energy distribution in ideal gas container and the curve of frequency of blackbody radiation, noticing the similarity in shape. If an ideal gas is made of corpuscles, might light also be made of corpuscles? Thus, the light-quantum hypothesis. I'm sure this took more than five minutes however. Einstein rocks. (Also: isn't it amazing how obvious scientific discoveries seem in hindsight?)

I was thinking about this idea of analogy driving cognition on the way home from the talk. It is definitely an interesting idea. How do you know when to stop? Seeing relationships between things where no obvious one exists is necessary for abstraction and thinking about advanced concepts, but you could regard delusions that are a symptom of mental illness as taking this to a whole new level and seeing relationships where no sensible one exists. Take analogies too far (waaaay too far) and all of a sudden the arrangement in the words of your newspaper is code being sent to you from aliens who are trying to control your mind.

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