Neurobiology, mental models and theories of thought

15 July 2005

Carl Pabo
Guggenheim Fellow
National Academy of Sciences Bio
Stanford Bio-X Bio


This talk considers the challenging problems of how we might best connect the discoveries of cognitive neuroscience with other, broader realms of human thought. We consider ways of using ideas about "cognitive frames" and associated "mental models" as a starting point. In particular, we consider the prospects for mapping thought (about many different topics) onto a template of cognitive frames involving the individual's own "goals", "strategies", and "assumptions". That is, rather than necessarily or solely evaluating thoughts by how well they match "objective reality" (as we try to do in science), this model considers the functional roles of "thought" within the context of a broader range of intellectual, personal and social goals. Our model highlights the roles of distinct "problem spaces" within different realms of human thought; it considers the organization of human "executive functions" in cognitive control and the effect of limitations of "working memory"; and it also emphasizes the central role of dopamine reward systems in human decision-making and behavior. After outlining this basic model, the lecture will discuss some of the approximations and assumptions involved in these attempts to "frame" human thought. We then consider potential implications and possible extensions of this strategy, including some discussions of the problems of morality, values, social justice, and problems of decision-making in a complex technological society. The overall hope is that the development of more systematic ways to describe such cognitive frames and to keep track of their relationships may provide an important connection between neurophysiology and the many other disciplines (whether scientific, humanist or practical) that analyze - or rely upon - human thought.

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