Monthly Archives: September 2018

The Language of Sexual Violence

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Women’s March leaders address a rally against the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh in front of the court building on September 24.
 Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The language we use to describe something can provide insights into how we think about it. For example, we all reserve words for close family members (“Mama” or “Papa”) that have special meaning and these words are often constrained by culture. And as elements of culture, there are times when the linguistic conventions can tell us something very deep about how our society think about events.

Current Events

This week (late September 2018) has been a traumatic and dramatic one. A Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh was accused of an attempted rape 35 years ago. Both he and the accuser, Christine Blasey Ford were interviewed at a Senate hearing. And much has been written and observed about they ways they spoke and communicated during this hearing. At the same time, many women took to social media to describe their own experiences with sexual violence. I have neither academic expertise nor personal experience with sexual violence. But like many, I’ve followed these events with shock and with heartbreak.

Survivors

I’ve noticed something this week about how women who have been victims of sexual violence talk about themselves and the persons who carried out the assault. First of all, many women identify as survivors and not victims. A victim is someone who had something happen to them. A survivor is someone who has been able to overcome (or is working to overcome) those bad things. I don’t know if this is a conscious decision or not, though it could be. It is an effective way for a woman who had been a victim to show that they are a survivor. I think that many women use this term intentionally to show that they have survived something.

Part of The Self

But there is another linguistic construction that is even more interesting. I’ve noticed, especially in the news and on social media, that women say or write  my rapist” or “my abuser”,  or “my assailant”.  I don’t believe this is intentional or affected. I think this is part of the language because it’s part of how the person thinks about the event. Or maybe part of how society thinks about the event. The language suggests that women have internalized the identity of the perpetrator and that the event and the abuser has also become part of who they are as women.  It’s deep and consequential in ways that few other events are.

Of course a sexual assault would be expected to be traumatic and even life changing, but I’m struck by how this is expressed in the idioms and linguistic conventions women use to describe the event. Their language suggests some personal ownership. It’s more than a memory for an event or an episode. It’s a memory for person, a traumatic personal event, and also knowledge of the self. Autonoetic memory is deeply ingrained. It is “Indelible in the hippocampus

All of us talk this way sometimes, of course. If you say “this cat” it’s different from saying “my cat”. The former is an abstraction or general conceptual knowledge. The latter is your pet. It’s part of your identity. “My mother”, “my car”, “my smartphone” are more personal but still somewhat general. But “my heart”,  my child ‘, “my body” , and “my breath” are deeply personal and these things are just part of who we are.

Women don’t use this construction when talking about non sexual violence. They might say “the person who cut me off” or “the guy who robbed me” . Similarly, men who have been assaulted don’t use this language . They say “the man who assaulted me. “ or “the guy who punched me”, or even “the priest who abused me” . And men do not use this language to refer to people that have assaulted (e.g. “my victim“). You might occasional hear or read men refer to “my enemy or “my rival” which, I think, has the same deeper, more profound meaning as the terms used by women for sexual violence but not as traumatic. So by and large this seems to be something that women say about sexual violence specifically.

Deep and Personal Memory

So when a woman, says “my rapist“ it suggests a deep and personal knowledge.  Knowledge that has and will stay with them, affect their lives, and affect how they think about the event and themselves. Eyewitness memory is unreliable. Memory for facts and events—even personal ones—are malleable. But you don’t forget who someone is. You don’t forget the sound of your sibling’s voice. You don’t forget sight of your children. You don’t forget your address. You don’t forget your enemy…and you would not forget your abuser or your rapist.

The Cognitive Science Age

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Complex patterns in the Namib desert resemble neural networks.

The history of science and technology is often delineated by paradigm shifts. A paradigm shift is a fundamental change in how we view the world and our relationship with it. The big paradigm shifts are sometimes even referred to as an “age” or a “revolution”. The Space Age is a perfect example. The middle of the 20th Century saw not only an incredible increase in public awareness of space and space travel, but many of the industrial and technical advances that we now take for granted were byproducts of the Space Age. 

The Cognitive Science Age

It’s probably cliche to write this but I believe we are at the beginning of a new age, and a new, profound paradigm shift. I think we’re well into the Cognitive Science Age. I’m not sure anyone calls it that, but I think that is what truly defines the current era. And I also think that an understanding of Cognitive Science is essential for understanding our relationships with the world and with each other. 

I say this because in the 21st century, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and deep learning are now being fully realized. Every day, computers are solving problems, making decisions, and making accurate predictions about the future…about our future. Algorithms decide our behaviours in more ways that we realize. We look forward to autonomous vehicles that will depend of the simultaneous operation of many computers and algorithms. Machines will (and have) become central to almost everything.

And this is a product of Cognitive Science. As cognitive scientists, this new age is our idea, our modern Prometheus.

Cognitive Science 

Cognitive Science is an interdisciplinary field that first emerged in the 1950s and 1960s and sought to study cognition, or information processing, as its own area of study rather than as a strictly human psychological concept. As a new field, it drew from Cognitive Psychology, Philosphy, Linguistics, Economics, Computer Science, Neuroscience, and Anthropology. Although people still tend to work and train in those more established traditional fields, it seems to me that society as a whole is in debt to the interdisciplinary nature of Cognitive Science. And although it is a very diverse field, the most important aspect in my view is the connection between biology, computation, and behaviour.

The Influence of Biology

A dominant force in modern life is the algorithm, as computational engine to process information and make predictions. Learning algorithms take in information, learn to make associations, make predictions from those associations, and then adapt and change. This is referred to as machine learning, but the key here is that machines learn biologically,

For example, the algorithm (Hebbian Learning) that drives machine learning was discovered by the psychologist and neuroscientist Donald Hebb at McGill university. Hebb’s book on the The Organization of Behaviour  in 1949 is one of the most important books written in this field and explained how neurons learn associations. This concept was refined mathematically by the Cognitive Scientists Marvin Minsky, David Rumlehart, James McLelland, Geoff Hinton, and many others. The advances we see now in machine learning and deep learning are a result of Cognitive Scientists learning how to adapt and build computer algorithms to match algorithms already seen in neurobiology. This is a critical point: It’s not just that computers can learn, but that the learning and adaptability of these systems is grounded in an understanding of neuroscience. That’s the advantage of an interdisciplinary approach.

The Influence of Behaviour 

As another example, the theoretical grounding for the AI revolution was developed by Allen Newell (a computer scientist) and Herbert Simon (an economist). Their work in the 1950s-1970 to understand human decision making and problem solving and how to model it mathematically is provided a computational approach that was grounded in an understanding of human behaviour. Again, this an advantage of the interdisciplinary approach afforded by Cognitive Science. 

The Influence of Algorithms on our Society 

Perhaps one of the most salient and immediately present ways to see the influence of Cognitive Science is in the algorithms that drive the many products that we use online. Google is many things, but at its heart, it is a search algorithm and a way to organize the knowledge in the world so that the information that a user needs can be found. The basic ideas of knowledge representation that underlie Google’s categorization of knowledge were explored early on by Cognitive Scientists like Eleanor Rosch and John Anderson in the 1970s and 1980s. 

Or consider Facebook. The company runs and designs a sophisticated algorithm that learns about what you value and makes suggestions about what you want to see more of. Or, maybe more accurately, it makes suggestions for what the algorithm predicts will help you to expand your Facebook network… predictions for what will make you use Facebook more. 

In both of these cases, Google and Facebook, the algorithms are learning to connect the information that they acquire from the user, from you, with the existing knowledge in the system to make predictions that are useful and adaptive for the users, so that the users will provide more information to the system, so that it can refine its algorithm and acquire more information, and so on. As the network grows, it seeks to become more adaptive, more effective, and more knowledgeable. This is what your brain does, too. It causes you to engage in behaviour that seeks information to refine its ability to predict and adapts. 

These networks and algorithms are societal minds; They serve the same role for society that our own network of neurons serves our body. Indeed, these algorithms can even  change society. This is something that some people fear. 

Are Fears of the Future Well Founded?

When tech CEOs and politicians worry about the dangers of AI, I think that idea is at the core of their worry. The idea that the algorithms to which we entrust increasingly more of our decision making are altering our behaviour to serve the algorithm in the same way that our brain alters our behaviour to serve our own minds and body is somethings that strikes many as unsettling and unstoppable. I think these fears are founded and unavoidable, but like any new age or paradigm shift, we should continue to approach and understand this from scientific and humanist directions. 

The Legacy of Cognitive Science

The breakthroughs of the 20th and 21st centuries arose as a result of exploring learning algorithms in biology, the instantiation of those algorithms in increasingly more powerful computers, and the relationship of both of these concepts to behaviour. The technological improvements in computing and neuroscience have enabled these ideas to become a dominant force in the modern world. Fear of a future dominated by non-human algorithms and intelligence may be unavoidable at times but and understanding of Cognitive Science is crucial to being able to survive and adapt.