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5.0 out of 5 stars Material Engagement, 5 Nov 2013
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This review is from: How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement (Hardcover)
How things shape the mind represents a sum of the thoughts that the author, Lambros Malafouris, has developed over the course of his career, supplemented by the addition of new explanatory examples and unpublished chapters. The main objective of the book is to finally give body to the thesis of Material Engagement, real keystone that binds the many claims made by the author and that represents an interesting approach for both cognitive science and theoretical archaeology. Doing justice to each of the ideas discussed in the book is difficult in the space of a review and then it is necessary to focus on some of the core aspects.
Malafouris proposes a theory of the engagement of humans and artefacts that combines elements of classic embodiment/extended mind with more radical aspects that aim at least to minimize the necessity of mental representations and computations in favour of dynamic human-artefact systems. He proposes a new theory of action, which ascribes agency not only to the human component, but also to the material one. In this way, materiality is not limited to the simple role of information deposit, but it actively alters the deep structure of the cognitive process by virtue of its properties. Material engagement thus becomes a necessary condition for the acquisition of new cognitive processes. From this premise it follows the application of Malafouris' thesis in cognitive archaeology. The entire book concerns with the idea that the slow transformation of the mind, driven by material engagement, represents the engine of human cognitive evolution. The curved line that is painted on the wall of a cave during the Upper Paleolithic brings forth to consciousness the representation of the back of an animal and enables humans to perceive a new reality, which consists of pictorial images. Unlike the old model in cognitive archaeology, there is no need, therefore, to think that human are provided with a priori mental representations, inscribed by natural selection in the neural system, which are then applied to materiality in order to establish a meaning. In other words, it is not necessary to think of images of animals that are first created in the mind and then reproduced with the pigments on the wall. The image and its meaning emerge as a result of human action on the matter and through the matter itself. This enactive approach produces thus the possibility of perceiving images as representations and it gradually allows human beings to mentally manipulate the process of production of the same image and, gradually, to start think about what other people think of the images. This slow cognitive transformation is supported by phenomena of neural plasticity induced by experience, that lead also to restructuring of both the structural and the functional brain architecture. This opens up to new possibilities of technological development, which produce further neural alterations, creating thus a snow-ball feedback of mutual interactions (see also the notion of metaplasticity within the book ). The crucial question for the entire cognitive archaeology project becomes thus not only the "what" (i.e. the neural substrates required to produce a certain technology), but also the "how". How is it possible to reach a certain technological expression, by means of going through earlier forms of material engagement? Which mind/artefact interfaces do represent necessary conditions for enacting the production of material symbols?
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