D as Diagramming: The Mind as Play Metaphor
A metaphor and four perspectives on mind, meanings, and experience.
This post is part of D as Diagramming project which aims to explore the power of diagrams and diagramming.
The previous article mentioned an integrated framework for diagram study.
The about diagram curates four perspectives together:
- Cognitive Representation
- Cultural Significance
- Mediating Instrument
- Ecological Situation
These four perspectives are adopted from an integrated epistemological framework I developed in the middle of 2017. This post aims to introduce the framework and a related metaphor: Mind as Play. The next post will return to the integrated framework for the diagram study.
An Aha Moment
From 2014 to 2016, I was fascinated with cognitive science because one of my friends founded a community about cognitive science and psychology in the middle of 2014. He invited over 180 PhDs and professors from psychology, anthropology, AI, linguistics, philosophy, media, and communication, and over 200 practitioners from various fields to join the community and hosted weekly discussions on a social media platform.
As a member and an advisor of the community, I was lucky to learn from weekly discussions and daily conversations about many topics. Eventually, I started reading books and papers about cognitive science. This is the starting point of my journey of interdisciplinary learning. There is a popular diagram about cognitive science, see below.
There are two views to understanding the above diagram and the field of cognitive science. The first view sees it as a roughly connected collective science enterprise that shares the same object of study: cognition. In other words, it is all about the mind and it embraces different perspectives from different fields. The second view only considers it as a research of cognitivism which is a theoretical framework. Thus, the above diagram has an issue because cognitive anthropology, cognitive linguistics, and philosophy of mind don’t only think about cognitivism.
Scholars have been debating these two views for many years. For ordinary learners such as me, the second view is a subset of the first view. Since I want to learn more perspectives from more disciplines, I think the above diagram is fine for me.
In fact, the newest development of the philosophy of mind moved in the direction of 4E cognition science (4E stands for Embodied, Embedded, Enacted, and Extended). While traditional cognitivism claims that the mind is about the brain and information processing, the 4E cognition emphasizes that cognition should be understood within the whole of Brain-Body-Environment coupling.
In the middle of 2016, I took pictures below while I visited Children’s Museum Houston with my two sons.
That was an Aha moment for me. I realized two things: 1) Mind as Play. The museum is all about play, but these plays are cognitive activities for kids. Thus, we can understand the Mind as a process of Play. 2) Perspective is not Reality. The above picture shows two perspectives of one object. Though perspectives are not reality, we do rely on perspectives to know reality.
These two ideas inspired me to develop a metaphor for the mind and knowing. Later, the metaphor became my own framework for cognition and the terminator of my learning journey in cognitive psychology. In 2017, I moved to ecological psychology and Activity Theory.
A Metaphor: Mind as Play
Inspired by the American sociologist Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, I named my metaphor Mind as Play. Goffman viewed theatre as a metaphor and developed the dramaturgical analysis method for sociological study. For Goffman, everyday life is a theatre. For me, everyday cognitive activities are a play.
The Mind as Play metaphor has three core elements:
- Objects of Knowing = Actors
- Perspectives = Stage Lights
- Domain = Stage
Objects of Knowing are what we think about. There are four layers of Objects of Knowing:
- Situational: a shopping list, travel, negotiation, sending a gift, cooking a meal, etc. These are all about concrete daily life activities.
- Emotional: joy, fear, surprise, sadness, anger, disgust, etc. These are all about feelings and intuitions.
- Rational: form, category, relation, change, causality, probability, degree, frequency, cycle. These are all about the laws behind things.
- Foundational: time, space, matter, information, and trust.
Why did I add the Foundational layer to the framework? Why did I only select the above five objects of knowing?
My goal was not to develop a scientific framework for everyone. It was just my own summary of the learning journey of cognitive science in 2016. I selected five objects of knowing from the rational layer and put them into a deeper layer in order to highlight their importance to me. For others, they can select other objects of knowing into their own foundational layer.
If we adopt the Mind as Play metaphor, then each Object of Knowing is an Actor while a Cognitive Activity is a Play.
The second element of Mind as Play is Perspectives. The above picture shows three-stage lights which refer to three perspectives. Everyday life is complex, a simple way to understand it is by adopting several perspectives to view it. Each perspective represents a unique point of view, a mental frame, a cultural significance, etc.
I made a distinction between spontaneous or naive perspectives and scientific or theoretical perspectives. The former is common sense such as “teacher’s perspective/parent’s perspective”, “the inner perspective / the outer perspective”, “the process perspective / the outcome perspective”, etc. The latter is adopted from academic theories, for example, the cognitivism perspective, the 4E perspective, the Affordance perspective, the Activity-theoretical perspective, the Autopoiesis perspective, etc.
The last element is Domain which is understood as the Stage. A play should be shown in a place where actors can perform. The Objects of Knowing should be placed in a particular domain that offers a necessary boundary for guiding the inquiry.
The above two books show two examples of Perspectives, Objects of Knowing, and Domains. Both two creative works adopt the same perspective: the ecological approach for psychological study. However, they work on different Objects of Knowing and Domains.
The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (James J. Gibson, 1979)
- Object of Knowing: Visual Perception
- Domain: perceptual psychology
The Ecological Approach to Perceptual Learning and Development (Eleanor J. Gibson and Anne D. Pick, 2000)
- Object of Knowing: Perceptual Learning and Development
- Domain: child development psychology
Though the above two examples are about academic works, the Mind as Play metaphor can be applied to everyday life cognitive activities such as learning, work, family, community, etc.
I finished the Mind as Play framework at the end of 2016 and started applying it to my own learning journey of theoretical perspectives. In the middle of 2017, I selected four theoretical perspectives and curated them together as an epistemological framework for myself.
An Epistemological Framework
I have over twenty years of work experience which can be divided into three stages: the creative stage, the strategic stage, and the innovative stage. At the creative stage, I worked for the advertising and media industry as a creative copywriter and designer. At the strategic state, I worked for pre-IPO stage enterprises as a business strategist and fundraising consultant. At the innovative stage, I worked on making brand new digital tools and platforms as a researcher and designer.
Before 2014, I spent most of my spare time on digital nonprofit communities as a digital activist. From 2014 to 2015, I transformed my focus from nonprofit activities to theoretical learning. Since then, I have been spending most of my spare time learning ecological psychology, creativity research, and other related subjects. You can find more details from a previous article: D as Diagramming: Challenge as Opportunity.
In July 2017, I designed a diagram to curate four theoretical perspectives together. The diagram below is an updated version of the 2017 diagram. While the new version retains the basic four conceptual spaces and the visual layouts, the major change is the names of the two conceptual spaces. The “Relevance” area was named “Interface” in the old version while the “Opportunity” area was named “Affordance” in the old version.
I considered the above diagram as an integrated framework for understanding “Mind, Meaning, and Experience”.
It is an epistemological framework for curating my learning outcome and reflecting on my work experiences. As a lifelong thinker, I was satisfied with this practical framework as an outcome in the middle of 2017. Basically, the four conceptual spaces refer to four ways of connecting theory and practice.
- The “Architecture” area connects my work experiences in Information Architecture and my learning of cognitive science.
- The “Relevance” area connects my work experiences in advertising/media/marketing and my learning of semiotics/communication study/culture study.
- The “Opportunity” area connects my life experience in my kids’ childhood and my learning of ecological psychology’s Affordance theory and my own work the Ecological Practice approach which was born in 2018.
- The “Activity” area connects my work experience in various domains and my learning of Activity Theory.
The above diagram is not a traditional 2x2 matrix. The major difference between my diagram and the 2x2 matrix is the process of making diagrams. For the traditional 2x2 matrix, people define 2 dimensions first, then they generate four conceptual spaces with two values of each dimension. For my diagram, I have four conceptual spaces first, then I find similarities and differences between these four conceptual spaces. In other words, you can’t generate these four conceptual spaces by calculating dimensions from my diagram. For example, you can’t generate “Opportunity” from “Self, Concrete, Rational, Dynamic”.
In fact, there are two hidden dimensions behind my diagram: Situational and Social.
- Situational: Abstract v.s. Concrete
- Social: Self v.s. Other
The path of my learning journey started from individual cognitive psychology which is located in the “Architecture” area and expanded to other areas. Though ecological psychology (Affordance theory) focuses on concrete environments, it remains at the individual analysis level.
The “Activity” area refers to Activity Theory and Social Practice Theories in general. Its unit of analysis is not individual behavior, it is not macro-social structure or cultural meaning either. Since 2001, a group of philosophers, sociologists, and scientists have rediscovered the practice perspective and used it as a lens to explore and examine the role of practices in human activity. Researchers called it The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory. As Schatzki pointed out, “there is no unified practice approach”(2001, p.2). Davide Nicolini adopted a way of a toolkit to introduce six different ways of theorizing practice in his 2013 book Practice Theory, Work, & Organization. Activity Theory is considered one of six social practice theoretical approaches.
The “Relevance” area refers to abstract cultural meanings between interpersonal interactions, group activities, and large social movements. It goes beyond the dynamic situational activities and focuses on stable common sense, general cultural significance, signs, symbols, and collective social representations.
This epistemological framework doesn’t want to create one theoretical approach, but just curate my mind in a visualized order. Each visual area refers to a conceptual space. Each conceptual space refers to a group of theoretical approaches. In this way, I can easily check the landscape of my learning journey in order to conduct a mapping process of my own epistemic development.
Architecture: What is it actually?
The “Architecture” refers to a conceptual space that is labeled with “Self, Abstract, Rational, Static”.
The keyword “Cognitive Representation” is a concept of the “Architecture” space. It is all about the deep structure behind the surface of things. Let’s use cars as an example.
The Architecture perspective cares the about structure of things. If we don’t understand the structure of a thing, we can’t make it. I was trained as an engineer in mechanical manufacturing. One of my favorite subjects is mechanical drawing which is a technique used to represent a three-dimensional object on a two-dimensional piece of drawing paper.
There is a real object, then we have to make a cognitive representation of the object in order to understand it, make it, change it, etc. This perspective requires accurate definition, measurement, and evaluation.
Opportunity: How can I do with it?
The “Opportunity” refers to a conceptual space that is labeled with “Self, Concrete, Rational, Dynamic”.
The keyword “Ecological Situation” is a concept of the “Opportunity” space. It is all about the interaction between humans and things that are considered environments from the perspective of ecological psychology.
Affordance Theory is a core of ecological psychology. Let’s see an example of the affordances of cars. For example, the following photos are about a carpool hangtag.
From the perspective of affordance, the part of the mirror (not the mirror) affords hanging something.
I don’t know the first person who found this “found use” and made a carpool hangtag. Now it is a “conventional use” by many of us. For some people, it is a meaningful business.
The concept of “Ecological Situation” emphasizes particular situations, environmental conditions, and individual differences.
Relevance: How do you understand it?
The “Relevance” refers to a conceptual space that is labeled with “Other, Abstract, Emotional, Static”.
The keyword “Cultural Significance” is a concept of the “Relevance” space. It is all about cultural contexts and social norms.
The above picture shows a car named Wendell which is one of the 2019 Art Car Winners in the Houston Art Car Parade. The art car was made by Joe Haden from Crockett, TX.
From the Relevance perspective, we should understand “Art Car” with its historical context. For the particular art car Wendell, we can’t only consider the affordance of a car’s surface from the perspective of the ecological situation. If a person is not familiar with Plate Number which is part of car culture, he definitely can’t understand the meaning of Wendell.
It’s clear that the above picture is not about the name of a highway. Route 66 has a nickname: Main Street of America.
Activity: What can we do together?
The “Activity” refers to a conceptual space that is labeled with “Other, Concrete, Emotional, Dynamic”.
The keyword “Mediating Instrument” is a concept of the “Activity” space and it is adopted from Activity Theory which is a particular theoretical approach for practice studies.
The Activity Perspective considers a thing in social collective practice. For example, a school bus is part of educational practice in a particular school district, a police car is part of a local law enforcement practice in a particular city area.
While the Architecture perspective and the Opportunity perspective focus on individual behavior, the Activity perspective considers individual actions within collective activities.
Both the Relevance perspective and the Activity perspective consider social contexts and cultural meanings, the difference between perspectives is their methods. The latter emphasizes concrete situational observation while the former focuses on abstract sign/meaning analysis. I’d like to point out that there are various theoretical approaches within these two areas. My distinction is a rough solution.
In a general sense, the Activity perspective emphasizes social needs, social labor, and social rules.
Each conceptual space also connects to corresponding methods for applying theoretical approaches to empirical research and practical reflection.
- Architecture: Modeling + Computation
- Opportunity: Observation + Curation
- Relevance: Interruption + Narrative
- Activity: Analysis + Intervention
This classification is a rough solution because I want to highlight the differences between the four conceptual spaces. In fact, a particular theoretical approach may apply more than two methods. For example, Activity Theorists may use Observation, Curation, Analysis, Modeling, and Intervention for their work.
Is Mind a Product or a Process?
A Play is both a product and a process. If we accept the Mind as Play metaphor, then the Mind is both a product and a process.
This is a flexible solution for understanding the Mind in everyday life. The above epistemological framework echoes this solution and offers a rough map for curating a set of theoretical approaches into a meaningful whole.
If you consider yourself a lifelong thinker, I’d like to encourage you to do the same thing. Once you develop your own epistemological framework, you can compare it with mine and others. You can also compare its different versions at different times. One of the tricks I learned from cognitive science is that a comparison is a great approach to learning because the human brain really loves discovering similarities and differences.
The framework was developed in 2017. Now, I can add my own theoretical approaches to this map. For example, the Themes of Practice framework could be placed in the Relevance area. Actually, I did an empirical case study titled Themes of Practice, Relevance, and Social Media Platforms several months ago.
This is the magic reward of the epistemic development of a creative life!
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