The Brain As An Analogy Machine

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How humans think.  The human brain as an analogy machine.

Brain Art showcases prizewinners in the 2012 Brain-Art Competition that honors outstanding visualizations of brain research data. The works are by John Van Horn (US), Neda Jahanshad (US), Betty Lee (US), Daniel Margulies (US) and Alexander Schäfer (DE). (Flickr/Ars Electronica)

How do we think?  How do our brains make sense of the world?  Of the endless, swirling, changing flow of scenes and situations we confront?

For decades now, while the world has looked at neuro-chemistry and MRIs and synapses flashing, big thinker Douglas Hofstadter has looked for patterns.  With Emmanuel Sander he now says it all comes down to this:  analogy.  Our brains as mighty analogy machines.  Endlessly linking this to that and that to the other.  Analogy as the fundamental fuel and fire of thought.

This hour, On Point:  considering the very core of human thought.
- Tom Ashbrook


Douglas Hofstadter, Distinguished College of Arts and Sciences Professor of Cognitive Science and Comparative Literature at Indiana University. Author of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning book "Gödel, Escher, Bach." Co-author of "Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking."

Emmanuel Sander, professor of Cognitive and Developmental Psychology at the University of Paris (Saint-Denis), specializing in the study of analogy-making and categorization and their connections to education.  Co-author of "Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking."

From Tom's Reading List

The New Yorker: Can Super Mario Save Artificial Intelligence? — "Douglas Hoftstadter and Emmanuel Sander implicitly remind us in their new book, 'Surfaces and Essences,' that one strategy toward a flexible-learning A.I. might begin by looking at the human gift for analogy. Although Hofstadter and Sander overstate their case (not everything depends on analogy) and never provide an explicit algorithm, it does seem plausible that analogy is one of the most powerful tools that a ten-year-old has in his (or her) mental toolkit for learning new tasks, like a new sport or a new video game."

Nature: Cognitive Science: Mind as Mirror — "Why (science-fiction writers take note) would we invent new categories and labels for things when we can aid comprehension by borrowing old ones, even if the physical resemblance is negligible? What cognitive scientists Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander set out to show is that this sort of elision is not merely a convenience: all our thinking depends on it, from the half-truths of everyday speech (“that always happens to me too!”) to the most abstruse of mathematical reasoning. I was convinced, and the ramifications are often thought-provoking. But when authors tell you the same thing, over and over again, for 500 pages, perhaps you'll believe it whether it is true or not."

Excerpt: "Surfaces And Essences"


A video tribute to the ideas of Douglas Hofstadter

This program aired on April 26, 2013.


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