|Psychology and Computer Science, University of British Columbia|
Okanagan Campus, 3333 University Way
Kelowna, British Columbia, V1V 1V7, CANADA
Ph: (250) 807-9849
|Center Leo Apostel for Interdisciplinary Studies (CLEA), Free University of Brussels (VUB)|
Welcome to my homepage!
THIS WEBSITE IS NO LONGER UPDATED. YOU ARE INVITED TO VISIT MY NEW HOMEPAGE.
My work focuses on the origins and underlying mechanisms of creativity, and implications for the evolution of culture. At the crux of the issue of how creative thought is possible, and of how ideas adapt to new situations, build on one another, and evolve, lies the problem of understanding the flexible way we use concepts. Thus my interests in creativity and cultural evolution have led to work on the development of a contextual theory of concepts. Finally, the process of comparing and contrasting the evolution of biological and cultural form has led to some fledgling efforts toward a general theory of evolution.
If you would like to do graduate work on one of these topics in a fun, interdisciplinary environment, with money for summer research and conference travel, drop me a line!
Funding for this research comes from Foundation for the Future and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).
In addition to summaries of the topics underlined above, on this website you can find:
Given that an island is typically surrounded by water, vhy is it that when you first heard the phrase 'kitchen island' you didn't interpret it as referring to an object in the middle of a flooded kitchen? For more than a quarter century, paradoxes of this sort have called into question our assumptions about concepts. A lot is at stake, because a robust theory of concepts is vital to understanding the adaptability and compositionality of human thought.
Traditionally concepts have been viewed as entities in the mind that represent a class of entities in the world. However, it is often pointed out that they do not have a fixed representational structure; their features or properties shift depending on the frame or context in which it arises. A related problem is that they appear to gain and lose properties when they combine (e.g. when TOY combines with DWARF in the conjunction TOY DWARF, properties atypical of DWARF, such as ‘made of plastic’, appear, while typical DWARF properties such as ‘has DNA’, disappear). Typicality ratings also change, i.e. subjects rate ‘talk’ as atypical of PET and atypical of BIRD but typical of PET BIRD. So although it has been assumed that the primary function of concepts is to identify items as instances of a class, increasingly they are viewed as not just identifying but actively participating in the generation of meaning. Thus a model of concepts requires a formalism that can cope with their participatory nature. It must transcend the Cartesian worldview in which an entity is viewed as separate from its context or frame.
The approach taken by Diederik Aerts and I with input from Eleanor Rosch follows naturally from research at FUND. Our model of concepts uses the state-context-property (SCOP) formalism, which allows us to describe the relational structure of a concept and how this structure emerges in interaction with the relational structure of a context. Using the tensor product we describe a conjunction as an entangled state of the concepts of which it is composed. The predictions of our model match closely results obtained in preliminary experiments with human subjects. Thus we appear to be making genuine headway into tackling the sorts of paradoxical findings that have plagued concepts research!
Gabora, L., Rosch, E., & Aerts, D. (2007). Toward an ecological theory of concepts. Ecological Psychology, 20(1), 84-116.
Aerts, D. & Gabora, L. (2005). A state-context-property model of concepts and their combinations I: The structure of the sets of contexts and properties. Kybernetes, 34(1&2), 167-191. (Special issue dedicated to Heinz Von Foerster.) [ quant-ph/0402207] [pdf]
Aerts, D. & Gabora, L. (2005). A state-context-property model of concepts and their combinations II: A Hilbert space representation. Kybernetes, 34(1&2), 192-221. (Special issue dedicated to Heinz Von Foerster.) [quant-ph/0402205] [pdf]
Gabora, L. & Aerts, D. (2002). Contextualizing concepts using a mathematical generalization of the quantum formalism. Journal of Experimental and Theoretical Artificial Intelligence, 14(4), 327-358. [quant-ph/0205161] [pdf]
An early precursor of this approach (my first publication, actually):
Hofstadter, D. & Gabora, L. (1989). Synopsis of a workshop on humor and cognition. Humor, 2(4), 417-440.
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The capacity to use concepts in a flexible, context-sensitive manner and blend them together in new ways is essential to creativity. I have been investigating how creativity is made possible through the sparse, distributed, content-addressable structure of memory, and the reconstructive nature of retrieval. It is widely believed that thought varies along a continuum from rigorous and logical to intuitive and associative, and it has been experimentally demonstrated that very creative individuals excel at both. Thus I think creativity involves the capacity to subconsciously focus or defocus attention, thereby varying the specificity of the ‘cognitive receptive field’ activated in response to the situation. This capacity, referred to as contextual focus, enables one to alternate between analytical thought, where we zero in and mentally operate on only the most relevant or defining aspects of a situation, and associative thought, where seemingly less relevant aspects come into play and shape how one approaches a problem. In effect contextual focus amounts to varying the shape of the function that determines the applicabilities of properties of concept and context, flat for associative thought and spiky for analytical. (Thus in the context of needing to get something from a high shelf, the only property of giant activated is ‘tall’, whereas in the context of telling a fairytale, other properties come to mind.)
Gabora, L. (2007). Revenge of the 'neurds': Characterizing creative thought in terms of the structure and dynamics of human memory. Creativity Research Journal.
Gabora, L. (2002). The beer can theory of creativity. In (P. Bentley & D. Corne, Eds.) Creative Evolutionary Systems. Morgan Kauffman, San Francisco CA, 147-161. [pdf]
Gabora, L. & Colgan, P. (1990). A model of the mechanisms underlying exploratory behavior. In (S. Wilson & J. A. Mayer, Eds.) Proceedings of the First International Conference on the Simulation of Adaptive Behavior, MIT Press, 475-484. [pdf]
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How did we become so creativeityffect)? to have evolved complex cultures, in which one invention leads to another, which leads to? How is it that we are the only species to have evolved complex cultures, in which one invention leads to and builds on another (the Ratchet effect)? How is it that the human mind came to have the capacity to generate all these gadgets, languages, mannerisms, and so forth?
We see signs of human culture—e.g. stone tools and use of fire—starting about 1.7 million years ago. has been suggested that what bootstrapped culture was onset of a theory of mind (ToM), the capacity to reason about the mental states of others. However, to be able to strategically invent, refine, and communicate, much more is involved. I suggest that the enlarged brain size at this time enabled a finer-grained memory, with subtler kinds of relations getting encoded. This in turn allowed memories to become more distributed, giving rise to reminding events and concept formation. This would facilitate the capacity to reason about anything, not just the mental states of others.
The capacity for creative thought appears to have been vastly augmented approximately 100,000-50,000 years ago during the Middle/Upper Paleolithic, when we see the origins of complex art and science, and indications of organized hunting, religion, and ritual. It is proposed that this came about through onset of the capacity to use concepts in a flexible, context-sensitive manner, and that this requires an integrated internal model of the world, or worldview, which comes about through a process of conceptual closure. A closure space is a set of points that are sufficiently interconnected that for each point there exists a pathway to any other point in the set. In conceptual closure, memories and concepts come to be associatively linked such that for any one there exists a feasible associative pathway to any other. Because of the integrated nature of a worldview, concepts are used not just for categorizing complex situations, but for framing or re-describing them in terms of other situations, learning or inventing new concepts as needed. As new memories are laid down and new concepts formed, streams of associative thought weave them into the closure structure thereby maintaining its integrity. Two key steps toward conceptual closure would be emergence of a fine-grained distributed memory structure, and onset of the capacity for contextual focus, as described in the section on creativity. Once humans could spontaneously shift between analytic and associative modes of thought, it would become possible to generate new approaches to the myriad problems that arise in everyday life.
Gabora, L. (2007). Mind: What archaeology can tell us about the origins of human cognition. In (R. A. Bentley, H. D. G. Maschner, & C. Chippindale, Eds.) Handbook of Archaeological Theories. Walnut Creek CA: Altamira Press.
Gabora, L. (2003). Contextual focus: A cognitive explanation for the cultural transition of the Middle/Upper Paleolithic. In (R. Alterman & D. Hirsch, Eds.) Proceedings of the 25th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society, Boston MA, July 31-August 2. Hillsdale NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Gabora, L. (2000). Conceptual closure: Weaving memories into an interconnected worldview. In (G. Van de Vijver & J. Chandler, Eds.) Closure: Emergent Organizations and their Dynamics. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 901, 42-53. [pdf]
For possible implications for consciousness:
Gabora, L. (2002). Amplifying phenomenal information: Toward a fundamental theory of consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 9(8), 3-29. [adap-org/9911003] [pdf]
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Like biological evolution, culture is a process whereby patterns of information (in this case ideas, attitudes, mannerisms, etc.) incrementally adapt to environmental constraints. It has forever changed the face of this planet; when we look around we see (1) elements of the physical world, (2) elements that came about through biological evolution, and (3) the artifacts we ourselves have created. In some respects cultural evolution is Darwinian; that is, like biological evolution, proceeds through variation, selection, and replication or retention. (So for example, different brands of peanut butter may be said to compete to be ëselectedí by consumers.) Thus culture (and computer simulations of it such as MAV) generates phenomena observed in biological evolution such as drift, Founder Effect, and altruism. (Who would you go out of your way for the most: someone who has the same eye colour or blood type as you, or someone who shares your interests?) In other respects, however, cultural change is distinctly non-Darwinian. (For example, natural selection cannot tell us much about how someone came up with the idea for turning peanuts into a spreadable substance in the first place.)
A good place to begin to more thoroughly investigate how culture evolves is to determine what (if anything) constitutes the basic unit of replication. It is often assumed that the basic units of cultural evolution are artifacts (tools, fashions, etc.) or the ideas or ‘memes’ that give rise to them. Moreover it is assumed that artifacts or ideas constitute replicators: entities that make copies of themselves. Nothing in culture constitutes a genuine von Neumann replicator with a code that gets used both as self-description and self-assembly instructions. However a mind may constitute a primitive 'Kauffman-esque' replicator, which copies itself through a piecemeal, self-organized process. Like the autocatalytic sets postulated to be the earliest forms of life, its replication is emergent rather than dictated by a code, and therefore subject to inheritance of acquired characteristics.
Thus it is not ideas or artifacts that constitute the basic evolultionary unit in culture, but minds. Different contexts expose different facets of a mind (much like cutting a fruit at different angles exposes different parts of its interior). Ideas and artifacts are merely how a mind reveals or manifests its current evolutionary state.
Gabora, L. (2008). The cultural evolution of socially situated cognition. Cognitive Systems Research, 9(1-2), 104-113.
Gabora, L. (2004). Ideas are not replicators but minds are. Biology and Philosophy, 19(1), 127-143. [q-bio.PE/0402002] [pdf]
Gabora, L. (1995). Meme and variations: A computer model of cultural evolution. In (L. Nadel & D. Stein, Eds.) 1993 Lectures in Complex Systems. Addison-Wesley, 471-486. [pdf]
[I don't use the word meme any more, but I still think this computer model is a little gem.]
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Probing the similarities and differences between biological and cultural evolution can deepen our understanding of how any sort of evolutionary process could manifest itself. It is becoming evident that the Darwinian paradigm, powerful though it is, does not provide a comprehensive account of even biological processes of change let alone nonbiological processes. There is no reason evolution must be Darwinian or involve selection, except as a special case. Indeed physicists use it to refer to change of state in the absence of a measurement, without implying that selection is involved. It may be that it is only because Darwinian evolution is such an unusual form of evolution that it got so much attention it eventually cornered the word ‘evolution’.
With Diederik Aerts I am working on a general framework for the description and analysis of evolutionary processes. In a nutshell, evolution is viewed as process through which an entity actualizes its potential for change, sometimes through interaction with a context i.e. context-driven actualization of potential, or CAP. Different forms of evolution differ with respect to the degree to which they are sensitive to, internalize, and depend upon a particular context, and whether change of state is deterministic or nondeterministic. The CAP framework has implications for both the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sciences. For example, it suggests that the dynamical evolution of a quantum entity is not fundamentally different from collapse, but rather a change of state for which there is only one way to collapse. By way of enabling cross-disciplinary comparison, it illustrates how unusual Darwinian evolution is, and clarifies in what sense culture is and is not Darwinian. Thus we reach a more general understanding of how something could evolve.
Gabora, L. & Aerts, D. (2007). A cross-disciplinary framework for the description of contextually mediated change. Electronic Journal of Theoretical Physics, 4(15), 1-22. [pdf]
Gabora, L. (2006). Self-other organization: Why early life did not evolve through natural selection. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 241(3), 443-450. [nlin.AO/0512025] [pdf]
Gabora, L. (2005). Creative thought as a non-Darwinian evolutionary process. Journal of Creative Behavior, 39(4), 65-87. [ nlin.AO/0411057] [pdf]
Gabora, L. & Aerts, D. (2005). Evolution as context-driven actualization of potential: Toward an interdisciplinary theory of change of state. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 30(1), 69-88. [q-bio.PE/0511007] [pdf]
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Like many other interdisciplinary types, I am busy writing a book that unites my various theories of everything into a universal theory of meta-everything which, recursively applied, yields an approximate solution to all problems and provides an end to human suffering. A proposal for this book can be found here. And I'm sure you will see how profound my meta theory is when I tell you that to fully explicate it requires not just a scientific book but also a novel.
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Created October 20, 1998. All writing and artwork by Liane Gabora. Do not use without permission.