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11 November 2022 - 11 November 2022

2:00PM - 4:00PM

Seminar Room, Institute of Advanced Study, Cosin's Hall, Palace Green

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The aim of this workshop series, with four workshops in total, is to lay the foundations for a larger interdisciplinary project or series of projects.

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Syntactical structures and the evolution of mind and culture

Led by Professor Rob Barton (Anthropology) and Dr Zanna Clay (Psychology), their hypothesis is that the capacity for the complex serial ordering of behaviour, whether in tool construction, grammar, narrative, music or the management of social interactions, is a key attribute of the human species.  The hypothesis implies that syntactical structure is found not only in language but infuses all human activity. Thus, for example, the syntactical features of sentences may be echoed in the formal structure of literary narratives. Whatever it is that permits humans to comprehend and execute syntactically organised actions must have enhanced social learning and provided the cognitive preconditions for the essentially limitless efflorescence of human cultural forms... Ultimately, our broader aims are to develop new research directions in cognitive science, comparative psychology and cultural evolution, using the study of syntactical structure as an interdisciplinary model system. They are particularly interested in how evolutionary perspectives and notions of embodiment and ‘neural re-use’ can inform ontological considerations, and in building bridges between scientific and humanities approaches to deepen understanding of the role and nature of syntactical and narrative structures.

This workshop will be preceded by a buffet lunch in the IAS Common Room, 1.00-2.00pm.

To attend please register and email, and copy no later than 01 November, and please state whether you would like to join for lunch (and any dietary requirements).

Additional Information

Preliminary reading is provided below for this workshop (and future workshops), as well as some further reading, time permitting. The selection does not cover the full breadth of the topic, and ultimately the convenors would like to be guided by participants on further literature to inform the development of the larger project.

Friday 11th November, 2-4pm:  Workshop 2:  Cognitive Foundations

Asano et al (2022) Moving beyond domain-specific versus domain general options in cognitive neuroscience. Cortex 154, 259-268 link

  • Proposes a solution to the debate about whether cognitive processes are domain-general or -specific, focusing on mechanisms of syntactical thought and their role in language and music

Barrett, L (2018) The Evolution of Cognition: A 4E Perspective. in Newen A et al (eds) The Oxford Handbook of 4E Cognition. link

  • Outlines the implications of 4e (embodied, enactive, embedded, extended) cognition for understanding non-human minds and cognitive evolution

Tuesday 15th November, 2-4pm: Workshop 3Syntactical structures at different levels of organization in literature, music and other cultural domains

Fitch & Martins (2014) Hierarchical processing in music, language, and action:

Lashley revisited. Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. ISSN 0077-8923 link

  • Updates Lashley’s arguments and relates them to contemporary cognitive neuroscience

McNeill LD (1996) Homo inventans: the evolution of narrativity. Language & Communication, 16, No. 4, pp. 331 360, link

  • Explores parallels between and common processes underlying tool use, language, stories and more


Friday 18th November, 3-5pm (followed by a social/drinks): Workshop 4:  Cultural evolution, and overview, draft IAS Major project application, list potential Visiting Fellows; scope/outline collaborative target article on ontology in comparative psychology

Heyes C (2020) Psychological Mechanisms Forged by Cultural Evolution. Current Directions in Psychological Science 29, 399-404. link

  • Builds on Heye’s ideas about how mechanisms of cultural transmission are themselves built by culture, and arguing for domain-general sequence-learning as a specific building block

Additional references

Ontology & comparative cognitive neuroscience if sequence processing:

Pessoa L et al (2021) Refocusing neuroscience: moving away from mental categories and towards complex behaviours. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 377: 20200534. Link

- suggest reading Sections 1-3 which argue we have got our ontology all wrong! (the rest of the paper gets deeper into neuroscience)

Fitch & Hauser (2004) Computational Constraints on Syntactic Processing in a Nonhuman Primate. Science 303, 377-380. Link

Asano R and Boeckx C (2015) Syntax in language and music: what is the right level of comparison? Front. Psychol. 6:942 doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00942

Barton RA, Venditti C. (2014) Rapid evolution of the cerebellum in humans and other great apes. Curr Biol. 20;24(20):2440-4. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2014.08.056. Link 

Cultural evolution & sequence learning

Brand CO, Mesoudi A, Smaldino PE. (2021) Analogy as a Catalyst for Cumulative Cultural Evolution. Trends Cogn Sci. 2021 Jun;25(6):450-461. link

  • Addresses cognitive mechanisms of cultural evolution: the headline is about analogy but the core is about sequence encoding


Moshe Simon-Shoshan (2012) Stories, Narratives, and Narrativity. In Simon-Shoshan, Stories of the Law: Narrative Discourse and the Construction of Authority in the Mishnah. OUP 

Loewenstein, J., & Heath, C. (2009). The repetition-break plot structure: A cognitive influence on selection in the marketplace of ideas. Cognitive Science, 33(1), 1–19.  

Oatley, K. 2016. Fiction: Simulation of Social Worlds. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 20 , 8 , 618 -628

Carrithers M (2010) Stories in the social and mental life of people. In Goody EN (ed) Social Intelligence and Interaction: Expressions and implications of the social bias in human intelligence. CUP link