Motherhood and the Watt Governor

Inspired by Louise Barrett’s brilliant book about ecological psychology, I’ve been thinking about the ways we can model human cognition.  It’s true that the computational metaphor has dominated cognitive psychology, and I’m particularly interested in alternatives because the computation model just seems like a bad fit for maternal psychology.  Characteristics of a computations framework include breaking a cognitive task down into parts and then linking the parts together sequentially.  For example, The Health Belief Model is one of many models of cognition that has discrete cognitive operations linked together in a flow chart.

Today I read van Gelder’s paper from 20 years ago called What Might Cognition Be, If Not Computation? (pdf), where he argues that using the computer as our main metaphor for conceiving human cognition is not essential, and that there are other metaphors we can use.  In particular, he describes a dynamical framework as an alternative to a computational framework for understanding cognition.

In order to explain the difference between computational and dynamical models, van Gelder begins with a description of two different ways of approaching the problem of governing the speed of a steam engine.  Here’s an adaptation of the computational model he put forward:

van Gelder
Computational model for governing the speed of a steam engine.  Adapted from van Gelder (1995)

This is compared with the Watt Governor, the device that was actually used to govern the speed of steam engines in the olden days.  How it works is, the engine is coupled to a fly wheel, which spins faster the faster the engine is going.  The faster the wheel spins, the higher the arms go, and the arms are linked to the throttle valve which controls how much steam is released.  So the higher the arms, the more the steam is blocked and the engine slows down.


Watt Governor


Most notably, the Watt Governor doesn’t need to work out engine speed or do any other calculations.  Also, it’s linked moment to moment with the engine in a way that the computational mechanism is not.  The goal of the Watt Governor is to maintain the train’s speed at a constant rate.  Of course, by goal, I mean the goal of the person who designed the Watt Governor or the person who purchased it and put it on the train.  The Watt Governor itself has no sense of a goal.  Similarly, living things can act towards supposed evolutionary goals without themselves desiring those goals or being aware of them.

Here’s how van Gelder describes the dynamical conception of cognition, which would be based on the Watt-Governor sort of metaphor:

In this vision, the cognitive system is not just the encapsulated brain; rather, since the nervous system, body, and environment are all constantly changing and simultaneously influencing each other, the true cognitive system is a single unified system embracing all three.  The cognitive system does not interact with the body and the external world by means of the occasional status symbolic inputs and outputs; rather, interaction between the inner and outer is best thought of as a matter of coupling, such that both sets of processes [are] continually influencing each other’s direction of change.  At the level at which the mechanisms are best described, cognitive processing is not sequential and cyclic, for all aspects of the cognitive system are undergoing change all the time. (p.373)

mothering in action

Because the regulation is continuous, you can’t watch in a sequential way how the Watt Governor manages the speed of the steam engine once it’s going.  It just settles into a constant speed, which is the point.  Superficially, this seems like a very good metaphor for motherhood, for thinking and doing.  Not getting anything done is a theme that keeps coming up in motherhood discussion (here is a joke about it).  Also, being constantly busy and exhausted without being able to articulate what you’ve been doing.
Last week, someone asked me what my plans were for the rest of the day, and I said to react to my children until it’s time to sleep.  She thought I was joking, and I was, although what I said was at least as true as any other answer I could have given.  I suppose it’s because we’re not supposed to react as mothers.  We’re supposed to respond.  Even though the two words mean basically the same thing.

So what would a Watt-Governor-type system need self-awareness for?



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