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?

Are private goals useful?

The other day, my sandal broke and I put on sports shoes and walked through the park, and I found myself on a gravel running track in sports gear and the next thing I knew, I was going for a run.  For the first time in years.  Afterwards, I was sweaty and pleased.  I thought, oh, I’m a runner now.  I’m going to be like those running, fit women!  But I got my sandal fixed and two weeks passed without me running again.  Why?

Of course, I’d thought about running before that, but I think we all consider doing what we see other people doing.  Maybe because mirror neurons?  We imagine what it would be like to ride motorbikes, drive ambulances to emergencies, walk hand in hand with someone, and we imagine doing stuff we see often – such as running – more than other stuff.   And everyone in the world knows about losing weight and getting fit

If I had really come up with the goal of losing weight and getting fit though, why would I have chosen to run?  Why not skip or side shuffle?  Those other actions never crossed my mind.  The action that came to me automatically was the one I’d seen other people do, and above all, other women my age, in that sort of location, in that sort of outfit.  The goal of running, the conscious intent to run came after the action of running.  The pieces were in place to construct a goal-directed narrative: I’d considered running in a general and idle way, I felt that I should do more exercise and get fit [therefore] I went running, and I was pleased afterwards.  It was an easy story to construct, one about goals and action, but it wasn’t true.

I think the key element was the broken sandal and the sports shoes.  I’m not sure why, because I normally wear comfortable street shoes which would be perfectly adequate for running.  I could easily have run in them, except that I didn’t, which makes me wonder about affordances (here is a pdf file of Chemero’s paper on affordances if you’re interested).  I’d walked down that path scores of times in street shoes and comfortable outfits.  Why did I need sports shoes to run?

Now I’ve rejected the goal narrative, I go running (walking/running/hobbling anyway) regularly. I turn up to linear parks and swimming pools in appropriately sporty outfits and see what happens.  What happens is that I do exercise. It’s psychologically easy.  Whereas if I try to think in terms of goals of exercise and losing weight and planning it never really works in any kind of sustainable way.  It’s too early to say for sure, but so far it seems that the key to doing exercise, for me at least, is to deliberately avoid the goal of exercising.

This experience has made me wonder if our narratives of goal-directed action are ever real, or if they’re constructed post hoc.  Maybe only externally imposed goals make sense, such as goals at work, or goals related to other people.  Maybe that’s why people have personal trainers and running buddies.  Tomasello, Carpenter and Beyne argued that:

the crucial difference between human cognition and that of other species is the ability to participate with others in collaborative activities with shared goals and intentions: shared intentionality.

If shared goals are such a crucial evolutionary change, then maybe goals are for coordination with others.  They’re a social event.  Maybe we don’t need goals for our own private actions.


What does flow have to do with parenting?

Here’s what you need to achieve Flow, according to Csikszentmihalyi:

  1. a situation where you can concentrate properly on a few limited things
  2. you can use your skills to meet clear demands
  3. you can forget your day-to-day problems
  4. you can forget your own separate identity
  5. you obtain a feeling of control over your environment
  6. you may achieve “a transcendence of ego boundaries and consequent psychic integration with metapersonal systems”.

I don’t know what 6 means, but my assessment is that 1-5 are impossible for mothers of small children.  Personally, I can only achieve these requirements by leaving the house and my children and going to do something else entirely.

The concept of flow annoys me (and not because Csikszentmihalyi has two sons whose care probably interrupted the flow of someone other than him on a day-to-day basis when they were small because, after all, I don’t know anything about his personal life).  It’s the reverence with which it’s described.  Flow is characteristically present in play, in artistic and religious activities.  It’s almost as if there is something moral about achieving flow in your life.  Czikszentmihalyi writes, “when an activity involves the person completely with its demands for action, “selfish” considerations become irrelevant.”

So, for example, my friend who is at home with her three small children is not achieving flow unlike her husband who is playing golf right now.  He only needs to concentrate on the position of the ball, the slope of the ground.  He has a feeling of complete control as he selects a club and lines up to perform his well-practiced swing.  He is one with the club, with the sky, with the whole world.  His day-to-day problems (such as the mushed up weetbix on the floor, the broken dishwasher, the pile of laundry, his daughter’s failure to crawl) are far from his mind.  It’s almost a religious experience or, as Csikszentmihalyi puts it, “a loss of ego”.

It reminds me of the time I did a meditation retreat in Thailand.  There, Buddhist monks and other trainees work towards mental detachment through meditation.  The practice is supported by lay women who do most of the shopping and cooking.

The other reason I don’t like flow is because it’s supposed to exist when the task requirements meet your optimal level of capability.  If a situation is too hard and overwhelming, you can’t achieve flow because you’re too stressed.  If a situation is too easy, it’s too boring to achieve flow.  But motherhood is both overwhelming and stressful AND boring.  All at once.



The reason I was reading about flow in the first place was because of this idea of it being autotelic, which means done for its own sake, without extrinsic goals.  Rock climbing is autotelic because climbers are not really motivated to reach the top of the mountain (in many cases they could just drive up there or walk an easier way), but are climbing for the joy of it.  Art is all about process, not outcome.  Similarly, I don’t think we are looking after our children in order to produce adequate adults some day, although no doubt we could produce an answer like that when pressed.  We’re doing it for the joy of it.  Except that, of course, when it’s not joyful we still do it.

Parenting is goalless (?), but parenting is the opposite of flow as described by Csikszentmihalyi.  Sometimes people talk about the joys of parenting, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to conclude that parenting is a joy-based choice in the same way that rock-climbing is.