I probably first heard David Eagleman talking on Radiolab and, following that, added his book ‘David Eagleman – Incognito’ to my list of books-to-be-read. I finally managed to get there, a mere 4 years after he first published the book.

What was interesting in Eagleman’s ideas is his argument (based in research) that it is better to think about the brain as a conglomerate of rival functions rather than as a single, coherent whole. So, think about Kahneman’s slow, rational vs quick, emotional problem solving. (Reyna’s verbatim vs gist decision making functions would also fit here, though Eagleman doesn’t mention this.) Both of these functions are operating in our heads and in each situation one or other of the rivals wins out and that determines our response to the situation. There may not be just 2 rival functions at play, this was just an example. Out of this flow a number of helpful insights.

As I’ve been reading Psychology, I’ve come across a number of arguments between different groups of academics, each supporting some different position on some aspect of cognition. So there are at least 2 positions regarding object cognitions in early infancy; 3 broad positions regarding visuo-spatial short-term memory ad infinitum. Sometimes the groups just throw evidence at each other, sometimes they just seem to speak different languages and ignore each other. In either case, there is an impasse. Eagleman argues that the rival functions theory offers a way around these impasses. He argues that each function is a solution to a problem that has been created through evolutionary processes; furthermore, mutations don’t stop occurring just because a good solution has developed so the brain may contain many different solutions to a given problem. Hence different positions in an argument may all be correct. There may be some evolutionary built-in object cognition modules and there may also be powerful domain-general learning mechanisms that allow infants to rapidly learn about objects in their environments.

The rival functions theory also has something to say about ‘cognitive reserve’, an issue relevant when thinking about an individual’s resilience in the face of the cognitive slights of dementia. Since the rival functions theory posits the possibility of many different but overlapping functions it addresses how, through a rich and varied life we can be strengthening these different functions. Then as one function is impaired because of damage to the brain, other functions can take over that role and the person as a whole can continue to function.

One of the things that Eagleman is arguing against is the idea that the neural basis of ‘the self’ resides in some single location within the brain. Rather he wants to argue that the self emerges out of the rivalry of the different functions and their resolution. He suggests that consciousness, whatever it is, is a means for resolving difficult situations where rival functions are in conflict but cannot be resolved. One example he gives is of a male stickleback’s responses when a female stickleback enters his territory. The male is observed to oscillate between the fight/defend territory response and the mate with female response. Consciousness allows us to deal with this in a more adaptive way. The temptation is to think that this is where the self is but he is resistant to this idea. When pressed about it on Radiolab, he asserted that there was no central judge or resolver that presided over the rival functions but skirted around the issue of how rivalry is resolved. Towards the end of the book, it becomes clearer that he think this is an issue that has yet to be sorted out. He is committed to a materialist (but not reductionist) answer that sees a role for culture, society etc..

What the rival functions theory opens up, for me, is the idea that there are many possible responses to a situation. Each function offers a different way of responding and the context plays a role in deciding which function gains the upper hand and shapes the person’s behaviour. So, when thinking about object handling, this would suggest that there is not a single, cognitive solution to the problem of ‘this person is handing me a weird thing to hold’ but a menu of responses. It is an integrative approach, so that rather than saying well it could draw on autobiographical memory or it could draw on more critical/creative responses, the rival functions approach say that both of those are always latent. The challenge then becomes one of discovering the menu of possibilities and the factors that lead us to choose particular options in particular situations.


About Bruce Davenport

Research associate at Newcastle University. Previously a museum educator and researcher.
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1 Response to Rivals

  1. Pingback: Not so contemporary after all | holding the moment of holding

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