Humans create worlds from concepts


You have no conscious awareness of this but neurons in your motor cortex that control the movement of your hand just increased their firing. Just because you read the word hammer. This also happens when you look at a picture of a hammer.

If you doubt the power of concepts (built from experience and language) in our thinking, try this thought experiment inspired by Lisa Feldman Barrett, author of How Emotions Are Made. Imagine you are eating your favorite bag of potato chips. You put your hand in the bag only to find that you’ve finished them all. You simultaneously feel disappointed they are gone, relieved you won’t be eating any more empty calories, guilty that you ate the whole bag, and yet hungry for more. She just invented a new concept with no description in the English language. It’s called “chiplessness” and you will now always know it when you see it. We are so concept-driven you may even experience an emotion that feels like “chiplessness.”

Barrett notes that we assembled this concept out of concepts we already know—such as “Bag,” “Disappointment,” “Relief,” and “Guilt.” You can teach this concept to others and it becomes a social reality, every bit as real as “happiness.” Once we share a concept, we can use it to make predictions and categorize.

Concepts give us the capacity to imagine how something works and to perceive meaning. We are biased to find meaning. Metaphorical thinking evolved so recently that our ability to distinguish between the literal and the metaphorical is poor. People see faces in clouds and attribute human characteristics to nonhuman objects. In a testimony to our ability to construct reality for ourselves, Cassie Kozyrkov, chief decision scientist at Google, says, “If I sew two buttons onto a sock, I might end up talking to it.”

Great Human Strength: Concepts are natural for humans and once created and shared, are every bit as real as tangible objects, which enables us to share ideas and cooperate on the basis of ideas.

Great Human Weakness: We can fail to differentiate between metaphorical ideas and an accurate reality.

Machine Opportunity: Designs that help us create and share concepts. Designs that allow us to develop an intuition for the concepts that machines might bring.

Machine Threat: Designs that erode the fidelity of how humans share conceptual ideas.