16 Neoteny and Social Cognition: A Neuroscientific Perspective on Embodiment
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IV  Embodiment and Its Cultural Significance 16  Neoteny and Social Cognition: A Neuroscientific Perspective on Embodiment Vittorio Gallese The evolution of consciousness can scarcely be matched as a momentous event in the history of life; yet I doubt that its efficient cause required much more than a heterochronic extension of fetal growth rates and patterns of cell proliferation. There may be nothing new under the sun, but permutation of the old within complex systems can do wonders. —Stephen Jay Gould, Ontogeny and Phylogeny In the present chapter I address the notion of embodiment from a neuroscientific perspective , by emphasizing the crucial role played by bodily relations and sociality for the evolution and development of distinctive features of human cognition. To do so, I critically frame the neuroscientific approach and discuss it against the background of the Evo-Devo paradigm , emphasizing the relationship between ontogenesis and evolution. As recently argued by the philosopher Marco Mazzeo (2015), the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould pointed out that humans are neotenic creatures: they retain in adulthood formerly juvenile features, produced by the retardation of somatic development (Gould 1977, 483). By adopting this perspective, some distinctive features of human social cognition can be explained without resorting to prominent deus-ex-machina-like explanations of the apparent human cognitive discontinuity with respect to other nonhuman primates and mammals, such as putative gene mutations triggering the dawning of language (see Pinker 1994, 1997). I argue that neoteny further corroborates the crucial role played by embodiment, here spelled out by adopting the explanatory framework of embodied simulation, in allowing humans to engage in social relations, and make sense of others’ behaviors. I briefly sketch embodied simulation as a new model of social perception and cognition, discussing its supposed neural underpinnings. The neotenic account of human social cognition also helps clarify the different levels of description involved in the relationship between human cognitive traits and their supposed neural underpinnings. I also explain why the neurophysiological level of description can be accounted for in terms of bodily formatted representations and reply to some recent criticisms of this notion. I propose that this approach can fruitfully be used to shed new light onto nonpropositional forms of communication and social understanding 310 V. Gallese and onto distinctive human forms of meaning making. I conclude by showing how neoteny and embodiment can be usefully applied to the study of an important aspect of human social cognition: the experience of man-made fictional worlds. 1  Critical Neuroscience Is the level of description offered by neuroscience necessary and sufficient to provide a thorough and biologically plausible account of the human mind and, for what mostly concerns us here, of intersubjectivity and human social cognition? Let’s face it: the contemporary hype in popular media on the heuristic value of cognitive neuroscience mostly rests on the results of brain imaging techniques, and particularly of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The fMRI technique, though, only indirectly “sees” brain activity, by measuring neurons’ oxygen consumption. Such a measure is also indirect, as it depends on the local difference between oxygenated and deoxygenated hemoglobin. Oxygenated and deoxygenated hemoglobin behave differently within the strong magnetic field created by the big coil inside which participants’ heads are placed. By measuring this functional parameter, local neural activity in terms of different MRI signals can be estimated only indirectly. The fMRI temporal resolution is even worse, since it is in the order of a few seconds, whereas neurons’ action potentials last less than one millisecond. Clearly, fMRI cannot match such temporal resolution because, as we have seen, it measures the delayed and prolonged local hemodynamic response. Furthermore, and most importantly, human brain imaging can provide correlations only between particular brain patterns of activation and particular behaviors or mental states; it is neutral about the possible causal role played by those same brain states to determine behaviors and mental states. All of these limitations have made some researchers adopt a critical stance toward the heuristic value of cognitive neuroscience.1 Such criticisms in their most radical form include claims against the possibility to naturalize consciousness and the mind. Peter Reynert recently wrote: Neuroscience is a variant of naturalism which reduces aspects of consciousness and human existence to brain processes. … The absurdity of naturalism implies that human consciousness and existence are conceptualized with notions and theories that cannot be applied to them, because they do not belong to the ontological region called nature. (Reynert 2016, 54–75) It is beyond the scope and limits of this...