Jerome Kagan
Surprise, Uncertainty and Mental Structures
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002, 259 pp., £20.50, ISBN 0-674-00735-2 (hbk).

Jerome Kagan's avowed purpose in this essay is ‘to urge colleagues in the social and behavioral sciences to pay more attention to unfamiliarity and to the different consequences of engaging schemata or semantic structures’ (p. 7). Structure is the central concept: Kagan argues for a modular (in contrast to a holistic or ‘amodal’) theory of mentality, i.e. that psychological functions (actions, memories, feelings, perceptions etc.) can only be explained in terms of various and distinct structures which ‘permit these functions to be actualized’ (17). These structures (also referred to as ‘forms’, ‘patterns’ or ‘configurations’) cannot be defined or described in biological terms—that is, they do not map onto brain anatomy. Whether they might be described in terms of neural dynamics is a question that Kagan does not address, though he mentions (without comment) in an endnote Esther Thelen's suggestion ‘that all psychological events are processes and there are no structures’ (220).

Among structures, the crucial distinction for Kagan is between ‘semantic structures’, which are inseparable from language, and ‘schemata’, which have developmental and epistemological priority. A ‘schema’ (which may be ‘perceptual’, ‘visceral’ or ‘sensorimotor’) is ‘a representation of an event … which retains, to varying degrees, the patterned features of the event’ (27). Semantic structures on the other hand have at best a derived relationship to empirical reality. Kagan has little to say about how the semantic is informed by schemata, a subject dealt with elsewhere by Mark Johnson and cognitive linguistics. While recognizing that ‘schemata and semantic forms are usually combined as the mind does its work’ (3), Kagan is more concerned with contrasting the ‘consequences of engaging’ the two forms. His analysis of texts and concepts is mostly in terms of the degree to which they are ‘rich in schemata’, and the gist of it is that the more abstract the language, the less it is grounded in reality.

Kagan's investigation is firmly within the conventional stimulus-response framework of empirical psychology, but he emphasizes that responses depend as much on context and on qualities of the responding mind as they do on the stimulus (also called ‘event’ or ‘incentive’). His urging of colleagues ‘to pay more attention to unfamiliarity’ aligns with this emphasis: ‘the concepts “discrepant,” “unfamiliar,” “novel” and “unexpected” are defined by a relation between a brain/mind an an event and are not inherent in the event’ (16). He relates this to structures by distinguishing between ‘surprise’ and ‘uncertainty’ as responses to schematic and semantic discrepancies respectively (4). The focus on discrepancy also serves as central theme of his chapter on ERP (event-related potential), an application of EEG technology: ‘the amplifiers that permit measurement of synchronized neural activity to a stimulus have revealed facts that illuminate how the brain reacts to discrepant events’ (95).

Kagan's theoretical thrust, however, is not so much constructive as deconstructive. His chapter on developmental psychology (his home field) is devoted mostly to scolding unnamed colleagues for misinterpreting data and attributing to infants conceptual knowledge which is beyond their capacity, since ‘infants do not have semantic structures’ (3). Other chapters extend his critique of ‘the seductive power of overextended semantic representations’ (80) to other fields such as neuroscience and sociology. In short, he accuses almost everyone of generalizing too much and relying too much on book-learning and politically correct theorizing. This message is filtered through Kagan's somewhat elliptical style and his use of jargon: ‘the appeal of theoretical arguments in the social sciences and humanities too often rests on consistency among semantic networks that have ethical connotations that are not rich in empirical support’ (68). Presumably this kind of language will be transparent to Kagan's ‘colleagues’, who will also recognize the targets of his attacks. Other readers may not, since Kagan never cites sources for those targets, documenting only the sources of empirical data which serve as his ammunition.

It is good to be reminded that data can be interpreted in more than one way, and some of Kagan's interpretations with reference to brain functioning may prove fruitful, such as his proposal that ‘the amygdala reacts to the unpredictability of an event, not always to its aversive quality’ (77). But his own theorizing often seems ‘overextended’ when he ventures into social and literary criticism, as he does especially in the final chapter, a miscellany entitled ‘implications for creativity and personality’. Much of this is based on his principle of optimal discrepancy: people respond most favorably to texts (including theories) when they ‘transform the less essential, rather than the most essential, features of the mental structures possessed by the community’ (159). His readers will have to judge for themselves whether this theory and Kagan’s applications are ‘optimally discrepant’ or not.

Gary Fuhrman

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