Mutual Interests, Different Lenses: Current Neuroscience and Symbolic Interaction*

David D. Franks

As reflective thinkers, symbolic interactionists may well be curious about the organ by which we think. Leading neuroscientists are quite aware that a working brain depends on other brains. Considered below are selected neuroscience approaches to topics traditionally addressed by symbolic interactionists including some confirmations, refinements and challenges from current neuroscience. Confirmations support features of Mead’s “objective reality of perspectives” and a relational epistemology, the inevitability of ad hoc “accounts”, self-consciousness as behavioral control and “self unity” as constantly recreated illusion. Divergence between neuroscience and symbolic interaction mainly involves new evidence for the importance of unconscious cognition, emotion and memory in shaping human behavior. The rooting of cognitive and perceptual processes in motor activity challenges the extremes of the “linguistic turn”. Refinement involves reasons for attending to the embodied salience of thoughts produced by “somatic markers” rather than mere content.

Symbolic interactionism has long struggled with an apparent contradiction.  Its focus is on the extrasensory symbol, yet it is a secular field devoted to demystifying its subject matter.  Thus, intangible mentality must arise out of tangible, bodily processes. Mead placed the precondition for symbolic communication in the physical gesture, but on and off for 40 years we have heard calls for a more satisfactory embodiment for our “airy” subject matter.  One candidate, bio-sociology, was so inadequate that it only served to discourage the further search for a theoretical grounding in our “preobjective” corporeal existence. This article presents contributions of the more socially oriented writers in neuroscience to the material grounding of our “illusive”, interpretative field.

A socially informed neuroscience is also relevant to symbolic interaction because the latter has always reflected an interest in the process of knowing per se. How we know every-day things is essentially what social constructionism, so intertwined with symbolic interaction, is about.  If part of our task as scholars is to be aware of the processes we bring to our production of knowledge, an interest in neuroscience is more than warranted. If we know with our brains (no one is saying with our brains alone), persons of knowledge should know about the brain.

There is at least one other justification for attention to the brain. In 1985 Gazzaniga published The Social Nature of the Brain arguing for its dependence on culturally variable language.  While some sociologists thought he could have gone further into the social, Leslie Brothers (1997) did so in Fridays Footprints: How Society Shapes the Human Mind. At times this volume reads like a Symbolic Interactionist approach to neuroscience. Herein the material brain may be a tangible biological organ but a working brain is a social and environmental product. [1] In these books and others, symbolic interactionists can often find conclusions from a very different narrative that suggest support for our own stories allowing us to argue more forcefully than ever for the social nature of persons. For example, the writings on aphasia by early neuroscientists Henry Head (1926), Kurt Goldstein (1948) and Luria (1966 ) were long ago seen by Lindesmith and Struass  (1969) as areas of “extraordinary interest and relevance” because of the striking evidence they provided for the influence of language to all things human.

Since the methods and mind-frames of neuroscience and symbolic Interaction are so diverse, convergent validity on basic social behaviorist tenets should not go unnoticed. As Lakoff and Johnson (1999: 476-7) argue, evidence produced by different methods and interests help our frameworks from being merely another arbitrary narrative. It also minimizes the possibility that results will be predetermined.

Considered below are confirmations of the symbolic interaction view of motive statements, the neuroscience basis for constructionism, evidence for unconscious emotions, and neuroscience views of the self as process or the lack thereof in autism and anosognosia. The importance of embodied motor activity to higher cortical functioning is stressed and the implications of this for social constructionism are discussed. This article also deals with Damasio’s (1994) classic argument that embodiment is necessary for reasoning defined as effective decision-making. Finally, I note some implications of Damasio’s “somatic markers” for a refinement of our view of mentality. 

The Neurological Basis for Constructionism

Mead’s argument about the social and revisionist aspect of perception and memory once received as extraordinary is now axiomatic in all varieties of social psychology as it is in neuroscience. Nonetheless, there has always been contention over the degree to which we “read things into” the world that are not otherwise there, and the degree to which we “read things out from” the world that are there. Over-emphasis on the “read in” side gives short shrift to reality and objective constraint. Over-emphasis on the “read out from” side leads to a dangerously reductionistic “essentialism” that makes a thorough-going sociology impossible. [2]    

Physics and biology form such an important backdrop to the neurological underpinnings of constructionism that a brief summary of their contribution seems appropriate. [3] The vast majority of potential stimuli in the world can not be processed by our limited senses. According to Buckminister Fuller in Christian (1977), what man can hear, smell, touch, and taste is less than a millionth of reality.

Furthermore our senses are transducers. These two fundamental observations relegate absolute realism or “correspondence theory” to the dust heap of intellectual history. (See Lakoff and Johnson 1999.) This is because our biological transducers change environmental information into physiological processes that can be received by the organism and processed into something humanly meaningful. [4] What do our senses change or reconstruct?  Sight renders different wavelengths and/or frequencies on the cosmic electromagnetic spectrum into subjective sensations.  These “translations” include our experience of the primary colors, red, blue and yellow, and their mixtures.  Our sensory experience of colors is wildly different from the energy impinging on the retina.  Arendt (1958: 236) quotes Eddington to the effect that whatever we perceive, is as different from the incoming data as “a telephone number is to its subscriber.”  To think that a color is inherent in an object is to confuse particular human experience with the “scientific” stimulus object and is thus referred to as the “stimulus error”. Our langu! age comm its this error constantly, i.e. “That banana is yellow”. 

The tree falling in the forest certainly makes compressions in the surrounding air, but without some ear to change these compressions into something totally different called sound it is not yet noise.

The brain-created dimension of color-as–perceived is especially evident when one considers that the electrical spikes which the different perceptors send into the brain are all the same but are changed into various sensations depending on the brain area they go to. The brain then provides the biologically given experience and relational realities that culture and languages organize and edit. Both biological and social levels are constructions and both act on each other.

The second reason “correspondence theory” falls involves the inadequacy of the senses to handle all that is transmitted to them. The brain must disregard vast portions of impinging perceptual data. Each sense is an extreme simplification, a huge abstraction. Each eye has 100 million light-sensing cells, but only 1 million fibers leading to the brain proper. Each incoming image must be reduced by a factor of 100. Thus, neural abstraction  characterizes the whole physiological brain and the simplification involving linguistic categorization has not entered the picture. Rather than responding to each microscopic flash, the eye seeks a gestalt or a pattern of the “shape of things”. Our brains are even quite gifted at creating patterns where patterns do not exist (Gazzaniga 1985).

Harth (1993: 65), among many neuroscientists, adds detail to the highly transformative part of the neurological aspects of perception. The lateral geniculate nucleus (LGN) contributes significantly to the “read in” aspect of the visual process.  Its modifications are at the behest of higher cognitive centers and therefore inject information not contained in the primary images received from the retina.  Harth conceives of the brain as comprised of thick bundles of neurons going up from the motor regions and down from the cortex. Fluctuations in signals from these feedback loops are amplified selectively so those features not present at the input may be generated in a bootstrap fashion.  (See also de Sousa 1987:235-64.)  Thus, Harth calls the LGN a sketchpad on which the cortex expresses its “fancy” by drawing and erasing.

Transactional Limits in Social Construction

Within this brain-given contribution to experience, the joint relation between organism and environment must nonetheless be retained. Avoiding the problems of dualistic thinking too often is attempted by denying the existence or importance of one side. In this case, the environment must be seen as a peculiarly human one emerging from the “read in” processes of the brain and the “read out from” aspect of experience that happens independent of our will, e.g. being knocked off our feet by what we interpret as lightening. However the pure sensation may be interpreted, the force is there.  The transactional rule is that we must cancel the antithetical opposition of the contrasts while retaining the possibility of tension between the sides. (Lyng and Franks 2002; Wrong 1961).

Contrasts such as self and society, “knowings and the known”, mind and body, must be seen as interlocking relation (Emirbayer 1997), but both sides must be retained in this fusion. This is what transaction as the meta-method of pragmatism means (Swanson 1989). Most of my readings in neuroscience make such assumptions. As for the above-mentioned transactional balance wherein organism and environment are in reciprocal relation, Harth writes:

We may think of what goes on in the LGN as a competition between the reality that is conveyed from the eyes and the fancy that comes down from the cortex. In the normal alert brain, reality will have a powerful restraining influence on fancy (1993: 68).

Separated lovers, preoccupied with each other’s image, and yet so dissatisfied until they can literally perceive each other again, have at least operant, if not conscious, knowledge of the differences between perception and conception. [5]

In the context of the above, Mead (1932) saw the worlds transactionally in terms of  “the objective reality of perspectives”. Here the perspective is physical rather than symbolic and is carved out of the world by two interlocking aspects: what the animal brings to the environment in terms of sensory transducers and what the environment offers in terms of stimuli that can be successfully “transduced”. This “transactional slab” is objectively “there in nature” and while relational, it has a determinate character that can hardly be seen as relative in an arbitrary sense. 

“The objective reality of perspectives” places limits on social constructionism. A purely constructionist view of color as determined totally by linguistic categories would fly in the face of all of neuroscience and physiology.  The significance of certain color gradients- which ones we are taught to attend and which ones we are taught to ignore - is certainly a matter of culture. Once so selected, their meanings and associations will be also culturally constructed. Nonetheless, persons can be readily taught to discriminate colors that their linguistic categories gloss over. With all due appreciation for the awesome power of linguistic interpretations, it would be a daunting task indeed to demonstrate how color per se is created solely by words. Color is a matter of the determinate relation of our biology, our symbolic classifications and the world.

In sum, Mead, like most neuroscientists today, was interested in breaking down the reified separation between the organism and its environment.  Looking backward, this part of Mead’s project can be seen as preliminary to a realistic social constructionism, and his transactional framework is most consistent with current neuroscience’s battle against Cartesian dualisms. (See especially Damasio 1994, Brothers 1997 and LeDoux 1996).

The Return of The Unconscious

One of the early strengths of symbolic interaction was that it offered a unique theory of voluntaristic self-control of behavior. Here, actors “pulled” themselves through lines of action by their own anticipated consummations rather than being “pushed” by the past forces of conditioning and the unconscious. In the post World War II years it is not surprising that symbolic interaction was a stringent voice against Freud’s early versions of the tensions between the id and the super ego, both of which were unconscious and reduced the self to their passive pawn. The unconscious in this fanciful overlay was legitimately cast aside by interactionists because of its dubious validity and also because it was antithetical to their model of agency. Recently, control over our understandings of the unconscious has passed from the waning profession of psychoanalysis into the hands of cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists. Under their watch the unconscious has been disentangled from Freud’s mythical overlay and the evidence they have accumulated for the importance of unconscious processes in any adequate explanation of human behavior is substantial if not overwhelming. While these processes cannot be the focus of what is distinctive to the symbolic interactionist paradigm, they nevertheless decisively shape our consciousness and more than warrant our interest simply as students of human behavior. 

At least two meanings of the unconscious are often conflated.  One is relatively unproblematic and is often the very theme that informs our own research. For example, Katz (1999:7) makes significant use of the Meadian tradition when he asks, “ What is it that, being itself invisible, is responsible for all that is visible?” Sociology is replete with examples of inquiries into the hidden background processes making covert interaction possible (Franks 2002).  We have little difficulty with social processes below awareness such as “assumptive orders”, “tacit knowledge” or even the “non-contractual element of contract”.

Such background processes also dominate our brains. According to Gazzaniga (1989a) and Lakoff and Johnson (1999), more than 95% of what the brain does is below awareness and this shapes and structures conscious thought. Much of this percentage includes perceptual operations and  amounts almost to a truism. When we see an interesting object we are hardly aware of the complex neuronal processes enabling this sight. Students of language acquisition are all familiar with the fact that children use rules of grammar long before they are made aware of these rules in grade school.  Such processes shaping behavior on the implicit, “operant” or “procedural level” are not new to symbolic interaction.

The unconscious that many still ignore, and some may have difficulty with, has to do with specific emotions, thoughts and memories that influence overt behavior and are not autonomic products of routine perceptual processes. For example starting as early as 1889 unconscious memory has been reported in amnesic patients (Reber 1993). On more than several occasions patients who had been shocked or even pin-pricked by their doctors shied away from them accusingly upon later encounters even though they could not remember the original abuses. For a less disconcerting example from current neuroscience, Demasio’s (1999:44-5) patient David had lost all conscious memory largely because of trauma to his hyppocampus and amygdala.  A working hyppocampus is necessary for remembering new facts. Damasio noted that over time David, who could never remember who his concurrent acquaintances were, nevertheless made clear and consistent choices about those with whom he interacted.

 To explore this further David was placed in situations with three different kinds of accomplices. One was pleasant, one neutral and the other abrasive. Afterwards he was shown four photos including those of the accomplices. He was then asked who was his friend and which one he would go to for help. Though he recognized none of them, he overwhelmingly chose the previously pleasant accomplice. Damasio concludes that despite David’s lack of conscious memory, his brain could generate actions commensurate with the original encounters and their resulting emotions. Oliver Sacks (1995) gives other similar examples and references A.R. Luria (1976), who reports that all his amnesiac patients hospitalized over any significant time acquired some kind of “familiarity” with their surroundings. [6]   We find similar examples of unconscious perceptions in patients who cannot see or hear.

On the cultural level, Lakoff and Johnson (1980; 1999) point to the importance of taken for granted metaphors that are the “hidden hand” determining what makes common sense to us. There is an importance difference however in the unconscious that results from the autonomic  workings of our brains, other social routines that have become taken for granted, and specific unconscious involved in ego defenses. Here we have entered into findings produced by social psychologists such as Banaji  (2002) on the implicit learning of discriminating tendencies and stereotyping, but here we stray from neuroscience proper. Suffice it to say that symbolic interactionsists are no longer warranted in rejecting the unconscious because of its Freudian associations or because it categorically takes agency away from the self. For Gibbs and Berg (2002:100) “brains are not the underlying causal agents for … experience. Mental imagery arises from the neural and somatic activity that is understood by ongoing actions of the whole person.”

Split-Brain Research

Neuroscientists Gazzaniga and Smylie (1984), leaders in split-brain research, give us  demystified, data-driven insights into our tendencies to act first and give explanations to ourselves and others later. Elsewhere (Franks 1999) I have described the relevancy of this work to early symbolic interaction approaches to the problem of motivation and the resulting theory of accounts. This research is described in Gazzaniga’s The Social Brain (1985) and up-dated and qualified in Gazzaniga (1998b). By no means should this work be associated with the over- simplified distinctions between the brain hemispheres in the more popular media. The effects of separating the two halves of the brain became known when Gazzaniga severed a patient’s corpus callosum in order to minimize extreme cases of epilepsy.  The corpus callosum is a “massive cable of some 200 million fibers enabling the fully linguistic left brain ( in right handed people) to know what the relatively nonlinguistic right brain is doing.  The largely mute right brain communicates to the left via electrochemical means.  Normally, the brain hemispheres inform each other and coordinate via the corpus callosum.  There are other areas where such coordination takes place but these areas are minor (Gazzaniga 1998b:51).

Sensory messages generally go to the opposite side of the brain from which they are received.  In vision the left half of the observed field (as seen by both eyes) is sent to the right brain.  Because the linguistic left brain in right handed people enables consciousness, the left hemisphere is considered dominant and plays the executive role in coordinating the many mute modular parts of the right brain. Modules of the right brain handle very specific tasks. The ability to identify faces and expression, locate ourselves in space, order things temporally, move and see color are produced by modules. Therefore they all have their different memories, wills and  “interests”.  When the parts of the right brain enabling these perceptions are injured, these capacities are lost.

While the right brain could respond to the experimenter’s instructions, without the intact corpus collosum it could not communicate them electronically back to the left brain. Researchers could send picture-images to the right brain, or even instruct it to do something, without the conscious linguistic left brain’s knowledge.  The researchers and patients would watch in the same amazement as the patients’ hands “obeyed orders” to draw a certain object totally independent of the patient’s conscious intentions to do so.

The conclusion confirming accounts (Scott and Lyman 1968) from these studies is that patients make up their own plausible explanations of their behavior when the researchers alone are privy to the actual cause. For example, the patient’s right brain was commanded to walk out of the room. When asked why they were leaving they quickly responded with a reason like they were going to get a coke.  No doubt, they continued to do just that. When the right brain was asked to laugh the laughing patients never said they did not know why. A reason was always forthcoming (Gazzaniga 1992:126).

The spit brain studies challenge the notion that human action is generated by a single rational process and that consciousness is a unitary experience. Diverse modules produce behaviors, mood changes and cognitive activity outside of the realm of conscious awareness. They must be organized into culturally defined sensibility by the left hemisphere’s “interpreter” module. This executive process seeks and creates “meaningful” patterns in these diverse sources of internal tendencies whether they are there or not. Gazzaniga’s view of the brain is social primarily because of the interpreter’s dependence on language and belief. Below we will consider other reasons why neuroscientists view the brain as a social organ.  

Neuroscience, the Intersubjective, and Self as Process

The concept of role taking breaks down the dualism between the individual and society by combining self control and social control into one process. It is also symbolic interaction’s answer to intersubjectivity and how self-consciousness develops.  Role taking is the capacity to call out in one’s self  the same, or similar, response that one’s oncoming gesture may call out in the other.  We then use this anticipated response of the other to guide and control our further line of action. 

Multiple Meanings of Self

In this context self refers to the episodic act of conscious control over oncoming behavior.  We are not aware of our whole, unitary person but of our very limited emerging behavior of the moment. This separates the situated and processual “selfing” arising in role taking from the enduring, continuous character of the western conception of personality

Inevitably, many sociologists confuse our culturally construed notion of the person with the role taking self of generic transcultural  process.  They then talk of “selfless” societies that do not share our notion of the unique, separate person.  Strictly speaking, the self of Mead’s social behaviorism had little to do with particular cultural constructs of self.  Presumably, all Hominids have the capacity to take some perspective on their actions.  In this limited sense all societies have “selves” involved in role taking.

When scholars insist there is no self, they often mean that the self is an illusion in the sense that its apparent unity and continuity are personally constructed out of cultural meanings.  Some neuroscientists say it is recreated at each moment of reflexive consciousness (as is memory).  Here, Gazzaniga’s words are worth quoting in full,

The mind is the last to know things.  After the brain computes an event, the illusory “we” (that is, the mind) becomes aware of it.  The brain, particularly the left hemisphere, is built to interpret data the brain has already processed…The interpreter, the last device in the information chain in our brain, reconstructs the brain events and in doing so makes telling errors of perception, memory, and judgment.  The clue to how we are built is buried not just in our marvelously robust capacity for these functions, but also in the errors that are frequently made during reconstruction.  Biography is fiction.  Autobiography is hopelessly inventive. (1998: 1-2).

This is quite consistent with constructionism and symbolic interaction.  However, regardless of the fabricated nature of  culturally variable theories of persons, normal human behavior would be inconceivable without the very flexible capacity of individuals to be what we term “self-aware” of their behavior at critical times.  Thus, to say that self is an illusion is not the end of the story.  The self that is an illusion is the self as autbiographical and as  culturally produced object rather than the generic self control involved in role taking. Gazzaniga is not denying such a process. It is an absolutely crucial part of the operations allowing us to interact with others and to incorporate their subjectivities into our own.

A growing number of neuroscientists are breathing fresh life into their own notion of self as process. This is reflected in the title of the neuroscience conference sponsored by the New York Academy of Sciences in the Fall of 2002 entitled “The Self: from Soul to Brain.”  Brothers and Damasio, for example, are interested in cases where the self is diminished or non-existent as in autism, forms of anosognosia, various misidentification syndromes and brain lesions to the prefrontal cortexes, among other areas. However valid an inherently social view of the self may be, the pin-pointing of brain dysfunctions as causes of the above deficits points to the existence of the biological, neural enablers of the self.  The study of clinical cases also offers a rich empirical context for the study of the social nature of self- processes. (See Oliver Sacks 1989; 1995).

Leslie Brothers and the Neuroscience of Intersubjectivity and Self

In any discussion of role taking, considerations of intersubjectivity are close by. Brothers (1997: xiii) starts her attempt to bridge the gap between mind and brain as did Mead with the assumption of an on-going network of meanings that she calls culture. Culture is seen as an emergent from the joint activities of human brains. Mead argues that we must start with an animal that is already socially organized, but whether it be culture or social organization the views are basically similar.  Brothers agrees that we can not start with the self-contained individual and then proceed in Hobbesian fashion to explain social order. She concentrates on the brain’s inborn mechanism (always working interactively with cultural content) that encourages the perception of other persons and their subjectivities. Like Mead, Brothers sees the process of symbolic interaction as depending on brain processes that have been developed from more primordial means of communication, namely the physical gesture.

By the term “person”, Brothers means a being with a mental life—an “owner” of conscious, subjective experience that is not empirically observable.  In her usage, self and person are interchangeable. The brain’s capacities are vessels for living cultural meanings.  The concept of subjectivity springs from the dispositions of the brain, but only in interaction with others. “It is given flesh”, Brothers says,” by performances and narratives.”

Much of the neuroscientific work on constructing others and thus one’s own person is based on the fact that reports from our senses are produced in collaboration with many brain regions.  According to Brothers, over evolutionary time some brain regions became selectively tuned (biased would be appropriate) in attending and reporting on purely social events. Primates must be attuned to status and rank as well as cooperating as parents with slowly developing dependent offspring [7] . The cortex becomes especially important in “reporting on social events—the more quickly and accurately the better”(Brothers 1997:12).

This brain-system for keying into facial expressions is referred to as the “editor”  This involves the set of neural ensembles in the anterior temporal lobe and areas related to it that encode social features and link them to action dispositions (Brothers 1997:61) [8] . For example, nine-minute old infants paid preferential attention to visual stimuli that look like human faces when the other selections included scrambled faces or blank outlines. This preference obviously came too early to be attributed to the socialization processes, assuming that what appears face-like to us attracted the babies’ attention.  But, very young newborns can imitate facial expressions assuming they are present in their environment.  Infants one to two months old associate voices with faces. When a face talks to an infant, the baby tends to shift it’s gaze toward the more expressive eyes rather than following the ostensibly more interesting movements of the mouth. The child does not attach utterances to persons because of mere sight, but because language perception shares the same neural assembles that encode expressive faces and voices.  “The logic of everyday t! alk”, Br others says, “is the logic of (imputing) intention.”  This logic is suggestive of the interactional process of role taking, even though she does not use this term.  One reason interactionists refer to this as role taking instead of person perception, is that intentions as well as “motives” are so frequently packed into social roles (Turner 1962).  What is “taken” is the other person’s perspective which is comparable to constructing personhood.  It is very possible that autistic children suffer from the congenital absence of a working brain organ for sensitivity to “inner selves” that would normally be constructed during their infancy.  Without the capacity to construct persons and subjectivities beyond observable bodies, effective role taking is impossible.

Brothers cites clear-cut experiments showing that while normal children order faces according to emotional expression, autistic children search for non-social ways of grouping the same pictures such as who is, or is not wearing a hat.  As symbolic interactionists would expect, autistics do not use the person pronouns correctly and have their hardest time with the self-reflective pronoun, “I” (Brothers 1997:16-18).  Again, understanding of the first person pronoun implies the ability to take the role of “generalized others”. However one looks at it, Mead’s theory of mind and Brothers’ discussion of creating inner persons, reflect overlapping concerns of important mutual relevancy.

Antonio Damasio and the Embodiment of Self and Thought

Another route to discovering the body’s contribution to the self- process and the neural supports for role taking may be through studies of anosognosia. The term means the inability to acknowledge disease in one’s body (Damasio 1994:62).  Accounts of highly intelligent stroke patients with this disorder show a vivid and irrational degree of denial that major limbs have been paralyzed or amputated however blatantly evident this may be.  But Damasio’s interest does not stop at this uncanny denial.  He is interested in their lack of self. Anosognosics have no ability to sense the ownership of their tragedies. Neither in his clinical experience, or in any case study that Damasio has read, does an anosognosic say in effect, “My God, I no longer feel any part of my body, all I have is my mind”.  None of them refer their troubles to themselves (Damasio 1994:237).

To explain this phenomenon, Damasio first describes how the brain is known to constantly map the whole body and to keep informed of its happenings. The minded brain began by minding the body. Since the external world can only be represented in terms of the modifications it causes in the acting and reacting “behavioral” body, these mappings are somato-motor in character. Thus, the resulting “internal representations” cause perturbations in the organism which in turn guarantee endless changes that the brain must track. There is no rest. The brain is constant recreation. For the pragmatist, the world becomes known as we interpret its responds to our actions on it. Damasio simply adds a vast and endless neurological dimension to this theme. The brain is amazingly involved in its own type of mute reflexivity and self-regulation. This mapping creates a continuous flow of visceral background feeling so much a part of us and so taken for granted that we only barely recognize it until pain or emotion disrupts its consistency. Possessing this biological information on “how we are currently feeling” is more crucial than sociologists may think.  To be without this embodiment is a profound disruption of what we mistakenly think of as the “purely mental” symbolic self-system. It is this embodiment that anosognosics lack.

The inability to sense their own bodies is caused by a disruption of cross talk between regions of the right hemisphere involved in the internal mapping above. The particular brain system for this malady has been successfully located in the primary somatosensory cortices and it is the only place where damage results in anosognosia. Anosognostics still hold an image of what their bodies were once like, and their experience is of this outdated image. Only momentarily, and with the insistence of other’s can the patients recognize that their limbs do not move.  Damasio suggests that his patient’s “selves”, unable to plot body signals from background feelings, are no longer integral. They are as neglectful of their own symbolic identities and predicaments as they are of their paralysis. “The theory that these patients construct of their own minds and of the minds of others is woefully, irrevocably out of date, out of step with the historical time that they and their companions are immersed in.” ( Damasio 1994: 155) “Language may not be the source of this biologic self, but it is certainly the source of the ‘I’ “and the socially constructed “autobiographical self “ (Damasio 1999). In the cases above however adaptive language and selves must include their embodiment.

Clearly the biosocial interpretations of these scientists have implications for embodying our theory of role taking and thus, the self. Without this embodiment, reflexive cognitions would be too weak and superficial to compel self-control (Shott 1979; Wentworth and Ryan 1992). There are many senses in which our particular conception of self, especially as “self sufficient islands of simplistic agency” can be illusions. But the biological processes producing our somatic sense of existence and the role taking process enabling self awareness, social control and the intersubjective construction of other persons are real social processes making social life possible.

Neuroscience and Chicago Pragmatism

One of the most recent discoveries in cognitive neuroscience reinstates a key focus of pragmatism that the meaning of an object lies not only in how we place it symbolically, but also in its transactional response to our motor actions on it. Regardless of how we interpret these responses, predictable aspects of such transactions must remain or we could not live sane lives. According to Gibbs and Berg (2002) and Lakoff and Johnson (1999), language and thus thought arise out of and carry the structure of embodied action, specifically that activity involved in tactile, contact, manipulative behavior. An important claim of the new field of cognitive semantics is that much of our knowledge is not static or propositional, but is grounded in, and structured by, patterns of our bodily actions and the indifferent requirements of the manipulative of objects (Gibbs and Berg 2002).

Lakoff and Johnson  (1980;1999) join this challenge arguing that thoughts take on intelligibility through metaphors founded in manipulative activity. Thus, “grasping an idea” is sensible to us because of our experience with grasping material objects. Ideas are seen as being “above our heads” or as “escaping our grasp”. They can be “slippery”, “big” or “small”—all metaphors taken from sensory motor experience.

This priority has been particularly well received in the field of mental imagery (Gibbs and Berg 2002).  Mental imagery clearly and appropriately implies visualization, but only in so far as we understand that the visual is shaped by kinesthetic activity involved in physical manipulation, not merely by the “mind’s eye”. Identifying an object in the distance involves imagery of how it may be manipulated and how long it would take us to get there. This confirms Damasio’s (1994:225) earlier statement that “perceiving is as much about acting on the environment as it is receiving signals from it”. It is the object’s relevance to furthering our actions that selects it for attention. Action is both causally and temporally prior to the selectivity that must characterize perception.

Mead also gave highest priority to touch as the primary sense organ in his theory of the act. We now know that by far the largest amount of sensory cortex in the human brain is given over to the sense of touch and the hand. For him as well as Damasio, perception was conceived as a readiness to act and was accompanied by subliminal muscular movements in preparations for the same.  Lakoff and Johnson (1999) go further to claim that the mechanisms responsible for perception, movements and object manipulation could most plausibly be responsible for conceptualization and reasoning.

Both earlier and more recent versions of the priority of motor action offer a vantage point to evaluate much of the “linguistic turn” that has been dominant in symbolic interaction. Several implications of this turn are well known. For example, when all becomes subsumed under language it is difficult if not impossible to privilege one interpretation over another, much less to evaluate your own. Mead understood this and pointed to the loss of the “possibility of error” or any criterion of evaluation in purely nominalistic approaches; i.e., where meaning was seen as carved out of words alone rather than reliable responses to our nonverbal actions.  In stressing the priority of such action, the pragmatists of Mead’s generation treated reality as that which resists our push in the contact experience. The disembodied consensus model of intersubjectivity left over from Saussurian linguistics leaves out the shared experiences we gain from the impartial world of the motor actions which heeds neither prayers or social status. This shared experience of the way the physical world responds to our manipulative actions on it remains an important source of  intersubjectivity. Most of us learn to handle fire gingerly regardless of cultural definitions.

Cognition and Emotoin in Rational Choice

In the following section I will again use the work of Damasio to expand on the importance of emotion and feeling for effective cognition in the area of decision-making and social control. Probably the most impressive neuroscience evidence for the very necessity of emotion in reasoning is presented in Damasio’s Descartes’ Error (1994).  (See Ochsner and Lieberman 2001 for updates). Damasio has specified in neurological terms the intimate connection between emotion and thought and the area where they come together to form human emotion in the ventro medial prefrontal cortexes (Damasio 1994:71). After trauma to these regions integrating emotion and thought, his patients could no longer get along with their loved ones or avoid decisions that led to business disaster.  Hannah Damasio, devised tests to pinpoint exactly what type of deficit was responsible for the economic and social failures of these patients. They could think of emotions but could not feel them.  They could not feel the terrible tragedies of their own demise.  The test she devised was a game that highlighted the specific deficits characterized by patients with this trauma. If long-term values cannot be felt, life-decisions will bow to short-term interest.  The game demanded subliminal judgments and implicit learning that certain options, which momentarily looked good, were actually disastrous in the long run.  While the otherwise intelligent patients could not learn to become suspicious and uneasy about these deceptive choices, normals intuitively caught on right away.  We ignore how the most rational business choices are laced with emotions. The anticipation of regret, patience in making well thought out decisions and expectations of long term success involve emotions as do intuitive judgments about the attractiveness of business partners (see also Franks 1997 and Etzioni 1988).

We have seen above that the symbolic self-system needs embodied background feelings to be felt substantially and compel social control.  Damasio writes about the weak and unstable images that his ventro-medially damaged patients held of their futures. The patients could think of their futures and look back on their losses, but not feel or care about them. They were “known” in some abstract sense, but their personal significance was lost. The related images could not be held in play. Damasio presents very plausible evidence for his conclusion that the brain’s incapacity to endow these images with bodily feelings was responsible for their inability to make a difference to these patients.

Images with the same content can vary in the difference they make or the strength they have in guiding further thought. While we can empathetically feel each other’s pain, the bodily given vividness with which we feel can be critical. As often as not, this has a great deal to do with who is seen as powerful and relevant and who is seen as inconsequential  (Franks 1985). [9]   Knowledge is more than its content.

Damasio uses the neurological term, “somatic marker” to describe this varience in personal import, and thus the felt quality, of an image.  Obviously, emotions can mark our thoughts with bodily feeling. But the term somatic marker is more general than that, and refers not so much to emotion as it does to whatever bodily feeling gives it relevance in our thoughts and actions.

No pure logic determines saliency, this is a matter of emotional predisposition and related somatic markers. In this sense emotion sets the very agenda for thought (de Sousa 1987) and plays the larger part in its sagacity. Rational decision making and social control depend on their own supportive embodied markers and emotions.  Damasio has given us a strong argument against “rational efficiency” as portrayed by Weber that places everything except the quickest, most efficient and guaranteed means to our unevaluated ends on the periphery of consciousness.


Much work needs to be done on our theory of mentality which, in its warranted portrayal of the arbitrariness of linguistic symbols, sometimes disregards any process initiated outside of our wills and social constructions. With all of its self monitoring, mind does not subserve itself; it does not exist for itself and its functioning cannot be understood on that basis. The social brain can only be understood in relation to its social and physical environment. We have seen that mind is a function of images, some conscious, but mostly unconscious and nonverbal.  One hypothesis I draw from the above is that the important qualities of images do not come from talk where just about anything goes. Firm images come from the body’s actions on a world not of our making, even if it lends itself to a plethora of symbolic interpretations.  Based on our knowledge of the relationship between manipulatory behavior and images, we would expect that those built-up by actually making things happen - by walking the walk instead of talking the talk - are firmer, more refined and more compelling (Becker 1964). 

Images, as symbolic interactionists know, are not mirror copys of external realities, but neither are they mere copies of what we have been told through talk.  Damasio’s nonverbal images that allow for our sense of subjectivity are constructions of our whole bodies engaged in multi-leveled actions and interactions.  We have seen that the resulting levels of firmness and saliency can be as important as their content.  In my reading, neuroscience in the hands of LeDoux and Damasio and much of the work discussed in Gibbs and Berg as well as Lakoff and Johnson, lead us to a forgotten appreciation of pragmatism. This is especially true in the convergence of the two fields in their view of nonverbal, motor actions as primary, and fantasy actions untested in experience as weak. [10]

It is, indeed, remarkable that so much of current neuroscience, with its highly technical measures, seems to have confirmed the revisionist thinking of George Herbert Mead who died in 1931.  I have stressed convergences above but hopefully we will be open enough to look to neuroscience for data giving new insights as well.


*Acknowledgments:  This article is significantly revised and updated from David D. Franks. 1999. “Some Convergences and Divergences Between Neuroscience and Symbolic Interaction.” Pg.157-82 in Mind, Brain and Society: Toward a Neurosociology. Social Perspectives on Emotion, vol.5 edited by David D. Franks and Thomas S. Smith. Stamford, CT: JAI Press. I would like to thank David Maines, Daniel Miller and Audrey J. Franks for their suggestions. Direct correspondence to David D. Franks, 10130 Epsilon Road, Richmond, VA 23235; e-mail:

[1]Here nature and nurture, organism and environment are not seen as two qualitatively different realms, each existing self sufficiently from each other.  They must be viewed functionally instead of statically, and in transactional relation with each other, i.e. as thoroughly implicated in each other and as different phases of the common activity of knowing (Lyng and Franks 2002).  The perceptual environment of actual human experience is created as much by the brain as it is the environment. This non- dualistic view of environment and organism is very different from the common sense one popularly and intersubjectively constructed wherein there is one static universe the same for me as it is for you.  Ironically, this purely theoretically conceived universe is known as the “objective” one and thereby privileged somehow as pure fact.  Regardless of how necessary it may be for human thought to proceed, a specific environment without a brain, and a working brain without an environment must be hypothetical. 

2 Given the emotional variations in tolerance for both indeterminacy and the contingency of human existence, it is doubtful that this balance will be ever resolved (Lyng and Franks 115-117; Franks and Harris 2002).

3 Granted, the focus of symbolic interaction is on the shared rather than subjective sensation. My point here, however, is that even on the sensory level, which is so closely associated with the empirically “read out from” the world, our bodies still actively construct the preobjective foundations of experience.

4 Of course the above discussion is couched in terms of what Mead sometimes referred to as the “scientific object” of the natural sciences wherein the perceived objects of immediate experience are replaced with hypothetical one’s which lie beyond the range of our actual experience. None of this has to imply a rejection of the term “realty” transactionally defined (Lyng and Franks 2002). 

5 Perception includes cognitive interpretation but is defined by its dependence on direct contact with the here and now—immediacy. Concepts are extra sensory and have the ability to detach themselves from immediacy as well as having no connection with the perceivable at all, i.e. grammatical rules. We can conceptualize potentials, possibilities and hypotheticals that can not be immediately seen but can only be conceived. Purely linguistic categories are conceptual but the physiological senses clearly produce their own categories (Gibbs and Berg 2002; Lakoff and Johnson 1999). Our physiology, as discussed above, seems to create brain-given gestalts and erroneously simplistic stereotypes.  Like all such contrasts, the boundaries of the two can blur.

6 See Damasio 1999: 297-99 for examples of capacities independent of awareness from other types of patients and the procedural learning of sensory motor skills. Reber’s 1993 volume on implicit learning gives broad coverage on the “cognitive unconscious”.  A succinct introduction to what is meant by the “cognitive unconscious” is in Lakoff and Johnson 1999: 10-14.  Lyng and Franks 2002 have a relevant discussion of how the majority of our choices of specific words in ordinary discourse must come before conscious choice.

7 This does not contradict the qualitative difference between Homo sapiens and other animals, but it is to emphasize that “nature takes no leaps”.

8 This replacement of the holistic term “self”, with bits of on-coming behavior may make the Meadian position somewhat more compatible with Jayne’s Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976).  Jayne’s volume represents an interesting challenge to Mead’s generic notion of self-consciousness as a defining feature of Homo sapiens.  On the positive side, Jayne leaves room for responding to the anticipated response of others to one’s on-coming behavior in a preconscious (right brain?) manner.  This is only one of several more current attempts to persuade symbolic interaction of the importance of the preconscious (see Ostrow 1990:14).

9 Brothers discusses a population of cells highly selected for human faces (in contrast to all other complex objects) which were found deep in the superior temporal sulcus.

10 One way to express this phenomenological variance is the continuum between “subsisting” and “existing” (Becker 1964). People can “know” that cigarettes are dangerous but this possibility subsists as an inconsequential abstraction rather than existing as a behaviorally compelling image. Our children’s pain can exist so strongly to us that we would rather carry it for them, While another’s pain is only dimly considered if at all. Some possibilities and warnings take center stage in our consciousness while others subsist on the periphery.

11 See Lakoff and Johnson (1999:463-466) for their critique of the doctrine of diffe'rence and Sausurian linguistics utilized in some symbolic interactionists writings.


Arendt, Hannah.  1958.  The Human Condition: A Study in the Central Dilemmas Facing Modern Man. Garden City, New York: Doubleday Anchor Books.

Banaji, Mahzarin R. 2002. “Self and Collectives: The Unconscious Social Construction of Preferences and Beliefs.” Paper Presented at the New York Academy of Sciences Conference: The self from Soul to Brain, Sept. 27, New York, New York.

Becker, Ernest.  1964.  The Revolution in Psychiatry. New York: Free Press.

Berg, Raymond W. and Eric A.Gibbs. 2002. “ Mental Imagery and Embodied Activity.” Journal of Mental Imagery 26 1-30

Brothers, Leslie. 1997.  Friday’s Footprint: How Society Effects the Human Mind.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Churchland, Patricia S. 2002. “Self-Representation in Nervous Systems.” Science 296:308-310.

Christian, James. 1977. Philosophy, 2 nd. Ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Damasio, Antonio. 1994.  Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain.  New York Avon Books.

_______, 1999. The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. New York: Harcourt Brace.

de Sousa, Ronald. 1987.  The Rationality of Emotion.  Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Emirbayer, Mustafa. 1997. “Manifesto for a Rational Sociology.” American Journal of Sociology 103: 281-317.

Etzioni, Amitai.  1988.  “Normative-Affective Factors: Toward a New Decision-Making Model.”  Journal of Economic Psychology 9: 125-150.

Franks, David D. 1985. “Role-Taking, Social Power and Imperceptiveness” in Studies in Symbolic Interaction,” Pp. 229-259 in Studies in Symbolic Interaction, edited by Norman K. Denzin. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

_____________ 1997.  “Rational Efficiency as Ideology: An Interdisciplinary Critique of Assumptions about Cognition, Rationality and Objectivity in Current Business Practices.” Paper presented at the annual meetings of the American Sociological Association.  August, Toronto, Canada.

______________ 1999. “Some Convergences and Divergences Between Neuroscience and Symbolic Interaction.” Pg.157-82 in Mind, Brain and Society: Toward a Neurosociology of Emotion. Social Perspectives on Emotion, vol.5 edited by David D. Franks and Thomas S. Smith. Stamford, CT: JAI Press.

Franks, David D. and Jennifer Harris. 2002. “Elaborations from the Sociology of Emotion on Ernest Becker: The Human Condition and the Structure of Evil.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. August, 17 Chicago. IL.

Gazzaniga, Michael S.  1985.  TheSocial Brain.  New York: Basic Books.

________, 1992. Nature’s Mind: The Biological Roots of Thinking, Emotions, Sexuality, Language and Intelligence. Hew York: Basic Books.

________, 1998a. The Mind’s Past. Berkeley: University of Berkeley Press.

________, 1998b. The Split Brain Revisited.  Scientific American July: 51-54.

Gazzaniga, M. S. and C. Smylie.  1983.  “Dissociation of Language and Cognition: A Psychological Profile of Two Disconnected Right Hemispheres.”  Brain 107: 145-153.

Gibbs, Raymond W. and Eric A. Berg. 2002. “Mental Imagery and Embodied Activity.” Journal of Mental Imagery 26 (1&2): 1-30.

Goldstein, Kurt. 1948. Language and Language Disturbances: Aphasic Symptom Complexes and Their Significance for Medicine and Theory of Language. New York: Grune & Sutton.

Harth, Erich.  1993.  The Creative Loop: How the Brain Makes a Mind.  New York: AddisonWesley Publishing Company.

Head Henry. 1926. Aphasia and Kindred Disorders of Speech. Vol.1 New York: Macmillian.

Jaynes, Julian.  1976. The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Boston:  Houghton Mifflin Co.

Katz, Jack. 1999. How Emotions Work. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. 1980.Metaphores We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

_____, 999. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books.

LeDoux, Joseph.  1996.  The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life.  New York: Simon and Schuster.

Lindesmith, Alfred R., Anselm L. Strass and Norman. Denzin. 1991. Readings in Social Psychology.  New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc.

Luria A.R. 1966. Human Brain and Psychological Processes. New York: Harper and Row.

Lyng, Steven and David D. Franks. 2002. Sociology and the Real World. New York: Roman and  Littlefield.

Mead, George Herbert.1932.  The Philosophy of the Present. LaSalle, Illinois: Open Court.

Ochsner, Kevin and Matthew D. Lieberman. 2001. “The Emergence of Social Cognitive Neuroscience.” American Psychologist 56 (9): 717-734.

Ostrow, James M. 1990. Social Sensitivity: A Study of Habit and Experience. Albany. SUNY Press.

Reber, Arthur S. 1993. Implicit Learning and Tacit Knowledge: An Essay on the Cognitive Unconscious. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sacks, Oliver. 1989. Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf. Berkeley: University of California Press.

____, 1995. An Anthropologist on Mars. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Scott, Marvin and Stanford Lyman.  1968. “Accounts.” The American Sociological Review 33:46-64.

Swanson, Guy F. 1989. “On Motives and the Motivations of Selves,” Pp. 3-32 in The Sociology of Emotions: Original Essays and Research Papers, edited by David D. Franks and E. Doyle McCarthy. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

Turner, Ralph H.  1962.  “Role-Taking: Process versus Conformity.”  Pp. 20-38 in Human Behavior and Social Processes, edited by A. Rose. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Wentworth, William and J. Ryan.  1992.  “Balancing Body, Mind and Culture: The Place of Emotion in Social Life.”  Pp. 25-46 in Social Perspectives on Emotion, Vol. I, edited by David D. Franks and Viktor Gecas. Greenwich Connecticut: JAI Press.

Wrong, Dennis H. 1961. “The Oversocialized Conception of Man in Modern Sociology.” American Sociological Review 26(2): 183-93.