CAVE Culture and Cognition Workshop at Macquarie University

Hi all,

This event is organised by members of the Culture and Cognition Reading Group based in Macquarie University. The workshop brings together various departments and fields at Macquarie University to discuss how culture influences human cognition. The aim of the workshop is to build upon the interdisciplinary work we have been doing in the CAVE cognition and culture reading group. This will be done by bringing together presentations from members of the group and having representatives of a range of departments at the university. For more information about the reading group or anything else related to this event, please email

The Centre for Agency, Values, and Ethics (CAVE) provides a platform for interaction and collaboration between researchers in philosophy, psychology, cognitive science, law, medicine, applied ethics and bioethics. A distinctive feature is its focus upon the philosophical, ethical and legal issues raised by the cognitive neurosciences. For more information, email

The workshop is taking place on Monday 8th October at Dunmore Lang College Seminar Room (130-134 Herring Road, North Ryde NSW, Sydney).

Please be advised that the the train line has been replaced by bus service so be prepared for extra travel time (especially when coming from the Chatswood direction)

Below are the schedule and abstracts for the event. And some acknowledgements.



09:00-09:15 Registration and coffee
09:15-9:30 Opening remarks and Welcome to Country
Session One: [Chair: Alex Gillett]
09:30-10:30 Greg Downey ‘Breath hold diving, cultural embodiment, and the emergence of automaticity’

Department of Anthropology, Macquarie University

10:30-11:30 John Sutton and Karen Pearlman ‘New questions about shared history and distributed creativity’

Department of Cognitive Science; Department of Media, Music, Communication and Cultural Studies; Macquarie University

11:30-12:00 Morning tea (provided)
Session Two: [Chair: McArthur Mingon]
12:00-01:00 Karola Stotz ‘Toward an Extended Evolutionary Psychology’

Department of Philosophy, Macquarie University



Graham Thomas ‘Story as Niche Construction: The Cultural Evolution of Fictional Narratives’

Department of Philosophy, Macquarie University

01:30-02:30 Lunch (provided)
Session Three: [Chair: Yves Aquino]
02:30-03 :30


Kate Lynch ‘Nature via Nurture: estimating habitat selection and its impact on behavioural evolution’

Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University

03:30- 04 :00


Christopher Whyte ‘The Function of the Global Neuronal Workspace as Temporally Thick Active Inference’

Macquarie University

04:00-04:30 Afternoon break
Session Four: [Chair: Graham Thomas]


Caitrin Donovan ‘How (not) to supersize psychiatry’

School of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Sydney



Richard Menary ‘Cultural Variations in Social Cognition: Enculturating Social Minds’

Department of Philosophy, Macquarie University

07:00 Dinner (Chatswood)

workshop presenters photo

From left to right: Greg Downey, Graham Thomas, Richard Menary, Karen Pearlman, Karola Stotz, and Kate Lynch [Photo credit to Yves Aquino]



Caitrin Donovan ‘How (not) to supersize psychiatry’

Abstract: In philosophy, externalist arguments have been used to challenge received views on such things as the nature of meaning, knowledge, and mental states, as well as the boundaries of cognitive systems. My paper will critically address a recent attempt to level an externalist critique at biomedical psychiatry. According to Davies, the biomedical model (BM) is committed to “constitutive internalism” (CI). He argues that while CI is a true and productive thesis about somatic disorders, it doesn’t generalise to psychiatry: psychiatric disorders are individuation-dependent on environmental factors. From this he concludes that the BM “presents an impoverished view of the nature of mental disorder’, and recommends psychiatry take ‘a broader view”.

The aim of my paper is to show that Davies’ externalist case against the BM is unsuccessful. My argument is two-fold. First, I show that if we accept Davies’ arguments for an externalist psychiatry, we must also accept that externalism is a true thesis about disorders in general.  A consequence of this is that Davies’ pessimism about the BM’s prospects in psychiatry is left poorly motivated. Second, I argue that the case presented for an externalist psychiatry is wanting. The arguments, insofar as they rely on DSM criteria to adjudicate what factors count as constitutive conditions, confuse medical classification for ontology.


Greg Downey ‘Breath hold diving, cultural embodiment, and the emergence of automaticity’

Abstract: Breath hold divers or ‘free divers’ push the limits of the human capacity to survive under water. Often holding their breaths, in some cases, for over ten minutes, or diving beyond 100 meters without scuba equipment. Using regimens of training, they learn to re-interpret their own bodies’ signals and sculpt automatic nervous system reactions into new patterns. This presentation discusses preliminary research with free divers in light of data on the emergence of automaticity in the breathing system, attempting to show how even this system – arguably one of the most necessary and deeply ingrained of all nervous system functions – can be influenced by processes of cultural embodiment. The implications are important for understanding the relationship of human biology and cultural variation, as well as providing a dynamic and non-reductionist approach to the encultured brain.


Kate Lynch ‘Nature via Nurture: estimating habitat selection and its impact on behavioural evolution’

Abstract: Complex human cognitive traits have traditionally been understood through the nature-versus-nurture dichotomy, with intelligence estimated as having a largely genetic component. However, understanding the etiology of these traits is complicated when genes predispose individuals to particular kinds of environments, akin to nature-via-nurture. That is, one’s genotype can influence the construction or selection of a particular developmental environment. This process parallels recent advances in our understanding evolutionary theory, such as niche construction and environmental inheritance. In quantitative human genetics, nature-via-nurture is recognised in the form of gene-environment correlations. However, these are rarely estimated, and their impact on human behaviours and abilities is purely speculative. This is in part due to experimental limitations of studying human populations. In this talk I demonstrate how laboratory-based experiments on animal populations can be used to better understand the impact of gene-environment correlations on behaviour and evolution.


Richard Menary ‘Cultural Variations in Social Cognition: Enculturating Social Minds’

Abstract: The traditional view of the development of social cognition is that children become progressively more sophisticated in their understanding of others as they get older, this seems incontovertable. This fact is often taken as evidence that their concepts are developing during ontogeny and a crucial transition is supposed to occur in normal children between the ages of 3 and 5 when they gain a full mastery of the ‘metarepresentational’ concept of belief (Wellman, Cross, & Watson, 2001). This is considered to be a universal achievement. However, recent evidence shows that there is cross-cultural variation for the acquisition of full mastery of the concept of belief. In this talk I will present problems for the standard approaches to Theory of Mind (ToM) acquisition and implicit mind-reading. I will present an alternative where variation in cultural developmental channels influences how and when the child’s social cognitive abilities come on line.


Karola Stotz ‘Towards an Extended Evolutionary Psychology’

Abstract: Adopting a certain approach to the nature of living, cognitive systems affects one’s understanding of evolutionary theory, and vice versa. This paper explores this reciprocal relationship in more detail. It regards living, cognitive systems, especially humans, as deeply integrated organism-environment systems embedded in and transformed by their genetic, epigenetic (molecular and cellular), behavioural, ecological, socio-cultural and cognitive legacies. This view calls for an extended evolutionary synthesis that goes beyond theories of gene-culture coevolution and selective niche construction, that juxtapose genetic with cultural evolution mainly driven by natural selection. In contrast I argue that environments, particularly in the form of inherited developmental niches, do not just select for variation, they also create variation by influencing development through the reliable transmission of non-genetic but heritable information. This paper sees cognition as embodied, embedded, enacted and extended, and explore its relationship to those aspects of extended inheritance that lie between genetic and cultural inheritance, the still grey area of epigenetic and behavioural inheritance systems that play a role in parental effect. These processes of transgenerational developmental plasticity can most fruitfully contribute to, and be investigated by, a developmental-evolutionary psychology interested in the relationship between culture and cognition.


John Sutton & Karen Pearlman ‘New questions about shared history and distributed creativity’

Abstract: This paper begins with a discussion of the questions from within film studies and cognition studies that brought Sutton and Pearlman together. It then presents a case study they have been working on with film historian John MacKay. This study of a historical film editor’s cognitive actions reveals much about editors’ expertise.  However, it also raises new questions about the roles of shared history in distributed creativity and how can we study them.  Exposing their own process of collaboration, Sutton and Pearlman will conclude by reflecting on these new questions and how they might be approached through other case studies.


Graham Thomas ‘Story as Niche Construction: The Cultural Evolution of Fictional Narratives’

Abstract: It has been proposed that engagement with fictional narratives is adaptive, that humans have evolved genetically to be driven to – and capable of engaging with – fiction because it provides a reproductive benefit (Tooby & Cosmides, 2001; Gottschall, 2012; Boyd, 2009).  In this paper, I argue that such accounts are implausible.  I begin by fleshing out the kinds of commitments such accounts entail, then show that these make any theory rooted in genetic selection unlikely.  Instead I propose a more plausible alternative; fictional narratives arise through a process of cultural evolution, in particular as a kind of niche construction. I situate fictional competency within the development of an ‘aesthetic niche’, a suite of practices and storytelling norms of form and content passed down from generation to generation.  The niche scaffolds and redeploys cognitive capacities selected for other purposes, shaping them and bringing them to bear on to a new cultural domain.  The upshot of such a cultural evolutionary account leads us to different conclusions regarding the primary role and reasons for why fictional narratives are ubiquitous across cultures, and why they emerge throughout the process of human evolution.


Christopher Whyte ‘The Function of the Global Neuronal Workspace as Temporally Thick Active Inference’

Abstract: Hierarchical predictive coding, often called predictive processing (PP), depicts the cortex as a hierarchical generative model that sends cascades of top-down predictions about the causal structure of that environment to meet bottom-up sensory signals at each successive level of the cortical hierarchy. Primary sensory areas predict rapidly evolving changes in input and as predictions are sent up the hierarchy predictions about the causes of the signal become progressively more abstract. Sitting atop the hierarchy are limbic cortices that send predictions to subordinate levels in the hierarchy on basis of long-term statistical regularities. The aim of this talk is to unite this model of inferential hierarchy with the global neuronal workspace, one of the most empirically well supported models of conscious access. I will argue that the function of the global workspace is to integrate low level sensory information into a unified intermediate level representation of an agent’s current context that serves as an intermediary between high level goals and low level sensory-motor affordances. Furthermore, I will argue that the intermediary role of consciousness is crucial for the type of long timescale inference about other agent’s goals and intentions that, according to the ecological dominance-social competition model, has been the primary selection pressure driving the evolution of hominin intelligence.



Special thanks to McArthur Mingon, Graham Thomas, Hoda Mostafavi, Yves Aquino and Kelly Hamilton for organisational matters.

Thanks to CAVE for funding.

Thanks to the speakers for taking part (especially on such short notice).

And thanks to Yves Saint-James Aquino for the artwork.

This event takes place on Darug land. We acknowledge the traditional custodians of this country.






Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s