There are many ways to study human minds: psychologists probe them inside the lab; ethnographers observe them in their environment. At the Minds and Traditions research group (the Mint), we study cognition by looking at traditions. Human traditions can be seen as long transmission chains: enduring legends, symbols, songs or alphabets have passed through thousands of different minds, and should therefore reflect common preferences and biases. By mining the information carried by the deep history of human traditions, the Mint is able to test cognitive hypotheses in novel ways. We combine experimental methods with hypotheses drawn from cultural evolution, and data from quantitative cultural history.
The Mint focuses on one key aspect of cultural transmission: the evolution of graphic codes. All humans can communicate with sounds (or gestures) that encode information in a standardized way, using the same code in a wide variety of domains from cooking to metaphysics. Yet most human beings had no similar use for permanent images: there was no all-purpose standard code for graphic communication. Many societies use ad hoc graphic codes, useful in a few contexts only. All-purpose graphic codes emerged only slowly and recently, at first for very small numbers of users. At the Mint, cognitive science, linguistic anthropology and quantitative cultural history gather forces to shed light on the evolution of graphic communication.
Colour game project
Artificial language evolution experiments allow us to understand how graphic codes can evolve (or fail to emerge) in the lab or with interactive video games. In our "colour game" experiment, our participants manage to use arbitrary black and white symbols to communicate very subtle colour nuances.
Message sticks project
Australian message sticks are engraved tools used for long-distance communication in Indigenous Australia. Their non-linguistic inscriptions were almost always accompanied by an oral message produced by the messenger, but to this day the system underlying this unique graphic code has not been effectively reconstructed. This project is cooperating with the National Museum of Australia, the British Museum and a number of institutions in Europe to produce a database of artefacts and their meaning, and to answer questions about the limitations and opportunities of non-linguistic codes in comparative perspective.
Quantitative studies of graphic codes provide a powerful methodology to observe how deep-seated cognitive preferences shape the evolution of visual culture. Our database of heraldic motives, in preparation, will synthetize information on more than 100 000 coats of arms, in a format suitable for algorithmic analyses.