5 Human Cognition: Are We Really Blank Slates?

Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter you should be able to:

  • Describe blank slate theory and tabula rasa.
  • Define cognitive module.
  • Explain the role of heritable learning biases in cognitive modules.
  • Describe who Jerry Fodor was and what concepts he proposed.
  • Define empiricism and its role in modern day science.
  • Define nativism and what it evidence it consists of.

John Locke, Tabula Rasa, & Blank Slate Theory

When looking into the subject of blank slate theory, most people first look to John Locke. However, while Locke is most famously associated with blank slate theory and tabula rasa, he was not the creator of either concept. Locke was an observer of nature who focused much of his work on natural philosophy. He spoke about tabula rasa, while never using the term, in two of his written works, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Some Thoughts Concerning Education.

Tabula Rasa: the mind in its hypothetical primary blank or empty state before receiving outside impressions; something existing in its original pristine state (definition retrieved from Merriam-Webster.com on November 3, 2019).

Based on the concept of tabula rasa, blank slate theory argues that we are born without any thoughts or opinions already developed.

According to blank slate theory, the mind is completely blank at birth.

From there, education, environment, and experiences – which are external, as well as material and/or immaterial – shape the child’s process of development. This leaves a lasting effect on who they become.


(1) The brain is blank at birth, (2) then with experiences and environmental influence, (3) the brain develops.                                                                                                                                  Icons made by Freepik from www.flaticon.com

Locke’s work, while speaking to the concept of tabula rasa, also focused on empiricism – which is the antithesis of innateness, and is related closely to blank slate theory –, believing experience shapes ideas. Since everyone’s experiences are unique, different opinions are inevitable.

What is the Big Deal about Blank Slate Theory?

In John Locke’s view, blank slate theory:

  • argued against the concept of hereditary royalty and aristocracy – concepts which had argued that the individuals had an innate higher knowledge.
  • argued against slavery – which at the time, was based on the notion that slaves were innately less than others.
  • argued for equality of all people – any uniqueness seen among ethnic groups, sexes and individuals were not innate but from experience; Locke believed discrimination based on these qualities was irrational.

Cognitive Modules

Contrasting blank slate theory is the concept of cognitive modules.

Modularity of the Mind: (also known as mental modules and cognitive modules) as described by Jerry Fodor, is a functional cluster of cognitive mechanisms that work together in the low levels of the mind to achieve certain low-level cognitive functions dedicated to information-processing, sensations and automatic motor functions. Modules are fast, sparse of information, not under conscious control, and are specialized to handle one or two specific functions.

For Example: A common system of all cognitive modules is known as Information Encapsulation. Information encapsulation is the idea that a system has restricted access to information that is stored outside of itself.  An example of this is the muller-lyer illusion. Even if you know that both lines are the same length, our visual system of our brain that is modulated will still see the lines as different lengths because that system is affected by information encapsulation and thus has no access to the outside information telling us that the lines are in fact the same length.

      A model of the muller-lyer illusion.

Jerry Fodor

Image of Jerry Fodor
Jerry Fodor in 2009 (sourced from New York Times Obituaries).

As a cognitive scientist, Jerry Fodor was a proponent of nativism – a concept opposite of blank slate theory. Rather than agreeing with blank slate theory, Fordor believed that skills and abilities are present in the brain from birth, and that many of them would be impossible without genetic contribution prior to environmental experience.

The Modularity of Mind may have been his most impactful work. Here, he argued for a calculated approach to perceptual systems, which he believed were automatic and quick.

One of Fodor’s main proposals for the mind included mental modules, a concept which states that the function of the brain is determined by its structure. An example of this is the language of thought hypothesis; this hypothesis reasons that the mind includes a logical, mental system that contains symbols, which are comprised of the definitions of words, word-order patterns – for example, in English, a subject often comes before a verb, which is followed by an object (i.e. “the cat chased the mouse”) – and co-occurrence – the high chance that a word or phrase will follow the previous word or phase, based on grammatical rules (i.e. in “the cat chased the mouse,” “chased” requires an object (“the mouse”) and a subject (“the cat”)).

Heritable Learning Biases

Cognitive evolutionary psychology without representational nativism

Article Link: http://web.b.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.kpu.ca:2080/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=5&sid=f629252b-4ea1-415e-8bac-3382c821191b%40pdc-v-sessmgr06


This article composed by Denise Cummins, Robert Cummins and Pierre Poirier emphasizes a Learning-bias-and canalization framework (LBC) to provide insight to evolutionary cognitive psychology. The proposed framework involves heritable learning biases in relationship to innate cognitive modules. To begin with, the dominant paradigm of evolutionary cognitive psychology containing massive innate cognitive modules is discussed. Followed by the introduction to the two forms of heritable learning biases. Next, criticisms of massive innate cognitive modules are presented to understand the Learning-bias-and canalization framework. Lastly, the Learning-bias-canalization framework is discussed in depth.

Applicable evolutionary cognitive psychology requires that specific cognitive abilities must be 1) heritable and 2) quasi-independent from other heritable traits. Heritability is the capability of a trait being inherited. Whereas, the term quasi-independent refers to a trait that is not dependent upon other factors for existence. The reasoning as to why cognitive modules must be heritable is that there cannot be selection for traits that are not heritable. Traits must also be quasi-independent from other heritable traits, which suggests there must be additive genetic variance. Genetic variance refers to inheriting a particular allele from a parent which causes the phenotype (known as observable traits) to differ from the mean phenotype.

Dominant paradigm in Evolutionary cognitive psychology
The Dominant paradigm in evolutionary cognitive psychology proposes that the mind can be represented as a collection of innate cognitive modules. Tooby and Cosmides (1995) characterized innate cognitive modules as the following:
Hundreds and thousands of functional computers, typically called modules as designed to solve adaptive problems specific to our hunter-gatherer ancestors
Each module contains its own agenda
There are specialized systems for grammar, facial and emotion recognition, and locating one’s own position by estimating their direction and distance travelled rather than using landmarks or electronic navigation

The two requirements regarding evolutionary cognitive psychology can be satisfied with innate cognitive modules, as the dominant paradigm in evolutionary cognitive psychology suggests. Since innate capacities are heritable, the requirements of heritability and quasi-independence can be satisfied with innate cognitive modules. In the dominant paradigm in evolutionary cognitive psychology, the term innate does not mean to suggest that a cognitive capacity is present at birth, but rather it is encoded in the genome. In other words, the capacities of an individual is converted into a code in the genome, which pertains to a full set of chromosomes that contain all inheritable traits of an organism.
However, advocates and critics of this paradigm view it to be the main theory defining the field, which may be problematic because innate cognitive modules are heavily criticised in regards to theoretical incoherence and known facts of neurobiology.

Heritable Learning Biases
Heritability and quasi independence may be satisfied with heritable learning biases in the form of architectural or chronotropic constraints. Both of which increase canalization of specific cognitive capacities in the ancestral environment.
Chronotropic constraints refer to the neural limitations on the developmental timing of events.
Architectural constraints are physical limitations of an organism that affects the way it can process information.
Canalization is part of evolution and refers to a developmental pathway that allows an organism to develop in different situations. Chronotropic and architectural constraints increase canalization of specific cognitive abilities in the ancestral environment. As an organism develops, cognitive abilities that are highly canalized due to heritable learning biases, may result in an organism behaviorally similar to another because of various environmental triggers. To exemplify this notion, babies are able to form attachments despite the environment they are in.

Criticism of innate cognitive modules
There are two influential arguments against direct genetic encoding of knowledge, known as representational nativism.
The concept of the poverty of genetic resources proposes that an innate module will require specific synaptic connections in the cortex. However, the human genome does not have the resources to directly specify a massive amount of cortical connectivity. Human genotypes contain fewer genes than once thought (about 30,000-40,000 rather than 100,000) and among these about 20-30% may be involved in brain development. However, very few genes are involved in cortical development as they are implicated in the visual domain. Therefore if there are cognitive modules, they would be found in the cortex rather than other brain regions such as Pons.
In regards to the plasticity of the cortex, neuroscientific data suggests that the cortex is very immature at birth. The idea also suggests that if the pattern of connectivity in an area of the cortex was prespecified genetically, then it should not be possible to transplant it to another area without consequences. However, research indicates that visual cortex cells transplanted to the auditory cortex connect themselves in relevance to auditory processing.

Learning-bias-and-canalization Framework (LBC)
The learning-bias-and-canalization framework does not require a genetically representational nativism, which refers to the innate structuring of mental representations that compose knowledge. However, the framework employs minimal representational nativism in organisms. Minimal representational nativism is the idea that systems are born with a minimal set of representations necessary to learn the full set of representations, which determines a behavior. Also, the framework still satisfies the two fundamental criteria for viable evolutionary cognitive psychology.
In terms of heritability, the LBC framework assumes that there is variability in learning biases in ancestral populations. As in, when a trait proves to be adaptive, there will be a tendency for selection to disperse the bias(es) responsible for the increased canalization through the population. As an outcome, there may be a population with a highly canalized cognitive trait.
Regarding quasi independence, the framework supports the idea that networks do not necessarily need to be designed to carry out particular tasks, rather the task will select the network that has the appropriate innate properties.
The LBC is composed of a number of special features that require emphasis. The framework states that learning has its costs. The costs may include time , energy and cognitive resources. Also, learning entails mistakes and if it is done in the infantile period, care must be provided by guardians. The framework also states that learning has its advantages by allowing an organism to adapt to new environments. Therefore, learning can activate a capacity that is more canalized than one that is innate in environments where the conditions fail to trigger the development of the innate capacity. The LBC framework also allows the possibility of overcoming neural deficits due to developmental problems or trauma. The LBC also appears to allow for gradual evolution of cognition since relevant architectural and chronotropic constraints can be introduced and gradually modified to target a specific cognitive capacity. Lastly, the LBC framework is compatible with innate modules.

Testing the LBC Framework
Evolutionary cognitive psychology is problematic because brains do not leave historical records and also traits of interest have been presumably fixated. As a result, capacities can be studied in artificial creatures using simulation methods.

Interactions between evolution, development and learning discussed in the LBC framework suggest potential to allow a greater understanding of cognition, which, cognitive and developmental psychology, along with neuroscience cannot explain alone. The framework avoids massive innate cognitive modules and representational nativism. Instead, the framework enhances motivation to look for non-representational learning biases, which interact with development and the environment to produce early and highly canalized cognitive capacities.

Empiricism & Nativism

Blank slate theory and the concept of cognitive modules can relate to the debate between empiricism and nativism, with blank slate theory being similar to the former, and the concept of cognitive modules being similar to the later.

Empiricism: Is the idea that knowledge comes from experiences via the senses; knowledge is not innate.

Nativism:  the way a human being thinks cognitively; knowledge is innate.

The theories have been continuously debated, with many still agreeing with one side over the other.

The Challenges in Empiricism

The “Language instinct” argued by Chomsky with the idea that people are good at learning languages (especially children) and they have some kind of innate knowledge for language when they are born. Which links back to the concept of tabula rasa – how are children able to have this knowledge/ability if they are truly born as blank slates?

Another controversy is that logic is not physical or tangible and cannot really be experienced via the senses, but still remains a concept. However, humans all have different ideas of values and morals, even if everyone has experiences via senses morals all differ and there is controversy around this that morals could be somewhat innate.

The Challenges In Nativism

Hume’s missing shade of blue which is the idea that was introduced  where the mind produced an idea without exposure to external stimuli but only internal senses  so the existence of empiricism was not present.

The “missing shade of blue” refers to Hume’s claims that a person can be shown various colours except a specific shade of blue.

Here, the person is shown different shades of blue and will be able to picture that shade without ever seeing it before in their mind, providing innate knowledge of it, proving simple ideas are not just from impressions.

On the other hand, birth in the definition should be replaced by conception as that’s when genes get incorporated.

Support for Empiricism

There are different forms of support for empiricism. These include:

  • Ockham’s razor states the simplest way to get to an answer is the right way. Empiricism is simple because if more than one person can retrieve the same knowledge via senses it makes that piece of knowledge more likely true.
  • Empiricism is used in science as a way to test a theory – eg, Behaviourism: the idea that behaviour is something that is conditioned and learned. Behaviourists use empiricism in their studies by realizing that behaviour must be learned (therefore experienced). “Through operant conditioning, an individual makes an association between a particular behavior and a consequence” (Skinner, 1938). Behaviours can be fine tuned by through consequence. (Experiences are made, taken in as behaviour/knowledge, then potentially changed).

Support for Nativism

There are quite a few factors that tend to support nativism, in the sense that:

  • Knowledge is considered innate with the linkage of the nature-nurture debate unless it is caused by environmental stressors.
  • Feelings are projected outward, rather than inward by our own response to external sources coming from within us.
  • Physical geography such as the formation of Earth, plant and animal structures are considered natural.
  • Bodily change such as menopause, and adolescence which has the growth of body hair, or genital changes occurs innate.
  • We as human beings cannot see mind develop with our bare eyes, the way that we see body develop such as the growing of teeth.


Whatever the side of the debate researchers fall on, one could argue that support and arguments against either side can be found. Blank slate theory and empiricism favour a brain that learns everything post-birth, while cognitive modules, such as heritable learning biases, and nativism argue for a brain that comes preprogrammed with knowledge that is accessed throughout life. This disagreement and attempt to conceptualize the brain continues.


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Evolutionary Psychology: Exploring Big Questions Copyright © by kristie. All Rights Reserved.

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