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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



The Mind in Context edited by Batja Mesquita PhD, Lisa Feldman Barrett PhD, Eliot R. Smith PhD (The Guilford Press) Most psychology research still assumes that mental processes are internal to the person, waiting to be expressed or activated. This compelling book illustrates that a new paradigm is forming in which contextual factors are considered central to the workings of the mind. Leading experts explore how psychological processes emerge from the transactions of individuals with their physical, social, and cultural environments. The volume showcases cutting-edge research on the contextual nature of such phenomena as gene expression, brain networks, the regulation of hormones, perception, cognition, personality, knowing, learning, and emotion.

Although certain traditions within psychology have been concerned with the influence of context since its inception as a scientific discipline, the context principle is not specific to psychology. Biology, chemistry, and physics have all discovered the context principle. In biology, the importance of epigenetic factors in gene expression is only one example of the context principle. In chemistry, the context principle can be seen in the reactivity of functional groups (organic molecules or compounds). As molecular complexity increases, the context-dependent behavior scales accordingly, or maybe even in an exponential fashion. In physics, the paradigmatic example might be the theory of relativity. For many centuries, physicists struggled to comprehend time and space as absolute and unchanging entities—that is, until Einstein changed the terms of the questions entirely with his theory of relativity. Time and space are not rigidly independent categories; they are different ways of experiencing the same phenomenon, depending on the context.

In psychology, if our field's task is mapping the various manifestations of the context principle, then the results might be similarly revolutionary. In this volume, we provide the interested reader with selected examples of how the external context (in the form of the physical, social, and cultural environments) configures with the internal context of the organism to produce the varied phenomena that make up the human mind (memories, emotions, behaviors, etc.). The Mind in Context contains 15 concise, forward-looking chapters that illustrate with empirical examples how the psychological phenomena of interest (from genes to personhood) emerge from the interaction between mind and context, while emphasizing future conceptual and empirical directions. We also include a final chapter (Barsalou et al., Chapter 16, this volume) that integrates the chapters into an analysis of why the error of essentialism occurs and how better to represent and discuss the context principle. By looking across various research programs, and traversing levels of analysis, we hope to illustrate that the "context principle" is finally picking up some speed as a major theoretical force in psychology.

If the context principle is correct, then, as Dewey observed over a century ago, psychologists must abandon the linear logic of an experiment as a metaphor for how the mind works. In the classic experiment, we present a participant (be it a human or some nonhuman animal) with some sensory stimulation (what we call a stimulus); then we measure some response. Correspondingly, psychological models of the mind (and brain) almost always follow a similar ordering (stimulus organism —> response). Neurons are presumed generally to lie quiet until stimulated by a source from the external world. Scientists talk about "independent variables" because we assume that they exist separate from the participant. But outside the lab, the brain (not an experimenter) selects what is a stimulus and what is not, in part by predicting what will be important in the future. Said another way, the current state of the human brain makes some sensory stimulation into "information" and relegates the rest to the psychologically impotent "physical surroundings." In this way, sensory stimulation from the world only modulates preexisting neuronal activity but does not cause it outright (Llinas, Ribary, Contreras, & Pedroarena, 1998), and the human brain contributes to every mental moment whether or not we experience a sense of agency (and usually we do not). This means that the simple linear models of psychological phenomena that psychologists often construct will never really offer true explanations of psychological events. As demonstrated in this volume's chapters, the context principle offers a more promising approach to understanding the mind.



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