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Categorization and the brain...

kelliott's picture

Categorization. This is a concept we looked at in class, and seems to be the topic of many of these posts. I was in the transgender/cisgender group, and I have to admit, I'm still confused. I really don't know what the point of those categories are and if they are needed. I don't know if anyone can provide a solid "this-is-it" answer, and it seems as though our class couldn't come up with one particular solution, either.

As a psychology major, I couldn't help but wonder what cognitive processes are involved in categorization. I seemed to automatically go down the "nature v. nurture" path..Do we as human beings categorize as a function of cognition? (Nature) Or is it something we have learned to do? (Nurture) Are we wired to think in categories--to seek out structure-- our does this function develop through our interactions with the environment?

So, not only did I start coming up with some conclusions from what I've already learned in the past two years of my Psychology education, but I also did some research of my own. Several studies suggest that categorization is not just a single mental ability, but rather requires the activation of several regions of the brain. For example, in order to categorize anything, one must perceive it first and therefore the sensory cortex is involved. We've been learning about perception in my Human Cognition class, particularly in how we are able to identify and label objects. The Recognition by Components theory, for example, suggests that the visual system extracts "geons" (a sort of geometric alphabet) to identify objects. Each of the 36 geons represent a fundamental shape, and identification of an object thus requires recognizing the elements (geons) and their configuration. In layman's terms, "these shapes" come together to create "this object." A form of categorization, no?

Other theories suggest our brain uses a template--we generate a prototype that contains all the relevant features that a particular class of objects has. I would argue that categorization is therefore an essential part of learning. It is a process that allows us to figure out what things "belong together." In behavior analysis, when these similar "things" get the same response, they form a class. Categorization in this case is less about cognition and more about the ways in which different stimuli occasion responses. Those that occasion different responses in a given context are thus parts of different stimulus classes, or categories. We learn that problem behavior includes wrestling, throwing, yelling whereas in a context of play these behaviors, though topographically similar, are functionally different. Is that categorization? Aren't categories how we differentiation one behavior from another?

I've come to the conclusion that categories are simply a part of how humans function. In relation to the gender binary, I think cognitively our brain seeks to categorize those around us, and behaviorally,we look for a series of responses associated with a particular category such as gender. However, gender as a socially-constructed entity must then inhibit socially-contstructed responses. I believe there are ways in which we can re-wire the brain to adjust to the spectrum (as we discussed in class) of gender identities. And, isn't gender in itself a category? Sex... and gender? Okay, I'm confusing myself now and all this brain talk is hurting my brain, but there is definitely something to be said about the cognitive functions of categorization and I would be interested to look further into the cognitive or behavioral categorization of gender and sexuality.



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