Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Topsight 2.0 > From analysis to design

At the end of the first edition of Topsight, I exhorted readers to use their new insights—generated from a field study, processed through analytical models—to design better solutions. But taking that next step, I said, went beyond the scope of the book.

That ending always bothered me for two reasons.

One was that, although I could point to other resources, readers would likely find it difficult to join their Topsight-generated insights with a given design approach.

The other was that I did know how to join these insights with a design approach—participatory design. I had written several articles on PD, one of which is my most broadly cited article, and I had already integrated PD methods into my field methods class. But when I was writing the first edition of Topsight, I hadn't worked out these connections, and I wanted the book to get out there.

In the intervening five years, however, I developed materials for better integrating the Topsight approach with PD. Among other things, I articulated the connection between Topsight-generated insights and design approaches and I emphasized the "fail faster" aspect of design work. The latter was influenced by my recent work with entrepreneurs, who (at the early stages, when their offering is still malleable) must continually reposition their offering to interest stakeholders—a process that encompasses design as well as argument, application, and financial model.

These insights were driven into Topsight 2.0. In this second edition, I add an entire new section—six chapters—discussing how to turn Topsight-generated insights into design decisions. The section covers PD techniques such as prototyping, organizational games, and future workshops, providing step-by-step directions and discussing when each might be brought into play. And, critically, it discusses how to feed the results of these techniques back into the design process so that readers can continue to develop insights and quickly iterate them.

To be honest, there is a ton of information on using prototyping, and much of it goes deeper than I can in Topsight 2.0. But you'll be hard-pressed to find much material on organizational games—an intriguing technique for understanding organizational relationships and routines, one that is a great match for the Topsight approach and that I discuss in detail here. Similarly, future workshops can help stakeholders to understand the deeper contradictions underlying their organizations so they can talk through these contradictions—but this technique also does not have a lot of published material.

Why this dearth of material? I think it's because design research has moved away from organizations and toward consumer software and products, an arena in which organizational games and future workshops don't make as much sense.

But for readers of Topsight 2.0, who want to design new solutions in the context of an organization, organizational games and future workshops are a great fit. If that sounds like you, please pick up a copy and let me know what you think!

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Topsight 2.0 > Now under Kindle Unlimited

I just announced that Topsight 2.0 is now available on Much more content, but the same price, so that I can get this book in the hands of people who need it.

For the same reason, I'm happy to announce that the Kindle version of Topsight 2.0 is now up, and it's listed under the Kindle Unlimited program. If you're signed up for Kindle Unlimited, you can download and read it for the low price of $0.00 (USD).

If you're not signed up for Kindle Unlimited, you can buy it for the same price as the original Topsight for Kindle — $7.99. That's lower than the $19.99 print price, and you can get it in your hands immediately!

I hope you try out Topsight 2.0 in either format. I'm excited about the book and its additions. Let me know what you think!

Topsight 2.0 > I have an announcement

Five years ago, I decided to try an experiment. What if I published a research methods book—a book that described how I conduct qualitative field methods for workplace studies? What if I made it as simple and accessible as possible? And what if I kept the price low so that people could access it easily?

The response was better than I hoped. Topsight has been used in graduate and undergraduate classes across North America. It has sold globally. It has been used in industry. Right now it's sitting on a perfect five-star rating on Amazon, with comments such as "Topsight is my favorite book. Hands down" and "THE book to buy for conducting research and writing a report." I'm thrilled that the book has been useful.

I'm also gratified that Topsight is being recommended by professors to their Ph.D. and MA students—and surprised that it is increasingly being cited in scholarly research (28 times as of today).


I've been using Topsight for those five years to teach the principles of workplace research to BA and MA students, as well as a reference for my Ph.D. students. And through those activities, I've noted some areas in which Topsight could be made even better.

For instance,

  • the early chapters discuss organizations, but not in as much detail as I would like.
  • the chapter on coding data is critical, but it isn't that easy to follow. 
  • the section on modeling provides several models, but doesn't give advice on how to build one's own customized data models.
  • the interim report isn't well aligned with the advice I give in the instructions.
  • the book ends by suggesting that students go on to engage in design—but doesn't talk about basic approaches to design, such as prototyping, organizational games, or future workshops.
Topsight is good, but it can be even better. 

I'm happy to announce that it now is. 

Topsight 2.0 has just been launched on It's reformatted, it's a lot longer, and it's addressed the points above as well as others. Better yet, it's the same list price—which makes my margins a little thinner, but keeps the book accessible to the people who need it.

As of right now, Topsight 2.0 is available in print; within the next two days, the Kindle version will also be available. It'll have the same content and the same features as the print version—and it'll also be the same price as the original Topsight for Kindle. 

Over the next few days, I'll be blogging more about the new features in Topsight 2.0. I hope you'll pick it up, and please don't hesitate to let me know what you think!

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Reading :: Bodies in Flux

Bodies in Flux: Scientific Methods for Negotiating Medical Uncertainty
By Christa Teston

Christa Teston has been applying the tools of rhetoric to medical practice for a while, authoring a series of articles that specifically focus on how medical professionals use agreed-upon methodological principles to work across fields. In this book, she pulls that work together, using Annemarie Mol's work on multiple ontologies to theorize this cross-field work. Here, Teston focuses squarely on methodology: how it is used to generate authority (p.1) and negotiate uncertainty (p.2).

Specifically, Teston looks at cancer care, and four ways to negotiate uncertainty in this activity: "evidential visualization, evidential assessment, evidential synthesis, and evidential computation" (p.2). Evidence, here, is understood as fundamentally rhetorical, and "backstage methods" (in the Goffman sense) allow medical professionals to "coproduc[e] evidential order from biological chaos" (p.15). Medical professionals use these methods to deal with inevitable flux, creating "evidential attunement," which "necessitates entanglements between human, nonhuman and computational actors" (p.15).

To develop this argument, Teston draws on "the so-called new materialist and nonhuman turn" (p.18). Perhaps Teston dislikes the term "new materialism" as much as I do: after name-checking Latour, Callon, and Bennett, she adds, "Although some have called this brand of materialism new, others (i.e., those who align themselves with materialist feminists) would suggest that there is nothing new about this materialism" (p.18). She goes on to discuss others in this vein, such as Hekman, Pickering, and Deleuze & Guattari, then concludes, "In this book, I locate material-discursive intra-actions between humans and nonhumans at the seat of method" (p.18).

She adds that although medical care strives for certainty, "this book unearths reasons for how and why it is that cancer care is not and can never be an objective science." She is not critiquing the "black boxes" of cancer care, which "are essential" because they "do the hard work of stabilizing, qualifying, and mobilizing 'future use of ideas and facts' while aggregating and mobilizing alliances (Danius 2002, 41-42)" (p.22). Rather, she seeks to examine how this work happens rhetorically, demonstrating rhetorical theory's explanatory power (p.22).

To reach this goal, Teston draws on case studies in which she investigates method attunement in cross-field medical work related to cancer care. She describes these qualitative studies and draws on rhetorical tools and concepts—Toulmin analysis, stasis theory, enthymematic reasoning, kairos, phronesis—to take apart the suasive work happening in each. And I appreciate that she performs these cases with a high degree of methodological explanation, demonstrating the rigor of each case.

On the strength of these cases, Teston concludes that "defining and diagnosing disease is a kind of quixotic empiricism" (p.169). Within these cross-field cases, she says, evidences result from rhetorical attunements—"In medical practice, rhetoric is a material-discursive performance that involves dissecting corporeal differences and similarities into manageable bits and bytes. Rhetoric is a material-discursive act of designing and deploying algorithmic protocols capable of predicting and communicating about possibility" (p.171).

Overall, the book was well done, both methodologically and theoretically. Teston offers a materialist approach to understanding medical rhetoric in particular and methodology in general. If you're interested in medical rhetoric, scientific rhetoric, materialist approaches to rhetoric, or methodology, definitely take a look.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Reading :: Exploring Semiotic Remediation as Discourse Practice

Exploring Semiotic Remediation as Discourse Practice
By Paul A. Prior and Julie A. Hengst

In this 2010 collection, the authors discuss semiotic remediation—that is, how symbols can be taken up in an activity and, through that taking up, "produce altered conditions for future action" (p.1). This work is grounded in the dialogic semiotics of Voloshinov and Bakhtin (pp.2-3) and the notion of remediation as discussed in Bolter & Grushin as well as genre theory's taking up of genre assemblages (pp.7-8).

The collection features contributions from rhetoric and writing studies; communication studies; speech and hearing; anthropology; and cognitive sociology. In this review, I'll zero in on two of those contributions.

Julie Hengst's "Semiotic remediation, conversational narratives and aphasia" examines the phenomenon of aphasia, in which acquired brain damage results in lost ability to understand and/or express speech. "Clinical accounts often describe individuals with aphasia as being able to communicate better than they talk, that is, as individuals whose communicative competence is better than, though masked by disruptions in, their language abilities" (p.109). Aphasia, Hengst argues, "disrupts not only the isolated performance of individuals but also the typical communicative practices of all participants in an interaction," and thus "individuals with aphasia and their communication partners must work together to reorchestrate the semiotic resources of communicative interactions and redistribute the burden of meaning-making in interaction" (p.109). That is, because communication is social, aphasia-related communication disruptions are addressed socially. In a social performance,
communicative competence can exceed linguistic performance in interactions of individuals with aphasia. The ability of individuals with aphasia to engage in complex, frame-shifting discourse practices so successfully and yet with sometimes quite limited linguistic signaling also helps us to see beyond the bright lights of language, to recognize how much communicative weight other semiotics can and routinely do bear. (p.110)
Hengst illustrates this point with "narrative tellings" taken from semistructured interviews and observations of pairs that included an individual with aphasia and one without (p.117). Through descriptions and transcriptions, Hengst demonstrates how the participants combined narrative, gestures, and other symbolic resources (such as a map) to jointly tell stories.

Paul Prior's "Remaking IO: Semiotic remediation in the design process" examines how a multimedia design team jointly produced objects (p.207). Specifically, Prior examines this team in terms of situated practice, in which writing is treated as a verb (activity) rather than a noun (artifact) (p.209). By closely examining videos of the team's design interactions—presented here as screen grabs combined with the transcript—Prior gives us a detailed picture of these interactions. In one case, "the drawing/text on the whiteboard ... involved at least 29 different actions that touched the surface of the whiteboard, movements made by two people ... over a period of less than three minutes of interaction" (p.219). And these movements were coordinated with further movements, including a laptop screen and gestures in the air. "Inscription at the whiteboard then emerged in sequential, temporal, co-present interactive acts; it represented writing-as-activity rather than writing as only artifact" (p.219).

Prior connects this empirical work back to the notion of chronotopic lamination that he had developed earlier with some of the other contributors to this book: "the simultaneous management of multiple social frames and footings as laid out by Goffman ... and Goodwin and Duranti..." (p.228). Here, chronotopes are linked or laminated. Chronotopes can be representational (narrative) or embodied (experiental), but they can also be embedded in affordances, such as when the chronotope of the road is embedded in "such sociomaterial forms as roads, signage, maps, and inns for travelers" (p.228). And "in activity all three of these chronotopic dimensions are necessarily fused" (p.229, his emphasis).

Thus "inscription and semiotic production [are] both situated in local interaction and dispersed across time" (p.233). The team Prior studied used multiple mediational means to semiotically remediate their design processes. But, he adds, "this kind of heterogeneous and heterochronic mix of mediational means, this kind of semiotic remediation, is a pervasive feature of human social practice, not an anomalous development of the digital age" (p.233). People demonstrate "semiotic agility" in switching between semiotic worlds; "managing multiplicity is simply part of everyday existence" (p.233).

Overall, this was a really interesting and useful book. I haven't done justice to all of the contributors in this review, but the two chapters I have overviewed should give you an idea of what the rest of the book offers. Pick it up!

Reading :: Assessment and Intervention for Executive Function Difficulties

Assessment and Intervention for Executive Function Difficulties
By George McCloskey, Lisa A. Perkins, and Bob Van Divner

In school, "80 pound boys are not expected to wrestle 120 pound boys"—that is, "students the same age but at varying stages of physical development are not expected to perform comparatively in gym class" (p.70). However, in terms of mental development, it's a different story: students with brain development differences "are expected to perform comparably in terms of executive function-dependent capacities labeled as responsibility, self-organization, self-direction, self-discipline and the like, in order to earn passing grades in most academic classes" (p.70). Such capacities are typically not treated as developmental differences but as "well within the control of the child" (p.71).

And since they are treated this way, "the negative consequences applied to a child not performing up to such standards can be severe, unreasonable, and often uncompromising in nature" (p.71). We wouldn't chastise an 80-pound boy for losing three straight wrestling matches to a 120-pound boy, but parents and teachers do chastise students who don't perform at grade level due to developing executive functions. "School staff does not see the inordinate time and effort the student is placing into completing school work and the strain that this additional effort is placing on the child at home" (p.138). And for many students, "when no specific learning disabilities are identified and ADHD is ruled out ... they are frequently subjected to what amounts to character assassination" (p.138, my emphasis). Poor production is attributed to moral rather than developmental factors: "laziness, apathy, lack of willingness to take responsibility for their own actions, lack of motivation, overt hostility, or lack of respect for authority" (p.138). These attributions may ease the conscience of instructor or parents, the authors note, but they don't solve the problem—they only exacerbate it (p.139), and they become part of the story the child tells herself about herself. Rather than setting the student on the right path, they morally condemn the student for not doing what they literally cannot do.

Executive functions are "mental capacities that direct or cue the use of other mental processes and/or motor responses" and that "have some link to activation of portions of the frontal lobe regions of the cerebral cortex" (p.38). The authors identify 23 of them: perceive, initiate, modulate/effort, gauge, focus/select, sustain, stop/interrupt, inhibit, flexible/shift, hold, manipulate, organize, foresee/plan (short term), generate, associate, balance, store, retrieve, pace, time, execute, monitor, correct (pp.41-43, with definitions). As the authors note, as the cerebral cortex matures, these capacities can develop socioculturally. And when parts of the cerebral cortex mature more slowly than others in the age cohort, these capacities (such as the ability to focus, organize, or plan) do not develop as quickly, and thus "simple" school activities—such as paying attention, extracting information from a complex reading, or keeping up with one's schoolwork—are far more effortful for the student than for her peers. Yet for the casual observer, these difficulties seem to be of the student's own making: if only they would pay attention, apply themselves, or take the time to think ahead!

EFs are often associated with syndromes, even ones that are not founded on the EF deficiency:
For example, Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) involves neural circuits routed through a number of subcortical structures classified as part of the limbic system, with the paths of these circuits also passing through the frontal lobes. While dysfunction of the neural circuit within the limbic system might be the root cause of the person's anxiety disorder, the disruption of the circuit within the subcortical region can impact the frontal lobes. This results in executive function difficulties while the person is in a state of anxiety. Therefore, some of the diagnostic criteria for GAD include difficulty controlling worry, difficulty concentrating, irritability, and sleep disturbance. All of these symptoms represent difficulty with the engagement of various executive function capacities, which are the outcome of experiencing anxiety. (p.77; their italics, but my bold type added)
As this passage implies, EFs such as "focus" are constructs that describe capacities emerging from the interaction of brain structures (in the case of "focus," these structures likely include the anterior cingulate and the dorsilateral prefrontal cortex) (p.83). The authors overview the likely brain structures associated with all 23 EFs (pp.83-85).

The authors discuss assessment as well, overviewing common EF measures and how they are combined to initiate measurable production decrement cascades (pp.120-122) and production increment cascades (pp.124-125). They note that EF difficulties are often not recognized unless they combine both learning difficulties and production difficulties: when the child has only learning difficulties, these are often not recognized, and when the child has only production difficulties, these are typically attributed to character flaws (i.e., the child is learning, but just doesn't want to do her homework) (p.137).

Fortunately, change is possible: "brain function can be altered through intervention" (p.179): Children can be taught how to activate neural networks to achieve positive goals (p.180). Beyond those interventions, the brain will typically mature: "for many children faced with overly aggressive expectations for brain maturation, a little time may be all that is needed to achieve the desired levels of self-direction. For others with more substantial delays, the ultimate solution to the executive difficulties being experienced may simply be much more time" (p.184). How much more? "Children with ADHD typically experience a 30% delay in the development of specific self-regulation capacities"—so if you are waiting for your child to exhibit the self-direction of a 20-year-old, you may have to wait until she is 30 (p.184). That's a long time—but it will happen.

I found this book to be fascinating. It's not uniformly well written, but I found it to be accessible. It helped me to think through some of Vygotsky's work on "self-mastery" and the ideological aspects surrounding his work, which largely focused on using semiotic tools to achieve that self-mastery. But it also helped me to think about the students who enter my classroom, some with documented disabilities, some without. Reading this book has helped me to better understand the challenges that some of these students face as they tackle our complex assignments, as well as the incorrect moral evaluations they may have received as they poured effort into schoolwork that was once beyond their capacities. For understanding both aspects, I recommend this book.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Reading :: Routledge International Handbook of Participatory Design

Routledge International Handbook of Participatory Design
Edited by Jesper Simonsen and Toni Robertson

This 2013 collection does a nice job of pulling the history, theory, ethics, methods, and applications of participatory design together into a single volume. It draws from PD stalwarts such as Kensing, Greenbaum, Bannon, Ehn, Blomberg, Trigg, and Bratteteig (although, regrettably, not Susanne Bodker!) to provide a PD reference of sweeping scope. Although it won't substitute for the friendly case studies of, say, Design at Work: Cooperative Design of Computer Systems, it covers the past, present, and future of PD in great detail.

For me, the history chapters were the most helpful. I've studied PD history fairly thoroughly, but still learned many things from Robertson and Simonsen's "Participatory design: An introduction" and Kensing and Greenbaum's "Heritage: Having a Say," both of which emphasize PD's focus on practice's epistemological and ethical roles.

Bannon and Ehn's chapter "Design: Design matters in Participatory Design" was similarly useful, situating PD in relationship to various design traditions and examining the design challenges facing PD, specifically as it refocuses on infrastructuring.

Robertson and Wagner's "Ethics: Engagement, representation, and politics-in-action" clearly states PD's differentiator: "people have a basic right to make decisions about how they do their work and indeed any other activities where they might use technology" (p.65).

I've written a very short review for this thick, detailed book. But if you're interested in PD—either in itself or in relation to design or research ethics—it should be on your shelf or in your hands.

Reading :: Self-Regulation and Autonomy

Self-Regulation and Autonomy: Social and Developmental Dimensions of Human Conduct
Edited by Brian W. Sokol, Frederick M.E. Grouzet, and Ulrich Müller

Although I'm calling this a "book review," I'm really just going to discuss one chapter: Challis J.E. Kinnucan and Janet E. Kubli's "Understanding Explanatory Talk through Vygotsky's Theory of Self-Regulation."

In this chapter, the authors are specifically interested in explanatory talk and "explanatory competence": "Indeed, it has been said that individuals' everyday cognitive functioning might be impossible without explanations," the authors add, citing Keil & Wilson (1998) (p.231). The authors "consider explanatory talk as one aspect of children's developing capacities for self-regulation" (p.231) and "ground our discussion of self-regulation and explanatory skills in a sociocultural perspective" (pp.231-232).

As readers of this blog know, self-regulation—typically termed "self-mastery"—is a major theme in Vygotsky's works, and self-talk is for Vygotsky a critical pathway for achieving it. The authors draw from sociocultural researchers such as Diaz & colleagues and Daniels, Cole & Wertsch to ground their discussion of "the development of self-regulation as an outcome of both social and individual processes" (p.232).

Self-regulatory processes as higher mental functions. The authors first discuss self-regulatory processes as higher mental functions (here, we'll call them HMFs), drawing on Mind in Society (which itself incorporates a part from Vygotsky's History of the Development of Higher Mental Functions) as well as commentary by Meshcheryakov to define HMFs as
guid[ing] and controll[ing] both thought and action and distanc[ing] humans from the control of environmental stimuli. Ultimately, the operation of higher mental processes yielded self-regulated action and adaptation. In Vygotsky's theory, the key process that produces higher mental functioning, or regulatory skill, is internalization. Internalization is both a developmental outcome and the primary mechanism by which interpersonal activity (e.g., dialogue, shared practices and strategies) is transformed into inner, self-regulating thought processes. (p.233)
HMFs contrast with lower mental functions (LMFs), which have developed "along a strong biologically based trajectory and included what cognitive scientists today classify as basic sensory, perceptual, attentional, and memory processes" (p.233). The HMFs, according to Vygotsky, were uniquely human. "Among higher mental processes, Vygotsky included voluntary attention and sustained concentration, concept formation, planning, and problem solving. In Ferryhough's (2010) view, components of executive function and forms of regulatory behavior are contemporary examples of what Vygotsky categorized as higher mental processes" (p.233).

(Note that Vygotsky's work on HMFs, described here, was subsumed by his later work on psychological systems — see chapter 6 in the linked review. Here, Vygotsky argued that the mental functions remain more or less the same, but their relationships change. That is, things that were counted as HMFs are actually effects of relationships or "constellations" of lower mental functions. I see an analogy to how neuropsychologists now regard executive functions as constructs for describing emerging relationships among neurological functions.) 

The authors add that "among Vygotsky's most powerful insights as that sociocultural processes forged new intermental or interfunctional links among higher mental functions" (p.234).

Mediation of self-regulated thinking and behavior. The authors then turn to the question of mediation, drawing on Wertsch (p.235). They add that "Kozulin (2002) warned that the full range of mediational social interactions is still not fully grasped," in part because of "its necessarily context-specific nature" (p.236). Kozulin proposed "distinguishing between type of social mediation and the particular mediating techniques used by adults with children" (pp.236-237): types include scaffolding, approval, and encouragement, while techniques include localized implementation of each type (p.237).

The authors note that for Vygotsky, "self-regulative uses of external speech were ... the earliest manifestations of inner speech" (p.239), and cite Diaz in asserting that "private speech gradually 'takes on a planning and guiding function'" (p.239).

Developing explanatory competence. The authors then review the contemporary research on explanatory competence "with the aim of illustrating Vygotsky's ideas about the gradual shift from externally to internally mediated forms of self-regulated thought" (p.240).

As mentioned at the beginning of this review, I actually only read this one chapter in depth, so I can't review this book as a whole. But this chapter was really useful for me in thinking through how Vygotsky's contributions have been, and can be, taken up. Specifically, it allowed me to better consider how Vygotsky's "self-mastery" relates to contemporary considerations of self-regulation and to the construct of executive functions. And, more broadly, it allowed me once again to consider how Vygotsky's assertions interacted with his political milieu and ideology: self-mastery was, after all, a huge theme for Engelsian dialectics and a hallmark of humanity. In contemporary neuropsychology, self-regulation is understood as important but, I think, not absolutely central.

In any case, if you are interested in how Vygotsky's work can be taken up in contemporary neuropsychological discourse about self-regulation, check out this chapter.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Reading :: The Practical Essence of Man

The Practical Essence of Man: The 'Activity Approach' in Late Soviet Philosophy
Edited by Vesa Oittinen and Andrey Maidansky

As long-time readers of this blog know, activity theory was developed by A.N. Leontiev, a Soviet psychologist, building on acknowledged influences such as Vygotsky as well as unacknowledged or lightly acknowledged influences such as Rubinshtein and Lewin. It was picked up in the West in various manifestations, including by Finnish education researcher Yrjo Engestrom, who extended it to better account for organizational and cross-organizational interactions. Readers of this blog also know that AT was in many ways a product of its time and place — its tenets were, if not entirely based in orthodox Marx-Engels-Leninism, wrapped in that orthodoxy, and Leontiev in particular was sensitive and reactive to the political environment in both Stalinist and post-Stalinist USSR.

But AT was taken up beyond psychology, specifically in philosophy and most famously in Ilyenkov (from whom Engestrom borrows the implementation of “contradiction” that now characterizes Engestromian AT analysis). This collection explores that philosophical tradition.

(A brief aside here: I am generally uninterested in philosophy, which I find to be tedious, low-stakes, and uninteresting. But I am interested in how philosophy impacts other spheres of human activity.)

In the introduction, the editors acknowledge that although the psychological AT is now known globally, “its sibling, the philosophical activity theory, which arose among Soviet philosophers in the 1960s, remains virtually unknown outside Russia” (p.1). Partially, the authors say, that is because people inside and outside Russia have written off the entire 70 years of the Soviet Union as an intellectual loss, a period in which nothing of philosophical value could arise. But, the authors argue, thinkers such as Bakhtin and Ilyenkov have proven differently. The activity theory approach is similarly an “innovative undercurrent” that “is worthy of reception and critical assessment even today” (p.1).

The “scope of the activity approach is wider than that of Marxist philosophy, as it repeatedly contested the received ideas of Soviet Marxism-Leninism” (p.1). Specifically, the authors charge, the vulgarized Diamat (dialectical materialism) understanding of praxis was overly pragmatic, “de facto identified with ‘success’ in action” (pp.1-2). In reaction, the AT approach broke with these ideas, a “Soviet analogy to the Western ‘Praxis’ Marxism” (p.2). The AT approach developed “independently from Western theories of action” such as Weber’s, and consequently had a broader understanding of action: “they understood activity as the fundamental trait of man’s relations with the surrounding world” and thus as “forming the methodological basis of all human and social sciences” (p.2). The AT approach was based on Aristotelian praxis and poesis (p.3), but extended to other non-Soviets such as Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel (p.4).

Ilyenkov wrote “the first manifesto of the activity approach in philosophy” in 1962, in his discussion of the ideal, which in his estimation was not just a “reflection” but “an attribute of human activity; it is the special, cultural-historical dimension of man as an active being” (p.4). (I’ve reviewed Ilyenkov’s books elsewhere.) This concept of the ideal was taken up by other philosophers in the early 1960s, during the “short ‘thaw’ period of Khrushchev’s so-called de-Stalinization” (p.7). The authors provide summaries of some of these philosophers’ ideas.

“In the 1970s, the Soviet state became slack and inactive” and “the activity approach lost its popularity” (p.14). Yet some philosophers continued to develop it.

With that background in mind, let’s get to a selection of chapters.

David Bakhurst. “Activity and the Search for True Materialism.”
In this chapter, Bakhurst recounts how, when he began studying the USSR’s philosophical culture, his mentors told him the key concept was activity. Yet “I gradually began to realise that there was no settled view within the Russian tradition of what the so-called ‘activity approach’ amounted to” (p.17). Everyone agreed that the first of the Theses on Feuerbach was the starting point, but no one seemed to agree on what it meant (p.17). In psychology, Vygotsky’s followers used the concept of activity to insulate themselves from charges of idealism, “and thereby succeeded in saving much of Vygotsky’s legacy, albeit in transmuted form” (pp.17-18). In philosophy, it directed attention to philosophically interesting parts of Marx’s thought (p.18). “In this way the concept served as a conduit for philosophical creativity in a  difficult and repressive philosophical culture” (p.18).

But here, Bakhurst is interested in activity’s general philosophical significance beyond the Soviet milieu. He focuses on Ilyenkov, who argued that a relation between mind and world is only possible through activity (p.19). He summarizes Ilyenkov’s approach through ten theses (pp.19-21), then reviews some friendly objections. For instance, Batishchev characterizes the activity approach as “substantialism”: by elevating object-oriented activity to a supercategory, the approach becomes instrumental and fails to account for fundamental concepts such as communication and community (pp.21-22). He also claims that the approach as radically anthropocentric (p.22).

Bakhurst acknowledges that some activity theorists, such as V.P. Zinchenko, were vulnerable to the criticism, but Ilyenkov is not (p.23). Yet “the ‘environmental’ [anthropocentric] objection is spot on” (p.24). He thinks that this is a repairable problem.

Bakhurst then contemplates the question of normative authority in the activity approach, a “live philosophical issue” (p.27). He concludes with “a radical, even heretical, suggestion”: the activity approach’s problems generally “issue from the idea that activity is a category from which we can deduce the relation between subject and object, thinking and being”—but what if we instead construe our work as attempting “to express the terms in which we must think human activity, the terms in which human activity must understand itself” (p.27)?

Versa Ottinen. “‘Praxis’ as the Criterion of Truth? The Aporias of Soviet Marxism and the Activity Approach”
Here, the author argues that praxis is not the same as activity. Praxis was a cornerstone of Marxism-Leninism, and thus became “ideologically overcharged” (p.29), partially due to Plekhanov, whom Ottinen charges was “the real founder of dialectical materialism” (p.31). Plekhanov indiscriminately conflated the praxis arguments of the young Marx and the old Engels, and the result was that “the idea of praxis became a seemingly omnipotent argument” (p.31). Praxis in Soviet philosophy became “a confused concept” (p.33)

Andrey Maidansky. “Reality as Activity: The Concept of Praxis in Soviet Philosophy”
Maidansky also takes a crack at the concept of praxis. He notes that Marx and Engels considered themselves “practical materialists” and understood world history as built upon labor; “For Marx, every human thing is nothing other than objectified labour—the condensed and hardened lava of Action” (p.42). In contrast, the author argues, Lenin’s Materialism and Empirocriticism defines matter as “an objective reality given to man by sensations” (p.43)—the kind of materialism that Marx had criticized.

Following the Marxist rather than the Leninist understanding, the author further notes that according to Marx, nature is an acting subject. Ilyenkov, along the same lines, says that labor is the subject, thought is the predicate (p.45). And in the same tradition, Batishchev argues that “in the process of practical activity, a human being changes not only an object but himself as well, his own personality, and even human nature itself” (pp.46-47).

Sergei Mareev. “Abstract and Concrete Understanding of Activity: ‘Activity’ and ‘Labour’ in Soviet Philosophy”
Mareev argues that “activity” is too broad a concept to apply methodologically. He advocates replacing the abstract “activity” with the concrete “labour” (p.96):

In any case, we should start with the notion of labour, because only through labour can we explain the origin of all ideal senses and meanings that may be produced later in all fields of scientific and artistic activity. Evald Ilyenkov played an outstanding role here, showing how the ideal, as such, is produced directly within material activity, that is, in the labour-process. This link was missing in the works of A.N. Leontiev, the well-known psychologist, which is why he supported Ilyenkov so warmly. (p.97)

He also notes that “The essence of speech follows from the essence of labour, and it can be deduced from and explained by it only. This is the general idea and general method of the Vygotsky-Leontiev school” (p.99).

Overall, this book was helpful in understanding the uptake of the concept of activity from psychology to philosophy in the late Soviet Union. I found some chapters helpful, especially Bakhurst’s and the Introduction, but overall this book is more geared to those who have a more active interest in philosophy. If that’s you, certainly pick this book up.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Reading :: The Mind on Paper

The Mind on Paper: Reading, Consciousness and Rationality
By David R. Olson

David Olson is a cognitive developmental psychologist who has, according to the back cover of this book, authored or edited 20 books on cognition, language, and literacy. Unfortunately I have only recently become aware of his work (I don't recall seeing it being cited in writing studies or professional communication). I'm going to have to read more of it, because this book is great.

Olson argues in the summary that "to understand the cognitive implications of literacy, it is necessary to see reading and writing as providing access to and consciousness of aspect of language ... that are implicit and unconscious in speech ... Reading and writing create a system of metarepresentational concepts that bring those features of language into consciousness as a subject of discourse" (p.i). To understand reading and writing, Olson presents five sections: introduction; theories of the relation between writing and mind; reading and the invention of language about language; the implications and uses of metarepresentational language; and conclusions. I'll touch on some of these parts below.

In Chapter 2, "Inventing Writing," Olson traces the history of writing: preserving and communicating information; inventing signs for language; inventing the alphabet; and (interestingly) how children reinvent language. I've discussed the invention of writing before, but Olson brings new insights as well. Among them: "Early forms of writing are now seen as directed to creating a functioning system of visual communication and not an attempt to represent language" and "representing language was a slow and largely unintended achievement" (p.23)—specifically
primarily keeping records of business transactions. But business transactions were verbal agreements. Why not represent the actual verbal expressions? One reason ... is that an appropriat set of concepts about the properties of language that could be visually represented was not available to the inventors. In inventing and borrow writing systems, they were discovering the properties of the language they spoke. (p.23)
That is, how do you visually depict a syllable, word, or sentence when you haven't conceptualized what these units are? These units are not necessarily intuitive (a fact that becomes obvious if you have ever tried to transcribe a conversation). In inventing written signs, Olson says, we invented these units: "the visual sign changed from representing things [such as vats of beer] to representing the words of things, thus producing the first logographs or word signs"—signs that "could be combined syntactically with other word signs to convey a meaning" (p.26). Since this system "directs attention to the language used as opposed to the event represented," it produces the "consciousness of language" (p.26), leading to the depiction of words and syllables (pp.26-27), and eventually consonants and vowels (pp.29-30). In representing speech events spatially, writing changed how we thought about (and allowed us to retroactively assign units to) those speech events. As he argues in the Conclusion, "The translation of language from a time-based temporal structure to a spatial one is the occasion for the discovery and consequently the awareness of certain implicit or underlying features of language" (p.219)

In Chapter 4, "Vygotsky and the Vygotskians," Olson examines Vygotsky's thoughts about writing and specifically Vygotsky's thesis that "social practices become psychological ones" (p.53). Olson characterizes Vygotsky as insisting that "language was definitive of thought itseld and that the mind should be seen as an assembly of internalized cultural tools, language primarily among them" (p.54)—a reasonable though not entirely accurate characterization. Olson argues that language "defines thinking, not simply aids it"—and characterizes Vygotsky as saying that "language is less a tool than the very medium of thinking" (p.54). Vygotsky, he says, argued that "writing was not only useful as a practical resource but also brought 'awareness, abstraction and control' to speech and thought" (p.57, quoting Thought and Language). In fact, Olson says that "Vygotsky insisted on the importance of writing in the development of consciousness of language" — and notes that Cole & Cole disagree, insisting that writing is secondary to social processes (p.60). Olson concludes by arguing that the "tool" metaphor of writing is too limited: "the attempt to represent language in a new spatial medium, I argue, may lead one to invent new concepts that make one conscious of the properties implicit in the spoken medium ... the concepts essential to a critical rationality" (p.63).

In Chapter 5, "The Cognitive Science of Metarepresentation," Olson takes this thesis further. Along the way, he critiques Kahneman's focus on System 1 thinking. For Kahneman, logic is normative and unexamined. Olson argues that "logic is metarepresentational; it is less a theory of thinking than a metalanguage for thinking about thinking" (p.69). Kahneman's System 2 ignores mediational means such as writing, Olson says. That's significant because "metarepresentational processes are embedded not only in the minds of educated thinkers but also in institutional structures such as science, government, the school and academy that have responsibility for maintaining the standards of rationality" (p.70). Metarepresentational signs—described by Vygotsky as "self-referring" signs—are important for understanding System 2, but also phenomena such as Theory of Mind (pp.77-80). As he says in the Conclusion, "metalanguages lift a structure from its place in normal discourse to make it an object of thought, something that one may say something about" (pp.220-221).

Overall, this is a tightly argued and thoughtful book building on Olson's decades of research. I found it to be fascinating. If you're interested in the cognition of language, and/or want to rethink Vygotsky in light of later cognitive research, pick it up.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Reading :: Executive Functions and the Frontal Lobes

Executive Functions and the Frontal Lobes: A Lifespan Perspective
Edited by Peter J. Anderson,‎ Vicki Anderson,‎ and Rani Jacobs

In this collection, the authors discuss the fascinating subject of executive functions, something that I have lightly covered on this blog in my recent reviews of books on aphasia. This collection, however, covers the entire lifespan: childhood to old age, healthy development to recoveries from injuries.

"Executive function," Peter J. Anderson explains in Chapter 1 ("Towards a developmental model of executive function"), "is not a unitary cognitive process, but instead is a psychological construct that is composed of multiple interrelated high-level cognitive skills" (p.3). It is
a collection of interrelated functions, or processes, which are responsible for goal-directed or future-oriented behavior, and have been referred to as the 'conductor' which controls, organizes, and directs cognitive activity, emotional responses and behavior (Gioia, Isquith, & Guy, 2001). The key elements of executive function include (a) anticipation and deployment of attention; (b) impulse control and self-regulation; (c) initiation of activity; (d) working memory; (e) mental flexibility and utilization of feedback; (f) planning ability and organization; and (g) selection of efficient problem-solving strategies. (p.4)
Anderson overviews several models of executive function, including the supervisory attentional system (SAS) model (pp.7-9), the working memory model (pp.9-11), the model of executive (self-regulatory) functions (pp.11-13), components of executive functions (pp.13-14), problem-solving framework (pp.14-15), and executive control system (pp.15-18).  He identifies strengths and weaknesses of each. (Note: In Chapter 17, "Models for the rehabilitation of executive impairments," authors Barbara A. Wilson and Jonathan Evans state that the SAS model is closely related to Luria's conception of problem-solving; p.389).

In Chapter 2, Cinzia R. De Luca and Richard J. Leventer discuss "Developmental trajectories of executive functions across the lifespan." They begin by explaining that EF are not just localized to the frontal lobes (and call out Luria 1973 for treating the two as synonymous) (p.24). But the frontal lobes do play a large role in EFs, and the frontal lobes degenerate first—both in aging and in pathological dementias (p.25).

The authors break down development into several stages and provide detailed tables for each stage, allowing us to see how brain development and EF relate by year. For instance, we find that at age 4, children increase both gray and white matter volumes as well as metabolism; they see improved cognitive flexibility at this age (p.34). Between ages 9-12, most EFs demonstrate a spurt, including working memory, strategic thinking, fluency, and goal-directed behavior (p.35). Through adolescence, white matter increases and gray matter volume decreases (p.36). From the mid-20s until the late 30s, "the major change in the PFC [prefrontal cortex] is the continued steady increase in myelination" or the fatty insulation around axions (p.39). Peak EF skills are realized from 20-29. Alas, "brain weight begins to decline from age 30, dropping by 10% to age 90," correlating with a long slow decline in EF skills (p.40).

But there is hope for us above 30. Although older people perform more poorly on clinical planning tasks, they perform as well as a younger cohort on ecologically valid planning tasks (p.41). The discrepancy reflects "the greater opportunity to effectively apply compensatory strategies and knowledge to successfully perform everyday task types" (p.41)—in other words, older people have learned mediatory strategies or picked up mediatory tools to which they can shift some of the cognitive burden.

In Chapter 3, Louise H. Phillips and Julie D. Henry discuss "Adult aging and executive functioning" in more detail. They note that since each EF "involves a complex network of brain areas and multiple cognitive processes," aging does not affect all in the same way (p.58). Interestingly, older adults see more prefrontal activation, and more bilateralized activation, than younger adults when performing the same cognitive tasks—likely because prefrontal decline requires more neural recruitment to compensate (pp.58-59).

The authors examine the evidence of how aging affects various EFs. Interestingly, in older people, planning is slower and involves more moves, but goal conflict handling—which is involved in the most difficult planning tasks—does not appear to decline (pp.68-69). The authors conclude by calling for more research on "well-practiced or socially relevant executive tasks" (p.73).

In Chapter 8, "Assessment of behavioral aspects of executive function," authors Gerald A. Gioia, Peter K. Isquith, and Laura E. Kenealy begin by discussing ecological validity and the assessment of EF. They define ecological validity as "predictive value of functioning in the everyday environment" (p.179) and contrast it with traditional (construct) validity (p.181). Ecological validity has obvious ramifications for "implications and predictions for the individual in his or her everyday milieu" (p.181). The authors overview various assessment methods to get at ecological validity.

In Chapter 18, Mark Ylvisaker and Timothy Feeney's "Helping children without making them helpless: Facilitating development of executive self-regulation in children and adolescents," the authors specifically examine self-regulation in children. Children often have "weak self-regulation" if they have "neurological impairment or immaturity" such as ADHD; "chaotic, unpredictable, disorganized home environments"; "weak emotional attachments" to adults, such as children in the foster care system; "few opportunities for legitimate control over events in their lives"; and developmental immaturity (p.413). The authors embrace a Vygotskian approach and use "a typical developmental template for developing intervention and support strategies" (p.414). One typically Vygotskian approach they use is to provide a script that children can internalize "as automatic SR [self-regulation] self-talk" (p.416). The authors provide several cases to illustrate this approach. They also describe teaching compensatory strategies (p.425). They conclude by advocating the approach of identifying strengths and goals as opposed to "pathology-oriented interventions that focus primarily on identifying deficits for purposes of their amelioration" (p.432).

Overall, the book was fascinating to me. After reading the foundational works of Vygotsky and Luria, I have been thinking about how a Vygotskian approach to workplace/professional writing might involve better understanding the EFs that collectively support writing and information tasks. Reading this collection, in addition to similar work on aphasia, gave me a much better idea of what has been built on that Vygotsky-Luria foundation, as well as how complicated our cognition really is. If you're similarly interested in these themes, I recommend this book.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Reading :: The Power of Intuition

The Power of Intuition: How to Use Your Gut Feelings to Make Better Decisions at Work
By Gary Klein

Over ten years ago, I reviewed Klein's Sources of Power, in which he discusses decision-making in high-pressure situations (by firefighters, soldiers, neonatal nurses, etc.). Klein had expected that under pressure, decision-makers would identify two potential courses of action, compare them, then select one. Instead, he discovered that they typically only thought about one course of action, quickly modified it by modeling it mentally based on their previous experiences, then took it. He began discussing this process under the heading of intuition, which he defines as "the way we translate our experience into action" (p.xiv, his emphasis)

This book builds on that notion of insight—and uses many of the same studies for grounding. Here, Klein is addressing professionals (and especially managers) who want to build intuition at work. How is it built? How can you apply it? How do you safeguard it so that your team can act on it? Drawing on his experience in teaching intuition, Klein identifies principles for developing intuition and using it to lead effectively. He does this with plentiful examples from research and consulting, but he also offers several decision-making exercises (DMX) and discusses how to build your own DMXes to help prepare your own teams.

If you're interested in improving your decision-making skills in specific activities—or those of your team—take a look.

Reading :: The Entrepreneurial State

The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths
By Mariana Mazzucado

A colleague recommended that I pick up this book, which was declared a Financial Times best book of the year. The book argues that, despite "the pervasive myth that the state is a laggard, bureaucratic apparatus at odds with a dynamic private sector," in reality "the state is, and has been, our boldest and most valuable innovator" (back cover). But because of this myth, the US government in particular has been disinvesting from innovation, with potentially negative consequences.

The book is closely argued and I'm sure it's very convincing. Yet I have very few notes in it, primarily because the thesis does not seem that radical or interesting to me. Yes, the State funds a lot of different innovation projects—including basic research in universities, innovation networks, and entrepreneurship training—and in doing so, takes many risks that would not otherwise be taken on by the private sector. I've seen plenty of examples, especially in my ongoing work with IC2.

If you do find that thesis to be radical or interesting, however, do take a look at the book. Mazzucato does a nice job of laying out specific claims and substantiating them with both hard numbers and specific case studies.

Reading :: Aphasia and Related Neurogenic Language Disorders

Aphasia and Related Neurogenic Language Disorders (Third Edition)
Edited by Leonard L. LaPointe

This collection overviews different kinds of aphasia (e.g., Broca's, Wernicke's) and related disorders (dementia, traumatic brain injury) as well as related issues (functional neuroimaging; social and life approaches to intervention; pragmatics). The scope is large, but less focused on diagnosis and therapy than other aphasia books I've recently read. I won't treat the book exhaustively, but I'll pull out some interesting parts from the chapters.

The book starts with LaPointe's chapter "Foundations: Adaptation, accommodation, and Aristos," which describes how people acquire aphasia, what it is, and how people react to it. Crucially, LaPointe says (quoting MacKenzie Buck), aphasia is a "family disease": some argue that "the social context, especially the family, must be an integral part of the condition" (p.5). Drawing on Morse and Johnson's 1991 ethnography, LaPointe describes stages in the illness experience (p.7), including the family and identity dynamics at play in diagnosing, compensating for, and accepting aphasia (pp.8-11).

Along these lines, in her chapter "Social and Life Participation Approaches to Aphasia Intervention," Roberta J. Elman overviews the work on social approaches in the 1980s and 1990s, quoting an earlier LaPointe publication to argue that we need a "sociology of aphasia" (p.41). One practical approach is the "life participation approach to aphasia (LPAA)," in which "all those affected by aphasia are entitled to service" and "advocacy efforts should be targeted to those components that are not available in our current healthcare system" (p.41). She adds, "a social approach to treatment requires that each individual's language impairment be viewed within the context of the individual's entire life" and includes attempts to "incorporate the daily activities and life participation events of that individual into the treatment plan from the very beginning" (p.43).

In Chapter 4, "Language and Discourse Deficits Following Prefrontal Cortex Damage," Carol Frattali and Jordan Grafman discuss the anatomy of the prefrontal regions and how damage to these regions can be associated with deficits. They extensively quote Luria's (1970) Traumatic Aphasia, noting that according to Luria,
the special position of language in the organization of behavior is compromised following PFC damage. Accordingly, the prefrontal syndrome is caused largely by disruption of the regulatory role of language on general behavior (Luria, 1970; Luria & Homskaya, 1964). Behavior, in Luria's view, suffers from a lack of the internalized linguistic schema that normally precede and guide any purposeful action and depend on the integrity of the prefrontal cortex. Translated in daily life terms, patients know what they should do and can verbalize it, but cannot always do as they should. Therefore, there is a dissociation of word and deed. This notion suggests that language is impaired not at a strict linguistic level but at a cognitive level of complex, goal-directed and intentionally regulated behavior. (p.55)
The above is consistent with Luria's agreement with Vygotsky's claims about how humans use symbolic tools to master themselves. But, the authors note, "a growing corpus of neuroimaging and lesion studies is beginning to weaken the above claims as being all-inclusive of the nature of language disturbances following PFD damage" (p.55).

This is the fourth book in a row that I've reviewed on aphasia, and I keep describing these books with the term "accessible." Although this collection is not written for a general audience, I found it (mostly) easy to follow, and I learned a lot about how aphasia and related disorders appear and function. As the above quote suggests, this work also has helped me to understand Vygotsky and Luria in different ways. Overall, I recommend this book.

Reading :: Manual of Aphasia Therapy

Manual of Aphasia Therapy
By Nancy Helm-Estabrooks and Martin L. Albert

Here's another (old-ish) book on aphasia therapy. This book is now in its third edition, but I'm reviewing the first edition (1991), which is what UT had in its library.

This book is a good, solid introduction to aphasia rehabilitation, including the neuroanatomy of language, the neuropathology and classification of aphasia, diagnosis, therapy, and impact on family. I found it to be accessible even without any neuropsychology training.

In the first section, the authors break down different types of aphasia along with lesion location (p.21). Like most modern neuropsychologists, these authors caution not to assume that brain functions are localized, but they acknowledge that lesions in specific locations are associated with specific types of aphasia: for instance, Wernicke's aphasia is associated with lesions in the "Posterior third of superior temporal gyrus" (p.21). This means that, just by identifying specific language issues, the therapist can categorize the aphasia and identify where the lesion is without detecting it directly.

The authors go on:
... strong evidence now exists to support each of three apparently unconnected views of the neurology of language: (a) that elements of language can be related to highly focal cerebral centers, (b) that language is organized in the brain in a regional or zone-like pattern, and (c) that every language act involves networks of neurons widely distributed throughout the brain, functioning in series and parallel. (p.32)
They advocate accommodating all three views in a single model in which
multiple, complex overlapping neuronal systems most likely are involved in language processing. These neuronal networks include cortical and subcortical components, some of which are near each other, providing the basis for regional contributions to language, and some of which are more distant, providing the basis for widely distributed, parallel processing of aspects of language. All of the regional and widely distributed networks are multiply interconnected. (p.32)
In this view, the so-called "centers" of language are really "critical 'bottlenecks' for the processing of selected elements of language" (p.33). Notice how this conception seems to accord with Luria's general understanding of cognition as not strongly localized, although it perhaps goes farther away from localization than Luria did (as is common in modern neuropsychology). Overall, an interesting and revealing book. 

Reading :: Language Intervention Strategies in Adult Aphasia, 2ed

Language Intervention Strategies in Adult Aphasia
Edited by Roberta Chapey

I read the second edition of this collection (the link goes to the third edition). This thick book, from 1986, covers several parts: basic and professional considerations; stimulation approaches to therapy; other approaches to therapy; remediation of specific impairments; and remediation of "kindred" or related disorders.

To be honest, I skimmed most of the book. The most interesting chapter for me, and the one I'll examine in this review, is Mark Ylvisaker and Shirley F. Szerkeres' "Management of the Patient with Closed Head Injury" (pp.474-490). I've run into Ylvisaker's work in other places, including a couple of articles and a chapter elsewhere. His approach is Vygotskian, and his focus is on the social environment in which patients recover from injuries. Here, these injuries are characterized as Closed Head Injury (CHI), "in which the primary mechanism of injury is a blunt blow to the head, associated with acceleration/deceleration forces... distinguished from penetrating missile injuries, where the primary damage is focal" (p.474). Elsewhere, Ylvisaker discusses traumatic brain injury (TBI). In both cases, the patients tend to be young men (ex: in motorcycle accidents).

Of interest to me is the focus on compensatory strategies, "simply procedures—sometimes unconventional—that an individual deliberately applies to accomplish a goal" (p.483). These procedures are eventually habituated. They can involve external aids such as logs, alarms, and printed reminders, but they can also involve internal procedures such as mnemonics and structured thinking procedures. Ideal candidates, obviously, "have the metacognitive maturity to think about thinking and other cognitive issues" as well as "adequate attentional resources and ... well-defined neuropsychological strengths on which to base compensatory procedures" (p.483). That is, Ylvisaker and Szerkeres are describing both physical and psychological tools that patients can use to recover functioning—a Vygostkian approach, one that is arguably in a different category from Luria's. They also helpfully include an appendix listing "compensatory strategies for patients with cognitive impairments" (pp.488-490).

Reading :: A Cognitive Neuropsychological Approach to Assessment and Intervention in Aphasia: A clinician's guide

A Cognitive Neuropsychological Approach to Assessment and Intervention in Aphasia: A clinician's guide
By Anne Whitworth, Janet Webster, and David Howard

Although I was worried that this clinician's guide to aphasia would be too technical, I found it to be readable and well organized. Maybe it's all that Luria I've been reading recently.

The authors proffer the cognitive neuropsychology approach, which "first emerged as a coherent discipline in the 1970s as a reaction to the then dominant approach [to diagnosing aphasia] in neuropsychology," the "classical approach," which "sought to characterize the performance of people with aphasia by defining them in terms of their localisation of lesion" (p.3). Recall that Luria argued in Higher Cortical Functions of Man against a hard localization thesis (ex: a "speech center" of the brain, a "writing center," etc.), but Luria did accept a weaker version of the localization thesis—a fact that is not belabored here, but discussed in some of the other neuropsychology books I'll be reviewing soon.

In any case, the authors of this book discuss how to diagnose types of aphasia, identifying variations by different types of impairment. They also discuss therapy approaches, which typically "draw on compensatory strategies (other language and communication skills) to take over those impaired functions" (p.89). I especially appreciated Table 9.1, which lays out different therapy approaches:

  • Reactivation
  • Relearning
  • Brain reorganisation
  • Cognitive-relay
  • Substitution
  • Compensation (p.92)
For our purposes, a couple of these are particularly interesting. The authors describe the cognitive-relay approach's aims this way: "To seek an alternative route or means of performing the language function, i.e. use intact components of the language system to achieve the impaired function through indirect means (Luria, 1970)." The citation is to Luria's Traumatic Aphasia, which I haven't read, but I can see the connection to Luria's other books—especially Higher Cortical Functions of Man and The Man with a Shattered World. Perhaps importantly, the contrast of this approach with the other therapy approaches helps me to think through Miller's argument in Vygotsky in Perspective: that Vygotsky's approach focused on sign mediation and self-mastery, not tool mediation and labor, as later activity theorists did. Luria arguably continued this approach, finding ways to reconfigure cognition to restore functionality. One famous example from Man with a Shattered World: he counsels the patient not to try to spell out words but to write them without thinking. What could not be done with conscious attention could be done via "kinetic melodies."

Compare that approach with another one on the list. Substitution aims "to encourage the adoption of an external prosthesis to promote communication." That is, it turns to physical mediators—tools—distributing part of the job to parts of the environment. One example, although not related to aphasia, might be the approach that Leontiev and Zaporozhets took in Rehabilitation of Hand Function and Leontiev's later works, in which external tools (grids, kymographs) were integrated into the rehabilitation activity, providing an additional feedback loop. Such physical mediators are a common focus in activity theory and, as Miller notes, are typically not well distinguished from psychological mediators (i.e., signs). 

In any case, this book is a solid, generally accessible discussion of how aphasia can be assessed and treated. If you're new to neuropsychology, this might not be the place to start, but it's still pretty readable.


I've been quiet on the blog lately, but I've been reading—books on entrepreneurship, participatory design, Soviet psychology, intuition, executive functioning, and aphasia. Over the next few weeks, I plan to clear out the backlog, so stay tuned.