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Talk: Douglas Hofstadter: Analogy as the Core of Cognition

Hofstadter at StanfordDouglas Hofstadter sponsored by Stanford Humanities Center

Most of my few run-ins with Douglas Hofstadter haved corresponded well with whatever I'm reading at the time. I read Godel, Escher, Bach during college, which connected the dots between all the different computer science classes I was taking, a feat that my professors were not interested in accomplishing. Shortly thereafter, I saw Hofstadter speak about translating Russian literature. This did not do as good of a job unifying my education.

Tonight's talk, Analogy as the Core of Cognition, was also outside the computer science domain, but my pop-sci interest in brain books has given me more dots to connect. Less than an hour after Hofstadter's talk, I read this passage in Birth of the Mind (p. 138) that struck me as almost being planted by Hofstadter for me to read:

Another critical factor may be the almost magical ability of humans to combine simple elements into more complex ones that can in turn serve as elements in futher combinations, as idea sometimes referred to as "recursion." If you can think about a ball, you can think about a big ball, and if you can think about big ball, you can think about a big ball with stripes, a big ball with stripes that lies on the beach, and so forth.

Although penned by a different author, this passage in many ways is the central idea to Hofstader's talk, which you can read more about in the extended entry. Hofstadter came out old-school with the overhead transparencies and in some spots in the notes I've used photos of his slides instead of textual transcriptions.

Analogic reasoning

Hofstadter started off his talk by breaking apart the term 'Analogic reasoning.'

In Hofstadter's view,"Analogy is the Delaware of Cognition"(which he represented in sketch). It gets shuttled off to a little zone on the side, but he believes it should be given a more central role, one that crosscuts everything else. "Analogy is the interstate freeway system of cognition"

Also, Hofstadter believes that we should drop the term reasoning from 'Analogic reasoning': "Analogy doesn't have anything to do with reasoning. It does a little bit, but not much." Instead, Hofstadter speaks of "Analogy-making."

is the name of the cognition game
- and -
is the mechanism that drives it all

"Analogy is the motor of the car of thought"

Facetiously he represented that as:

analogy:thinking :: motor:car
A:B :: C:D

which he believes would miss the point as analogy is bigger than A:B :: C:D


The perception of common essence * between 2 things **
* in one's current frame of mind
** thing -> mental thing

Connections between mental things inside your head, i.e. between mental representations

A few of his favorite analogies

Exponents/subscripts/dustbuster analogy

Hofstadter started with an anecdote from when he was eight. He had just found out about exponents:

x1,x2,x3,x4, ...

He spied one of his dad's math magazines lying around that contained subscripts:


Hofstadter's own analogy-making between the properties of exponents and possible properties of subscripts led him to believe that they would be super. He was completely devastated when his father explained to him that subscripts didn't actually do anything.

Hofstadter then talked about his daughter Monica, at the age of 1, playing with a dustbuster. Monica was having fun pressing one of the buttons and listening to the sound the dustbuster made. She noticed another button on the dustbuster and was completely devastated when Hofstadter showed her that the button did nothing more than open the garbage. At this moment, Hofstadter's whole experience of exponents and subscripts with his dad came back to him.

In a moment reminiscent of GEB, Hofstadter put up a slide with a long list of analogy mappings from this anecdote (partial sample below):

  • child(Doug) <-> child(Monica)
  • mathematical delight <-> aural delight
  • fascination <-> fascination
  • making of analogy <-> making of analogy
  • hope for a new thrill <-> hope for a new thrill
  • father(Robert) <-> father (Doug)
  • deflation of _? <-> deflation of button(sub2) (check video)

According to Hofstadter, this analogy making was a a reminding event and a lot of analogies are reminding events.

Hofstadter: Analogies don't have a purpose, they just happen

Discovery of America analogy

Hofstadter was reading a book on the discovery of America while he was flying to Denver. In the first chapter, the author relates an incident while traveling from Liverpool to Canada in which the boat (the Atlantic Conveyer) had to swerve south to dodge Hurricane Helene. Hofstadter illustrated this event for us in wonderful overhead marker detail.

After he got off his plane in Denver, he had to dodge a woman with a suitcase crossing the corridor. "Hey, I'm the boat, she's the hurricane, or, if you wish, the whirly girl." Normally this analogy would have fleeting and would have left with no effect if Hofstadter was not an "inveterate observer of his own thinking." Hofstadter: "but here it is leaving an effect on all of you"

Shadow (Ranch Oak tree) analogy

Hofstadter showed two photos of an Oak tree on a ranch: * summer: leaves, shadow on ground * winter: no leaves, no sun, snow shadow (absence of snow)

We are expanding the word shadow by seeing new instances of shadow, expanding our understanding of the meaning

Shadow <->"shadow"
if SNOW is made out of flakes
might LIGHT also be made out of flakes?

The light-flake hypothesis
Hofstadter 2005

Hofstadter: "It is a light and flaky hypothesis"

Hofstadter also mentioned other shadows, such as a "rain shadow," which in one instance is a desert next to Cascade Mountains, which stop the rain. There is also "shadow of WWII," etc... Hofstadter was talking to friend in northern Norway. Hofstadter thought his friend would be cold, but his friend explained that the northern part is actually warm because of Gulfstream. The cold part of Norway is the south, where the Gulfstream is blocked by England: the shadow of England is on the coast of southern Norway.

Expanding concepts


Repeated analogies expand concepts, such as the concept "number"

1, 2, 3 _> 1/2, 3/4(fractions) -> 0, -1, -2 (negative numbers) -> .. -> e, pi, ei pi


no difference between a single memory trace and a category/concept

  • There may be 2 or 3 young Einsteins among us~!
  • Milton Babbitt is no Mozart
  • if another Chopin was born in Lompoc
  • It's the next Catcher in the Rye
  • the Soviet Union's Viet Nam
  • the Paris of the Middle East
  • a mecca for tourists (note the decapitalization)
  • a bunch of treacherous quislings
  • the moons of Jupiter (Hofstadter assumes that Galileo first to use lunas [plural and decapitalized])

There is no fundamental difference between seeing X as a category member as seeing X as a category/concept (check audio)


Hofstadter talked about the special magic of the human mind: endless, limitless chunking. We build concepts by grouping together, putting a membrane around them. The internal concepts are put into a blackbox and disappear or become semi-visible, where the concepts inside a re a bit harder to see. As we layer the concepts, the concepts inside the concepts inside the concepts disappear.

Hub chunking example

Hofstadter put up a slide breaking down the many concepts that go into the notion of an [airline] hub. I didn't take a photo of this one, but some of the paths leading into the hub node:

  • bike -> roll -> wheel -> spokes hub -> centrality -> hub
  • name -> type -> brand -> company ->airline -> hub
  • get -> buy -> money ->economize -> downsize -> hub
  • time -> appt. -> timetable -> chart -> (network | downsize) -> node -> hub
  • move -> trip -> leg -> routes -> (network | airline)

Hofstadter's point was that many concepts are bundled in our concept of hub, yet we know hub as a chunked concept.

There is no fundamental difference between primordial tangible concepts* and highly-chunked abstract concepts **

* e.g. hand, chair, book, office
** e.g. hub, soap opera, sleazeball

List of chunked concepts

  • Solar System Y2K
  • slam-dunk
  • beltway
  • plagiarism
  • jazzercise
  • laissez-faire economics
  • ethic cleansing
  • domino theory
  • Bose condensate
  • Wikipedia (think how complicated to explain to someone in the past)
  • Dot-com bubble
  • spam
  • Republic/Democrat
  • gas war
  • "Final Four"
  • Y2K
  • genetic code
  • quantum cryptography
  • Baby Boomer
  • chick flick
  • WASP
  • "The Fed" (Hofstadter: I have no idea what "The Fed" is)
  • gravitino (Hofstadter: no idea either)
  • pork-belly futures
  • phishing
  • radar trap
  • affirmative action
  • grocery story checkout stand
  • Presidential lecture
  • wacky walk

The continuum of concepts

Labeled Concepts

  • primordial words
  • simple words
  • compound words
  • phrases
  • proverbs

Unlabeled concepts:

  • fleeting remindings
  • me-too's
  • political analogies
  • personal-situation mapping
  • scientific leaps

There is no conceptual label for "Doug being disillusioned about subscripts not being analogous to superscripts in mathematics" (need to check audio for quote)

Wants to talk about how analogy-making retrieves one thing from each of these levels

Primordial concepts (= categories, words)

Hofstadter emphasized that he's intentionally not favoring nouns as these concepts are not just things you see. Some of them have no sensory aspect at all (e.g. please). He disagrees with another researcher who thinks that categorization at this level has to do with feature detectors.

  • Mama
  • good
  • hand
  • hurt
  • red
  • loud
  • you
  • Where?
  • Please
  • Why?
  • in
  • out here

Simple concepts

  • chair
  • "A"
  • family
  • mess (which feature detectors fire when you see a mess? <rhetorically>)
  • probably
  • probabl-lee!
  • Come on!
  • I mean,...
  • Well,...
  • Hi!
  • kind of
  • but
  • Anyway,...
  • No kidding!

Compound words

Hofstadter at Stanford


Hofstadter at Stanford

Hofstadter's emphasis: these are categories


Hofstadter at Stanford

Regarding "Go directly to jail. Do not pass GO. Do not collect $200": "Perhaps I mis-categorized"

The mental lexicon -> the phrasal lexicon (Joe Becker)

Proverbs (etc.) are situation-labels. Sometimes proverbs boiled down to one word (e.g. sour-grapes [w/ hyphen])

Becker: the article should apply to itself (?) (check audio)

Rival Situation Labels

Hofstadter spent the last part of his talk dissecting rival situation labels with anecdotal examples of how we use analogy to come up with labels and how competition between those labels can sometimes have interesting results.

Italy rival situation labels example

Hofstadter spent a year in Italy and had to learn how to Buongiorno!/Salve!/Ciao!. He started off incorrectly using ciao, which you are only supposed to say to someone you're on familiar terms with. Hofstader started categorizing people as buongiorno-person, salve-person, ciao-person by making analogies to how other people addressed each other.

Instantaneous on-the-fly triage
Analogy does the trick

Office/Study analogy example

Hofstadter's friends, Kelly and Dick, were visiting his place. They referred to it as his "office," whereas he called it his "study." Kelly and Dick made analogy to their own office in their house, whereas Hofstadter learned his label by drawing analogy to his father's 'study,' which is nothing like what he considers to be his 'office.'

Rival situation labels
Instantaneous, on-the-fly triage
Analogy does the trick

Lexical-item choices (always) a flight:

Hofstadter at Stanford

Usually there's a clear winner (e.g. dog)

Sometimes not (audible competition, e.g. word blends, * pronunciation distortions, and * phrase blends)

Word blends

Hofstadter showed a list of mashed words that he's heard that show a merging of similar concepts.

"Is Danny there?"
"I don't know -- I'll go seck." (see/check)

"Don't leave your care there -- you mate get a ticket." (may/might)

"I can't keep all these things in my bread at the same time." (brain/head)

"Hey, wait up -- I'll gum with you!" (go / come)

"Every morning I took a capsi ride." (cab/taxi)

Bloomberg talking about being 'villagent'

Pronunciation distortions

Hofstadter put up a list of some of his mispronunciations. His belief is that there is a subterranean fight going on constantly with analogies struggling to take over and beat the other out. Everyday during his lectures he is making many errors but only noticing only a few. "Every word I say probably has an error in it and that's my point."

"I was having trouble ffinding it." (find; figure out). Perhaps it is indicative of Hofstadter's character that he said he stopped during lecture to explain to his class why he accidentally distorted the 'f.'

"It was po-izzed on the banister." (posed; poised)

Phrase blends

Hofstadter showed a list of phrase blends he had been collecting from his own personal experience to demonstrate the analogies within the mind between phrase concepts. According to Hofstadter, every 'effortless' category assignment is actually a seething subterranean battle of analogies

"I hope the package got there in one shape. " (in one piece/ in good shape)

"He was a real easy-go-lucky guy" (easygoing/happy-go-lucky)

"I should count my lucky stars." (count my blessings, thanks my lucky

"I'm worried that my editor is going to hit the stack." (hit the ceiling; block his stack; hit the sack)

"We'll pull no stops unturned to get him." (pull out all the stops; leave no stone unturned)

(missing slide text)


Thought is:
seeking the highest level of abstraction
putting finger on essence
and bouncing back and forth
between actual situation and found essence

Einstein, Photons, and Light-quantum hypothesis

Hostadter gave talk on Einstein's analogies. He hadn't known about how Einstein created concept of photon, which Einstein considered it his greatest achievement. Hofstadter talked about how Einstein was able to make the connection between the bell-shaped curve for the radiation density in a "black-body" cavity and the bell-shaped curve for the energy distribution in an ideal-gas container. No one had connected these two ideals until Einstein. From this analogy between two simple bell-shaped curves, Einstein deduced that light might also be made out of particles.

Hofstadter at Stanford

Bell curve drawing | Bell curve drawing Predominant freq. of light | largest # of molex have this K.E./velocity Radiation density in "black-body" cavity | Energy distribution in ideal-gas container

Bell <-> Bell

If IDEAL gas is made out of corpuscles might LIGHT also be made out of corpuscles

Light-quantum hypothesis Einstein 1905

The Cognition Core Hypothesis

If STROKES OF GENIUS are made out of analogies:

Hofstadter at Stanford

might not all of cognition also be made out of analogies?


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This page contains a single entry from kwc blog posted on February 6, 2006 10:17 PM.

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