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The City is the Map: Exosomatic Memory, Shared Cognition and a Possible Mechanism to Account for Social Evolution

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One role of the city is often overlooked. This is its role in providing a common setting for social action. This paper reviews research into the geometry and topology of urban built space and the way that these configurational structures appear to be appropriated for human individual and social purposes. It links economic, cultural and political domains of social action to the physical and spatial structure of cities. In doing so it points to those aspects of individual perception and cognition that must logically be assumed to be common between individuals, and so form a basis for the social. It proposes, following Bratman (1987), that our individual actions involve at least three distinct psychological dimensions: the beliefs we hold about the world we inhabit are substantially cognitive; our desires are affective or emotional; and our immediate intentions are guided by both desire and our beliefs about the world, for the most part through apparently rational behaviour. If on occasion our behaviour appears less than rational, this can usually be traced back to a misapprehension about the nature of the world – a cognitive deficit – to the driving motivation being emotional, or to the apparently irrational outcomes of system dynamics involving feedback processes, for example in the operation of markets. It concludes by suggesting that an important part of our cognitive apparatus lies outside our bodies in the morphology of the environments we build and the way that we appropriate these for use. Since the construction and use of the built environment is distributed amongst many actors in a population, it is suggested that the environment of the city itself becomes a part of the shared cognitive capacity for communities, allowing these to behave as if a single organism from a cognitive point of view. This offers a possible mechanism to account for the rapid pace of human social evolution over the last 10,000 years.

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: June 1, 2018

More about this publication?
  • Built Environment is published quarterly in March, June, September and December. With an emphasis on crossing disciplinary boundaries and providing global perspective, each issue focuses on a single subject of contemporary interest to practitioners, academics and students working in a wide range of disciplines. Issues are guest-edited by established international experts who not only commission contributions, but also oversee the peer-reviewing process in collaboration with the Editors.

    Subject areas include: architecture; conservation; economic development; environmental planning; health; housing; regeneration; social issues; spatial planning; sustainability; urban design; and transport. All issues include reviews of recent publications.

    The journal is abstracted in Geo Abstracts, Sage Urban Studies Abstracts, and Journal of Planning Literature, and is indexed in the Avery Index to Architectural Publications.

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