An autocatalytic network model of conceptual change.

Liane Gabora, Mike Steel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)


We show how uncertainty and insight can be modeled using Reflexively AutocatalyticFoodset-generated (RAF) networks. RAF networks have been used to model theself-organization of adaptive networks associated with the origin and early evolution bothbiological life, and the kind of cognitive structure necessary for cultural evolution. The RAFapproach is applicable in these seemingly disparate cases because it provides a theoreticalframework for formally describing systems composed of elements that interact to form newelements, and for studying under what conditions these (initial + new) elements collectivelybecome integrated wholes of various types. Here, the elements are mental representations, andthe whole is a conceptual network. The initial components—referred to asfoodset items—aremental representations that are innate, or were acquired through social learning or individuallearning (ofpre-existinginformation). The new elements—referred to asfoodset-deriveditems—are mental representations that result from creative thought (resulting innewinformation). The demarcation into foodset versus foodset-derived elements provides a naturalmeans of (i) grounding abstract concepts in direct experiences (foodset-derived elementsemerge through ‘reactions’ that can be traced back to foodset items), and (ii) preciselydescribing and tracking how new ideas emerge from earlier ones. Thus, RAFs can model howendogenous conceptual restructuring results in new conduits by which uncertainties can beresolved and needs can be met. A source of uncertainty is modeled as an element that resistsintegration into the conceptual network, which is described as amaxRAFcontaining the bulkof the individual’s mental representations. This disconnect produces arousal, which catalyzesone or more interactions amongst mental representations. We illustrate the approach usingthe historical example of Kekulé’s realization that benzene is ring-shaped through a reverie ofa snake biting its tail. We show how a single conceptual change can precipitate a cascade ofreiterated cognitive ‘reactions’ (self-organized criticality) that affect the network’s globalstructure, and discuss why this may help explain why cognitive restructuring can betherapeutic. Finally, we discuss educational implications of the RAF approac
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)163-188
Number of pages26
JournalTopics in Cognitive Science
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2022


Dive into the research topics of 'An autocatalytic network model of conceptual change.'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this