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date: 15 May 2021

The Macy Conferences on Cybernetics: Reinstantiating the Mindlocked

  • Tara H. AbrahamTara H. AbrahamUniversity of Guelph, Department of History

Summary

The Macy Conferences on Cybernetics were a series of 10 interdisciplinary scientific meetings that took place in New York between 1946 and 1953. The meetings were sponsored by the Macy Foundation, which aimed to promote interdisciplinary approaches to the social, behavioral, and medical sciences. Co-organized by neuropsychiatrist Warren S. McCulloch and Frank Fremont-Smith, medical director of the Macy Foundation, the meetings brought together a variety of scientists from mathematics, psychology, engineering, anthropology, physics, ecology, psychiatry, neurophysiology, linguistics, and sociology. The conferences strove to apply tools from the physical sciences and mathematics to problems in the biological and human sciences. Such tools stemmed first from Norbert Wiener’s work on the anti-aircraft predictor, in which he employed the concept of negative feedback to explain purposeful behavior, and second from McCulloch’s work with Walter Pitts on the logic of neural activity, which purported to embody logical reasoning in the physiology of the brain. Wiener and McCulloch touted the practice of hypothetical modelling as a bridge over the divide between the natural and the artificial, and a method for explaining purposeful behavior in organisms and machines.

Discussions at the Macy Conferences expanded on this work, and participants discussed and debated models of cognitive functions such as sensation, communication, memory, and learning, all cast as functions of the mind and exemplars of purposeful behavior. Thus, the meetings signal a major shift in 20th-century psychology, when discussions of the mind took on a more central place in psychological discourse. Behaviorist psychologists in the early 20th century had largely rejected concepts of mind as unscientific and not objective. The Macy Conferences, in contrast, placed the mind at the nexus of interdisciplinary inquiry across the divide between the physical and human sciences, and helped to bring back the mind as a topic of objective, scientific inquiry in psychology and in the emerging cognitive sciences.

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