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For the last year, I’ve been blogging as a Digital Associate Editor over at, highlighting some of the latest and greatest research in Psychonomics journals.

The format is somewhere in between blogging for the layperson and blogging for academic, so mostly they should be accessible. In any case, see my archive here. I’ll also be reposting them here, as they come out, about once every two months.

My latest post: You say banara, I say banana. Let’s sleep on it.

The Psychology of Sports: Football Edition

Now that my football team, trounced and eliminated, is out of the NFL playoffs, I have time to speculate on what may be the most cerebral sport of all. Thinking about complex cognitive processes as my day job, I’m often struck by how little we understand about how to break down cognition into its constituent parts. Navigation provides a wealth of examples. To find a new restaurant, I must recall its name, locate myself with respect to it, plan a route, execute that route, operate a vehicle, identify the name on the sign of the restaurant, etc. Breaking down this fairly complex task into its constituent parts is difficult, but possible in theory. Excitingly, we’re getting much closer to discovering whether our proposed deconstruction of such tasks is actually how the brain solves such problems (see a few articles published in a special collection here, for much more detail).

But back to football – a recent article in the New Yorker by Nicholas Dawidoff asks “What Makes a Football Player Smart?” and traces out some of the answers to this question – adaptivity, pattern recognition, decisiveness. Some of these are measured directly by a standard psychological measure of intelligence called the Wonderlic. In football, tasks (as cognitive psychologists might call them), like planning and executing offensive attacks and defensive schemes, are fairly complex, but could be amenable to the same type of deconstruction in my earlier navigation example. The quarterback must decide, for example, based on defensive formations he has seen an opposing team use in past games (on tape) and on previous drives (live and up close), whether there are holes in the routes his receivers are running, or if a blitz is likely, or if he audible to a run. He must remember the strengths and weaknesses of his teammates and the opposition to uncover favorable matchups. If he selects a pass play, he must remember which order to scan his receivers during their routes and decide which throw he should make, whether he should scramble, throw the ball away, take a sack, etc. The result of each play can be construed as the sum of many cognitive processes.

Intelligence is a difficult word to define. So difficult, in fact, that one famous definition by Martin Gardner delineates multiple intelligences (and an overarching general intelligence factor called “g”). What Dawidoff’s article leaves open is how well the Wonderlic, a timed 50-item test involving many different kinds of items, actually measures “football intelligence” – or in terms of  what owners and coaches actually care about: football success. And is “football IQ” at one position equivalent to “football IQ” at another? The fast-twitch decisions a quarterback must make might differ greatly from offensive linemen knowing who to block and where.

I’ve written previously about the increasing use of statistical analyses to predict and prescribe success in sports. But I’m very curious about the potential role cognitive requirements play in various sports. Measuring cognition has increased its precision greatly in the past few decades and could offer good insights into the types of (potentially trainable) cognitive skills that sports certainly require, and may hone.

Where are we going?

Let’s do an exercise. From where you are right at this moment, can you point to North?

Now check your answer. How’d you do? Were you clueless? Off by a little? Dead on?

Navigating by cardinal directions is one of the primary methods of wayfinding, but many of us don’t bother to keep track of which direction North is. Some of us do. Others follow paths which they’ve learned over weeks or months and which have, by now, become habit. Lately, cognitive researchers have been questioning whether the advent of technology, particularly mobile technology will have an influence over the way we consume and use information. Spatial navigation is no exception.

Maps and GPS devices are one of the most fundamental applications of mobile technology; probably more so than the actual telephone features of smart “phones”. We, as a society, have come to depend on constant access to our current location, our immediate destination, and the route from here to there. Maintaining a spatial representation of our environment is not only unnecessary, it’s a waste of mental time and effort.

Not everyone feels this way, and the alternative viewpoint has been receiving a lot of attention in the popular press lately. In an article in the Boston Globe last week, well-known spatial navigation researcher Veronique Bohbot explained that she has given up GPS, in part to exercise areas of the brain which are heavily involved in wayfinding like the hippocampus. John Huth, Harvard physicist and recent author of The Lost Art of Finding Our Way, decries the lack of modern attention to alternative navigation methods as being less in tune with our environment. Huth’s accessible and fascinating book details the myriad ways our evolutionary ancestry devised to navigate, attending to cues like snow drifts, wind direction, and configuration of stars and constellations. He advocates reflecting on this history, and using it as insight into how we have lost touch with the environment we must find our way around.

As animals evolved to live in a spatial world, large portions of human psychology are involved in maintaining an awareness of where we are in space and where we are going. How important is this skill today, when maps and routes are omnipresent? If we don’t exercise our navigation ability, will other areas of our cognition suffer? Or will relying on technology free our minds to focus on more important things? These are deep and emerging questions in cognitive science today that have no simple answer. My personal opinion is that navigation is an important skill, and a way to become more in touch with my environment. I’m increasingly trying to use my GPS not as a crutch but as a tool to explore my world further.

How do you use your GPS? Blindly or with an eye toward learning? Do you think it’s important to learn how to navigate or something, like calculators can do for arithmetic, best left to technology?

On scale and perception

A crucial component of everyday cognition is the ability to think about scale: how big something is in relation to how big something is represented. 

Scaling is what allows an architect to represent an entire floor plan on a poster-size sheet of a paper. Scaling is how geologists represent billions of years on one timeline. Shrinking enormous sizes down to the scale of human perception allows us to engage our visual and spatial cognitive systems to reason about things we would otherwise have to represent abstractly. (Have you ever seen 1 billion of something all at once?) 

My lab, in particular, has been working on strategies to foster scaling ability and learning whether that ability can transfer from the abstract to the concrete. The strategies we’ve used have tapped into a learning technique called alignment, that is nicely demonstrated with this visualization which made its way around the internet last week (not to forget the classic Powers of 10).

I began thinking about posting on this topic after seeing this video (posted on about the inequitable wealth distribution in America. What struck me about the video is the comparison set up between what Americans THINK the wealth distribution is versus what it actually is. While I think the video is an excellent demonstration of the power of visualization, I take issue with the premise that what people THINK a distribution is reflects a desire to attain that distribution. An alternate hypothesis is that people THINK the distribution is less skewed than it is because representing enormous scales (and scale discrepancies) is difficult, and not something we are trained to do. 

Scaling is an important component of spatial thinking, one with ramifications on public policy. Think about the enormous time scales on which global temperatures have changed before the past hundred years compared to the shockingly short time scales on which global temperatures are changing now. Take a moment today to exercise your scaling skills, and change the way you think about the world.

Response (canned) and reply to an open letter about science funding

In response to my open letter (emailed directly to my congressional representatives), Pat Toomey replied with this, seemingly, canned response:


Dear Steven,

Thank you for contacting me about scientific research funding. I appreciate hearing from you.

I value your input on scientific research funding and the role it plays in driving innovation and economic competitiveness. I also understand your support for increased federal funding for this issue. That said, our nation is facing a $1 trillion deficit, and the President’s latest budget proposal continues this unsustainable path for years to come. All areas of government spending must be carefully examined so that we can put our nation on a path toward fiscal solvency. Inevitably, tough choices will have to be made, and making such choices is something that I have promised to the people of Pennsylvania.

Now that the Fiscal Year 2013 budget process is completed, please be assured that I will keep your views about federal funding for basic scientific research in mind. Your input is helpful as Congress begins focusing on the Fiscal Year 2014 budget and how we can correct our fiscal path, help foster job creation, and improve the economy for all Americans.

Thank you again for your correspondence. Please do not hesitate to contact me in the future if I can be of assistance.



Pat Toomey
U.S. Senator, Pennsylvania



My reply, unedited:



Some math:
$1 trillion deficit = $1000 billion.
Total requested funding of 3 major science agencies for FY 2013 (NIH, NSF, NASA) = approximately $56 billion
56/1000 = Science funding accounts for 5.6% of the total deficit.
Let’s be austere and cut 50% of this spending, or a total of 2.8% of the deficit! We’ve saved ourselves 28 billion dollars!
Of course, as a result, half the science labs in the US fold in the coming years. Maybe some of the top scientists may relocate to the UK, China, or Germany, where governments are investing in science, resulting in the direct loss of jobs in the US (not just the scientists, but their labs, techs, grad students, etc.); but maybe not. Maybe they just stop contributing to science.
Science which promotes economic growth at a faster rate than the influx of labor and capital. Science which promotes economic growth at a faster rate not for the US any longer but for its global competitors. And that $28 billion we saved by slicing basic science research? That money would have been made up, by some estimates, twice over.

Scientific funding creates good jobs. Families USA has estimated that each $1 billion of NIH research grant funding creates more than 15,000 jobs with an average wage of $52,000 a year and generates $2.21 billion of new business activity.


See, this is not a simple economic equation. It requires foresight, smart investment. Consider a family struggling to pay for its lifestyle, and incurring massive debt. Don’t buy the fanciest, most expensive alarm system money can buy, but slash out the money Mom and Dad need to pay for gas to get to work, or the kids need to get to school. There will be nothing left to protect.
Oh, and that math at the top of this letter – slicing education money is a good way to ensure no one catches up with your bogus arguments. Of course, that’s a separate issue.