My latest post for the Featured Content section of Psychonomics Society webiste: It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.
My latest post for the Featured Content section of Psychonomics Society webiste: It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.
For the last year, I’ve been blogging as a Digital Associate Editor over at Psychonomics.com, 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.
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.
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?
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 flowingdata.com) 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.
In response to my open letter (emailed directly to my congressional representatives), Pat Toomey replied with this, seemingly, canned response:
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.
U.S. Senator, Pennsylvania
My reply, unedited:
Senator,Some math:$1 trillion deficit = $1000 billion.Total requested funding of 3 major science agencies for FY 2013 (NIH, NSF, NASA) = approximately $56 billion56/1000 = 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.
I sent the letter below to all of my congressional representatives via this link: http://www.capwiz.com/fabbs/mailapp/
Please consider doing the same as our political leaders decide what to do as we approach the fiscal cliff.
To whom it may concern:
Slicing budgets for basic science stymies all societal growth. Growth in
major sectors of the economy will suffer irreparable damage as a result of
cutting funding for basic science research.
Think the US can compete on the world stage without world class scientists
creating the cutting edge? Think you will inspire a generation of young
people to engage with science as a solution to society’s problems if they
see research institutions fail and progress stagnate? Think we can solve
the problems that haunt us today without insights and development from
Think again. Want to cite that study on [green jobs; benefits of preschool
education; effects of a crumbling infrastructure]? Sorry, results pending;
scientists solving big problems await funding.
I, and my colleagues from the science community, urge you to think
responsibly and about the future as we approach the fiscal cliff. I
understand that cuts must be made, but do not cut the future to save the
Thank you for your time.
Steven M. Weisberg
I have been fantastically lucky over the past year.
I work in a lab that has enough money to send graduate students to multiple conferences around the world. Over the last year, I have presented my research in San Diego, Chicago, Japan, Germany, and Italy. At these last two conferences, in addition to presenting my own work, I also reported on the proceedings as part of my research center’s “Showcase” series, in which recent findings or events are reported to the rest of the center and the public at large. Along with a fellow graduate student, David Miller, who reported on the conference in Germany, I wrote a short piece about the conference in Rome, Italy.
Both conferences featured presenters and researchers on the cutting edge of spatial cognition research and provided a fantastic opportunity for young researchers like myself to learn, first-hand, the state-of-the-art in the field and to network with established professors from around the world.
I’m also attending one of the best psychology conferences in the world next month, Psychonomics, in Minneapolis, MN which I’ll provide another short report on for this blog.
The rules of perception are susceptible to exploitation. Psychologists have known for decades that the “reality” of the world does not map directly onto the reality that is perceived. Often, this mismatch is unintentional (like the feeling of moving backward when seated in a stationary car next to a car that is moving forward). These quirks of perception, some of which are adaptive to help us tune out irrelevant information, can be manipulated. Not that we always mind.
Magic plays with our (mis)perception of the world, in a way that is both artful and entertaining. But for Teller, of the magic duo Penn and Teller, magic serves as a form of science experiment. What variables can be tweaked to produce the desired effect? The stage as psychology lab metaphor is one he exploits in an article for Smithsonian Magazine. And, despite his naivete about the psychology jargon, the metaphor is apt. Neuroscientists are only just discovering the principles of and brain regions that support what magicians have known for years, claims Teller. Psychologists demonstrate change blindness (the error in detecting a phenomenon that changes in front of your face but outside your awareness); magicians employ misdirection. Psychologists research cognitive dissonance (people invent reasons for claims to bring their mental states in line with reality); Teller explains the craftiness of allowing audience members to inspect “magical” instruments.
A recent piece in Esquire covers some of Teller’s more well-known tricks as well as a recent scandal of trick-stealing in which he has become embroiled. The remarkable thing about Teller’s tricks is their starkness. The centerpiece of the article is a trick called “Shadows” in which a shadow of a rose is sliced by a shadow of a knife. In front of the shadows is a real rose, which is sliced as if by the same stroke as the shadow. The trick is so stripped-down, so naked that one gets the sense that how the trick is done must be in plain sight, if only one knew what to look for.
The real “tricks” of magic, although perhaps undetectable, usually are noticeable as tricks. That flash of light, the magician’s patter, the literal smoke and mirrors – these reveal themselves to be the misdirection that they are, even if we can’t prove it with our own visual evidence. From a psychologists’ standpoint, Teller’s tricks are astounding because they forego the flashiness and force the audience to confront what they believe compared to what they perceive.
The other tricks covered in the article, and the author’s brilliant take on the scandal revealed at the end of the article, point out something else about Teller’s approach to magic which served, for me, to change the way I define what is magical. In perception research, theorists talk about bottom-up versus top-down processes. Bottom-up information, the raw sensory information out there in the world, grabs attention in the form of loud noises and flashes of light. Top-down information, the brain’s resources like memory or context, guides perception through previous experience or the exertion of will. Magic can play with either of these two processes, and the way they interact. Magicians like Teller, who expand the repertoire of human tendencies they exploit (I won’t spoil the article by divulging which), can help us achieve greater conscious access to our own limitations in perceiving the world.
Scientists love to boast. Ok, not really, but they do love to present the newest and best data from their labs to fellow scientists around the world. Conferences are where scientists present data, network with each other, and form lasting collaborations. As psychology becomes even more internationally studied, conferences have followed suit.
This month, I have been lucky enough to attend 3 conferences in foreign countries on cognitive science and spatial cognition. This is just a short update to provide links to the conferences, which provide all sorts of fun resources and good names to follow, in case you want to find out more of the cutting edge research going on in psychology.
I’ll be writing an in depth covering the conference in Rome, Italy on Embodied Cognition. Last month, I attended Cognitive Science, in Sapporo, Japan, where I presented some data on the use of slope in navigation (see slides, attached). And this week, I will attend the Spatial Cognition conference in Bavaria, Germany.
Cog Sci Presentation [PPT]