Tag Archives: cognition

Retreating to Study Technology’s Cognitive Impact

Five neur­os­cient­ists trav­elled into deep­est Glen Canyon, Utah, to con­tem­plate how tech­no­logy has changes their beha­viour. Some were scep­tics and some were believ­ers, and by tak­ing this forced break from their com­puters and gad­gets (there was no mobile phone recep­tion or power) they were determ­ined to find out wheth­er or not mod­ern tech­no­logy inhib­its their “deep thought” and can cause them anxi­ety.

This bit of self-exper­i­ment­a­tion and cog­nit­ive reflec­tion is a bit too light on the con­clu­sions for my lik­ing, but this art­icle, from The New York Times’ Unplugged series that exam­ines “how a deluge of data can affect the way people think and behave”, does have this that’s worth think­ing about:

[By day three] the group has become more reflect­ive, quieter, more focused on the sur­round­ings. […]
The oth­ers are more relaxed too. Mr. Braver decides against cof­fee, bypassing his usu­al ritu­al. The next day, he neg­lects to put on his watch, though he cau­tions against read­ing too much into it. […]

Mr. Stray­er, the believ­er, says the trav­el­ers are exper­i­en­cing a stage of relax­a­tion he calls “third-day syn­drome.” Its symp­toms may be unsur­pris­ing. But even the more skep­tic­al of the sci­ent­ists say some­thing is hap­pen­ing to their brains that rein­forces their sci­entif­ic dis­cus­sions — some­thing that could be import­ant to help­ing people cope in a world of con­stant elec­tron­ic noise.

“If we can find out that people are walk­ing around fatigued and not real­iz­ing their cog­nit­ive poten­tial,” Mr. Braver says, then pauses and adds: “What can we do to get us back to our full poten­tial?”

“Third-day syn­drome”. I like that, and it rings true. Week­ends away to nearby cit­ies don’t do it for me in terms of dis­en­ga­ging and allow­ing free thought; I need at least four days.

One more com­ment that was a bit too close for com­fort:

Tech­no­logy has redefined the notion of what is “urgent.” How soon do people need to get inform­a­tion and respond to it? The believ­ers in the group say the drum­beat of incom­ing data has cre­ated a false sense of urgency that can affect people’s abil­ity to focus.

Hard-to-Read Fonts Improve Learning

Much has been writ­ten on the pos­it­ive aspects of cog­nit­ive flu­ency (in terms of typo­graphy, accents, and almost everything else), but a recent study (pdf, doi) sug­gests that the oppos­ite (cog­nit­ive dis­flu­ency) could lead to bet­ter learn­ing. The the­ory is that harder-to-pro­cess mater­i­al requires “deep­er pro­cessing” and that this deep­er pro­cessing leads to super­i­or memory per­form­ance.

Earli­er this year the ever-excel­lent Jonah Lehr­er sum­mar­ised the study, describ­ing how long-term learn­ing and reten­tion improved when classroom mater­i­al was set in a hard-to-read font (e.g. Mono­type Cor­s­iva, Com­ic Sans Italicized or Haettensch­weiler).

This study demon­strated that stu­dent reten­tion of mater­i­al across a wide range of sub­jects (sci­ence and human­it­ies classes) and dif­fi­culty levels (reg­u­lar, Hon­or­s and Advanced Place­ment) can be sig­ni­fic­antly improved in nat­ur­al­ist­ic set­tings by present­ing read­ing mater­i­al in a format that is slightly harder to read…. The poten­tial for improv­ing edu­ca­tion­al prac­tices through cog­nit­ive inter­ven­tions is immense. If a sim­ple change of font can sig­ni­fic­antly increase stu­dent per­form­ance, one can only ima­gine the num­ber of bene­fi­cial cog­nit­ive inter­ven­tions wait­ing to be dis­covered.

One of the study authors, in a com­ment pub­lished in a New York Times art­icle look­ing at cog­nit­ive flu­ency in learn­ing, emphas­ises how it’s not the font that mat­ters, but the pro­cessing dif­fi­culty:

“The reas­on that the unusu­al fonts are effect­ive is that it causes us to think more deeply about the mater­i­al, […] but we are cap­able of think­ing deeply without being sub­jec­ted to unusu­al fonts. Think of it this way, you can­’t skim mater­i­al in a hard to read font, so put­ting text in a hard-to-read font will force you to read more care­fully.”

The Science Behind Good Presentations

We know that cluttered present­a­tions and those with para­graphs of text per slide aren’t good and that the 10/20/30 rule is a guideline gen­er­ally worth adher­ing to, but why? Could there be a sci­entif­ic basis for why some present­a­tions are bet­ter than oth­ers?

Chris Ather­ton, an applied cog­nit­ive psy­cho­lo­gist at the UK’s Uni­ver­sity of Cent­ral Lan­cashire, stud­ied the influ­ence of dif­fer­ent present­a­tion styles on learn­ing and reten­tion by con­duct­ing the fol­low­ing exper­i­ment:

Stu­dents were ran­domly assigned to two groups. One group atten­ded a present­a­tion with tra­di­tion­al bul­let-point slides (with the occa­sion­al dia­gram) and the second group atten­ded a present­a­tion with what Chris calls “sparse slides”, which con­tained the same dia­grams, but min­im­ized the amount of text, and broke up the inform­a­tion over sev­er­al dif­fer­ent slides. Both present­a­tions were accom­pan­ied by the same spoken nar­rat­ive.

When both groups were later tested on the present­a­tion’s themes, it was the group shown the sparse slides that per­formed “much bet­ter”. Ather­ton sug­gests that well-designed present­a­tions are super­i­or teach­ing tools and improve recall and learn­ing for a num­ber of reas­ons:

  • The lim­it­a­tions of work­ing memory: even the stu­dents who did well in recall­ing themes, remembered only 6–7 themes out of a pos­sible 30.
  • The visu­al and aud­it­ory cor­texes are not being used as effect­ively as they could: the cluttered slides over­load the aud­it­ory cor­tex as it is used for writ­ten and spoken lan­guage pro­cessing.
  • Extraneous cog­nit­ive load is min­im­ised: the sparse slides may min­im­ise extraneous cog­nit­ive load by cre­at­ing few­er com­pet­ing demands on atten­tion
  • Bet­ter encod­ing of inform­a­tion (into memory): hav­ing to work a little bit harder to integ­rate the speak­er­’s nar­rat­ive with the pic­tures might actu­ally improve our stor­age of the inform­a­tion (up to a point).

via @finiteattention

Foreign Accents Make Statements Less Trustworthy

Due to the prin­ciples of pro­cessing flu­ency (also known as cog­nit­ive flu­ency, dis­cussed here many times before), we know that inform­a­tion that is easi­er to pro­cess is per­ceived to be–among oth­er features–more famil­i­ar, pleas­ant, truth­ful and less risky.

A recent study has shown that this is also true for for­eign accents: state­ments spoken by non-nat­ive speak­ers are per­ceived to be less trust­worthy, even if their accent is mild:

Non-nat­ive speech is harder to under­stand than nat­ive speech. We demon­strate that this “pro­cessing dif­fi­culty” causes non-nat­ive speak­ers to sound less cred­ible. People judged trivia state­ments such as “Ants don’t sleep” as less true when spoken by a non-nat­ive than a nat­ive speak­er. When people were made aware of the source of their dif­fi­culty they were able to cor­rect when the accent was mild but not when it was heavy. This effect was not due to ste­reo­types of pre­ju­dice against for­eign­ers because it occurred even though speak­ers were merely recit­ing state­ments provided by a nat­ive speak­er. Such reduc­tion of cred­ib­il­ity may have an insi­di­ous impact on mil­lions of people, who routinely com­mu­nic­ate in a lan­guage which is not their nat­ive tongue.

via Mind Hacks

The World as the Extended Mind

That the tools and tech­no­lo­gies we use act as exten­sions to our brains is noth­ing new: this is the exten­ded mind the­ory. Indeed, last year I poin­ted to Carl Zim­mer arguing that Google–and thus the Inter­net as a whole–was an exten­ded mind.

How­ever, Scott Adams’ take on the ‘exo­brain’ is sim­ul­tan­eously the most con­cise and com­pre­hens­ive I’ve seen:

I’m fas­cin­ated by the phe­nomen­on of manip­u­lat­ing our envir­on­ment to extend our brains. I sup­pose it all star­ted with early humans carving on cave walls as a way to store his­tor­ic­al data. Now we have ebooks, com­puters, and cell phones to store our memor­ies. […] Even a house is a device for stor­ing data. Spe­cific­ally, a house stores data on how it was built. A skilled build­er can study a house and build anoth­er just like it.

Everything we cre­ate becomes a de facto data stor­age device and brain access­ory. A wall can be a phys­ic­al stor­age device for land sur­vey data, it can be a remind­er of his­tory, and it can be a trig­ger of per­son­al memor­ies.

A busi­ness is also a way to store data. As a res­taur­ant own­er, I was fas­cin­ated at how employ­ees came and went, but their best ideas often stayed with the busi­ness, espe­cially in the kit­chen. The res­taur­ant was like a giant data fil­ter. The bad ideas were tested and deleted while the good ideas stayed, most often without being writ­ten down. […]

I sup­pose oth­er creatures use their envir­on­ment for stor­ing inform­a­tion, or pro­gram­ming their brains in lim­ited ways. But I assume humans export the highest per­cent­age of brain func­tion to their envir­on­ment, and it grows daily. […] Humans are turn­ing the entire plan­et into an exo­brain. Our brains can­’t hold all of the data we pro­duce, so we look for ways to off­load to books, web­sites, music, and archi­tec­ture, to name a few stor­age devices. And we manip­u­late the envir­on­ment to repro­gram our brains as needed.

via The Browser and Kot­tke