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