Posts Tagged ‘George Miller’

Cognitive Processes

September 13, 2017

This is the fourth post based on “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World” by Drs. Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen. The authors note that “‘Attention’ is likely the most widely used term in cognitive science.” Attention is also used widely by the general public and practitioners from diverse fields of education, philosophy, mental health, marketing, design, politics, and human factors.

To understand what attention means in cognitive science, its most fundamental feature is selectivity. Selectivity is required because attention is limited. Indeed, it is one of our must fundamental constraints. So we need to be selective to use this limited supply where it is most needed. It can be thought of as the spotlight in our cognitive control toolkit. Selective attention also involves suppression of perceptions that are outside of the spotlight. This is also known as the act of ignoring. What is not so well known is that this suppression requires attention which further depletes the limited supply. The amount of suppression required depends on extraneous stimuli in the immediate environment. And it also entails the suppression of thoughts extraneous to what is in the spotlight. Expectation also play a role here as we used our expectations to direct our attention. Expectation is what allows us to transition from the internal world of our goals to our perceptions and actions. Expectation is a critical factor in optimizing our performance by enabling knowledge of past events to shape our future. To a large extent our brains live in the future, using predictive information to bias both incoming stimuli and outgoing responses.

Directionality is another important feature of selective attention, We can direct our limited cognitive resources to stimuli in the environment, but we can also aim it internally at our thoughts and emotions. As in the case for external selective attention, our ability to control internal attention allows us to attend to relevant or ignore irrelevant information in our minds based on our goals. We can direct our attention toward searching memories and/or focusing on feedback from the body, such as a hungry stomach. It is often important to selectively ignore internal information such as suppressing sadness at a time when you need to remain upbeat, or suppressing a recurrent that is interfering with your current activities.

Another critical factor when using selective attention is our ability to sustain it. This is especially true in situations that are not engaging, or boring. Moreover, over time activities that once were engaging can become boring. Vigilance is the area of research concerned with looking for a signal over a long period of time.

Working memory refers to the amount of information we can hold in our active memory at the same time. This amount of information is limited. The exact amount is dependent on the items. George Miller’s original estimate was seven items plus or minus two. Over time this magic number has decreased. It might even be as small as one, depending on the nature of the information. We must keep thinking about or rehearsing this information to maintain it in working memory. And this is another strong constraint in our cognitive abilities.
Goal management is required when we have more than one goal. So when we engage in more than one goal-directed activity at a time, we are switching back and forth between multiple goals, we are multi-tasking. It is more accurate to call multi-tasking task switching as we can only perform one task at a time. We accomplish multi-tasking by rapidly switching between or among tasks, and this switching requires attention. There is also a requirement to review where we are in the goal to which we have switched back.

All tasks require cognitive control. Even if two tasks are not competing for the same sensory resources, mental task switching is required, with perhaps the requirement to determine where we were when we left that task.


Consciousness and the Brain

April 1, 2016

“Consciousness and the Brain”  Deciphering How the Brain Codes our Thoughts” is an outstanding book by the French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene who is the Chair of Experimental Psychology at the College of France.  It is only a matter of time before this book becomes as classic.  The novelist Vladimir Nabokov wrote in “Bend Sinister,” “Consciousness is the only real thing in the world and the greatest mystery of all.”  We all personally experience consciousness and we think we know what consciousness is.  Consequently many people would be surprised to learn that many psychologists and philosophers think that consciousness is epiphenomenal.  That is, we are just along for the ride.  The real action is in the brain and the brain exhibits consciousness to keep us entertained.

Perhaps the primary reason the study of consciousness is avoided by scientists is that it is difficult to study.  The founding father of cognitive psychology, George Miller, wrote in his textbook “Psychology, the Science of Mental Life” in 1962, “Consciousness is a word worn smooth by a million tongues…Maybe we should ban the word for a decade or two until we can develop more precise terms for the several uses which ‘consciousness’ now obscures.”  Well time has passed and a better definition of consciousness has been articulated, and the development of methods for experimentally manipulating consciousness. along with a new respect for subjective phenomena has resulted in important findings about consciousness and the brain.  Dehaene’s book eloquently describes the research methodology and the research findings.

Signatures of conscious thoughts have been identified.  Three ingredients—focusing on conscious access, manipulating conscious perception, and carefully recording introspection—have transformed the study of consciousness into a normal experimental science.  Brain imaging techniques have provided a key methodology for performing this research.

The research in this book is overwhelming.  I could devote a blog exclusively to this book.  I want to convey the important points of the outstanding work, without bogging you down in details that might be demanding to read.  My plan is to post blogs on a chapter by chapter basis.  There are seven chapters, so I anticipate seven more posts plus, perhaps, a couple  of additional posts.

This work is certainly relevant for the healthy memory blog.  Memory health is critically important and involves understanding and using our brains to optimal advantage, which includes consciously making best use of our attentional resources.

These posts will address growth mindsets and attentional resources, but the reading of the book itself should significantly enhance growth mindsets.

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