trappedinLab

The first thing you learn when you study cognitive science is that the mind is an “information processing machine” analogous to our digital computers. To many cognitive science may be a mystery in terms of the conglomerate of disciplines that it combines: anthropology, psychology, philosophy, robotics, artificial intelligence, neuroscience and linguistics. However, all disciplines of this trans-disciplinary grouping use the “mind as computer” analogy as their main premise from which they launch their research to understand how organisms modify their environment to survive.

Cognitive psychology in particular tries to understand human cognitive processes that are involved in how we learn and memorise; how we are creative; how we pay attention; how we perceive the world and solve problems; and how we speak and emote. The aim is to understand and specify the symbolic processes and representations underlying our engagement with tasks that require understanding.

This unifying framework and theoretical model of the mind working like an information-processing machine can be briefly outlined as follows: the human is presented with a stimulus (an object or event) that the human can grasp via perceptual and attentional processes. This enables the human to store the information in short-term memory. Regarding the computer analogy, this procedure describes the storing of information in RAM (Random-access memory). Cognitive psychologist then believe that through repetitive access or mental rehearsal of this information – the accumulation of thoughts that center on this information- some of it will transfer to longterm memory storage. To draw on the computer analogy again, it will be placed on the hard drive.

Over time psychologists have studied many aspects of this model. One of those aspects is whether it’s a top-down or bottom-up processing approach, or both. Top-down meaning that the human processes the stimulus by also processing contextual factors, whereby these are very tightly focussed on the situation. For example, studying how a human perceives a word that is part of a sentence rather than looking at the word by itself. Bottom-up processing, on the other hand, is what cognitive psychologist dominantly argue for, does not include context. The idea here is that the processing of cognitive processes is a stimulus-driven approach. The processing of the stimulus is linked to the characteristics of the stimulus not the human. However, cognitive psychologists are the first one’s to recognise that the model has its limitations, nevertheless it still constitutes the basis for most research into cognition. (Other approaches, such as embodied cognitive science are being explored but are still in the minority of approaches across the field)

Cognitive psychologist study humans in very limited situations, which are largely artificially induced. People, mostly students, are recruited (and in many universities receive credit for their participation) to take part in laboratory experiments. The justification of these set ups and the minute ‘units‘ of study is that it will give understanding of the detail, which in turn will disclose how cognitive processes work together. One of the instrumental early cognitive psychologists who ‘devised’ ways of setting up lab studies with humans was George Miller. He was working in the late 1950’s, just after the era of behaviourism when many were mostly experimenting on animals. Miller ran experiments on immediate memory, absolute judgement, and span of attention. In his experiments, participants repeated lists of words, letters, and digits in presented order and he then tested the recall of this information. As a result, whether the stimuli was a word, letter, or digit, the average number of items that could be recalled was +/-7. In a seminal paper, written in humorous undertones, and already evident in the use of the word “magical”, he published these findings.

Lab studies with humans are generally conducted by isolating the human from the greater context of life. Moreover, most people who take part in lab studies are being rewarded for their participation. This of course is not only true for cognitive psychology but for most experiments involving the human. From the perspective of how we organise ourselves economically and educationally, it can be justified to coax people into participating in lab studies by using rewards. In this particular experiment, the first question that comes to mind is – what has our educational system to do with the limitation of +/-7 items of information retrieval, when we know that people can train to easily go beyond that? Or, how do we create a world that is limited in this way? Miller’s behaviour largely determined the course of the “magical” number 7 – as we will see in the following paragraphs.

After Miller published his study, his paper was quoted by other scientist and soon the recall of +/- 7 items leaked into the public domain and has since become an established truth. Seven has become a number by which we limit ourselves in daily life. For example, influenced by these findings, US telephone numbers have been implemented to be no longer than 7 digits, and recommendations for oral presentation make a case of 7 items to increase the potential that listeners will remember the message. This is an example of the recursive process that cognitive psychology has on the public.

When we go backstage for a moment, and see how this scenario developed from Miller’s perspective, we realise that it is exactly this context – that is being taking away from the studies – that has brought about the myth of the +/- 7 items of information recall. Miller in an autobiographical essay tells the story of how the situation unfolded. Miller was asked to give an hour long presentation when he felt he did not have enough developed research to talk about. He had a collection of studies on immediate memory and absolute judgement. However, he did not want to give a presentation of unconnected reports and was looking to connect the two. He then discovered the shared number 7 in both lines of research as the participant’s limitation in performance. Subsequently, he then decided to make the “magical 7” the theme of the research and also connected another strand of research on enumeration to legitimise his claims. Miller adding +/- to the 7 was intended as humor, that even the “magical” 7 could have a margin of error. He said “What about the seven-point rating scale, the seven categories for absolute judgment, the seven objects in the span of attention, and the seven digits in the span of immediate memory?…Perhaps there is something deep and profound behind all of these sevens, something just calling out for us to discover it. But I suspect that it is only a pernicious, Pythagorean coincidence”

The idea of the “7” as theme connector was born out of necessity and the intention to give a successful presentation. It was from the context of this situation that gave Miller the incentive to act, in self-honesty, through a form of manipulation. On the other hand, researchers latch onto findings that are accessible to them and can be used to give concrete direction to one’s own work – the number 7 did the job, and proliferated published papers referencing Miller’s work. We see here that how we act is determined by the context, regardless of the situation – scientists included. Our motivations will determine the decisions we make which will determine how the information is propagated in the world.

The solution therefore is to learn to study the human in context, learn to see how we approach teaching our children as they recreate the world along the same lines of how they have been taught. How we manifest our fears and competitions, what are the roots of these emotions, and how do they determine the unfolding of situations that include the way we construct knowledge. We saw further that science does not operate in a vacuum and that the so called “scientific discoveries” have repercussions that shape our conduct collectively. Cognitive psychologists have the opportunity to ask themselves what is the fundamental role of the system we live by and why do we ‘just’ overlook recognised limitations? For example, the vastly limited “information-processing” model that we use in the study of cognition. Why are we so eager to blind ourselves with a model and a way to study, what are our motivations here?

The solution for cognitive psychology is to end its own belief system first. This means stop researching the cognitive limitation of human nature and recognise that this is a belief. It means furthermore to start observing the world and understand that these limitations are self-imposed by the system we have created. Rather, it should be the task of cognitive scientists to support the ways in which we can function to overcome the limitations we have accepted as our “nature” – observing the world as is – and not as it might be constructed in a lab. For instance, real world findings, such as feral children, who have trained themselves to behave like animals are examples of how we are “cognisant” of our environment, which gives us the ability to shape ourselves in any way we want to – what’s us keeping from creating a world that is best for all?

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