The future of cog sci

As a final project in a class on theories and methods in cognitive science, we had to give a talk on what we believed to be the future of cog sci, drawing on what we had synthesized during the course and our own specific interests. I’ve started to think of this blog as a time capsule for my thoughts about the field, so I find it fitting to post my presentation (or at least, the spoken part and a few screenshots from the visual). I’ll probably look back on this someday and think, “oh, how much I had yet to learn…” but that will not be such a travesty. Today, having completed only 10 weeks of grad school courses, here’s what I think about the present and future of cog sci:

As I was thinking about the future of cog sci, I started by rephrasing the question to myself. Where’s the field going? What questions and methods will push the field forward? I don’t need to specify that cog sci isn’t a physical thing, so it can’t actually go anywhere, or that, questions and methods don’t have agency and therefore can’t push the abstract field anywhere. The fact that we produce and comprehend phrases like this naturally and possibly even base our perceptualizations on them is one of the many phenomena we’re still working on understanding.

Because we’re all familiar with the cultural convention of blending time and space with a timeline, I’m going to use that as a jumping off point. In order to tackle the question of the future of cog sci, we have to consider the larger context of its historical roots.

Early research was materialistic in that it didn’t differentiate the mind from the brain. Neuroscience contributed the tenet that brain activity equals thought, while computer science gave rise to the conviction that thinking is equivalent to symbolic information processing. As new topics for investigation have emerged, many researchers have abandoned the traditional assumptions. The orderliness “mind as a computer” metaphor just doesn’t mesh with the complexity and messiness of our cognition.

Traditional cog sci: the mind is inseparable from brain processes and the notion of the mind as a computer was widespread
Traditional cog sci: the mind is inseparable from brain processes and the notion of the mind as a computer was widespread

Over time, more and more people have begun to recognize that every brain is situated in a unique body, and every body situated in a dynamic world. Spivey eloquently noted, “it might just be that your mind is bigger than your brain.” This is where we are now: context often reigns supreme. Most researchers accept that people behave differently inside a lab than outside it, and they strive to make their experiments as ecologically valid as possible, or in other words, as similar as they can to the real-world circumstances they want to generalize about.

A brain within a body within a dynamic, complex world
A brain within a body within a dynamic, complex world

Gick and Holyoak provide one of many examples of the importance of context, specifically linguistic context, for reasoning. Half of their subjects were given the tumor problem: a patient needs radiation to kill a tumor. A weak ray will not be strong enough to kill the tumor. A strong ray will be too strong, killing much of the healthy surrounding tissue. What should the radiologist do? Few people answered correctly. Other participants received the fortress problem: There’s a fortress at the intersection of many roads. The general wants to capture the fortress, but if all his troops attack from the same road, they run the risk of being blown up by mines. What should he do? This question is much easier: the army should split up and attack from many angles. The answer to the tumor question was the same: the radiologist should send converging weak rays from different directions so that they’ll be strong enough cumulatively to kill the tumor. But the framing of the problem makes a significant difference for how people go about and succeed in solving it.

Tumor and fortress problems
Tumor and fortress problems

Language is an undeniably huge part of our culture and day-to-day lives. We communicate so much directly, and possibly even more indirectly. When I say, “can you open the window?” we understand that I am in fact asking, “will you open the window?” The intended unspoken information conveyed is interesting, but what I find even more interesting is all the information we convey linguistically without intending to. When I talk about cognitive science moving forward, I’m blending the concepts of physical movement and time, with the assumption (thanks to my culture and language) that the future is forward. If I tell you that there’s a canyon separating the rich and the poor in America, I might be conveying different information than if I say, “the poor are lagging behind the rich.” A canyon is often an impenetrable divide resulting from natural causes. Lagging behind, on the other hand, suggests a separation because the slower group is incompetent or lazy, but a separation that can change throughout the course of a race. Do these different metaphoric instantiations of a single, abstract concept have consequences for our thoughts and behaviors?

Screen shot 2013-12-10 at 3.56.02 PM
Are there implications of talking about a canyon between the rich and poor versus the poor lagging behind in the economic race?

We know that context is important. But context is a really broad term. What context is important for different aspects of cognition? How can contextual alterations shape our thoughts and behaviors? This is, I think, one of the many important directions in which cog sci is heading.


The Power of Words from London: Part 2

One of my favorite things that I saw in London was the British Library. They have an exhibition right now called Propaganda: Power and Persuasion, which slaps viewers over the head with the impact language can have on people.


Although the exhibit was relatively chronological, it was actually organized thematically, which was a cool and unexpected way to showcase everything that falls under the umbrella of “propaganda” (as defined by Merriam-Webster): ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause; also : a public action having such an effect.

When people think of propaganda, they most often think of linguistic messages, usually in print, that a government sends its people to tell them what’s good vs. evil or right vs. wrong. Propaganda is just another one of those examples of how humans intuitively know that their words have the power to shape their readers’ or listeners’ perceptions and behaviors… otherwise no one would bother with propaganda in the first place. Propaganda may begin as a simple message but, sort of like a snowball, grows as it’s spread farther, eventually becoming something much larger and more powerful than it started out as:

“The propagandist uses a keyboard and composes a symphony.” -Jacques Ellul

The exhibit started with Origins, which detailed the ways that earliest rulers reinforced their authority, created a sense of shared identity, vilified enemies, and justified wars.
Next was the section Nation, which focused on the aspects of society that government controls: education, currency, national symbols, and sometimes media, and how these tools have been used as propaganda to influence their people’s beliefs.
The Enemy and War sections were similar, demonstrating how nations use emotionally-laden propaganda to persuade their citizens to unite against a common enemy and to maintain morale during war.
The Health section was also interesting because public health campaigns aren’t what I’d typically think of as propaganda, but the exhibit showcased many images and slogans used to demonize or encourage different health habits.
The final section, Today, focused on digital technology and the new routes that it has opened up for states to communicate to the people but also for the people to challenge and criticize the messages they receive.

Overall, a really interesting exhibit that opened our eyes a little more to the manipulative messages that surround us in everyday life.