Ad hoc cognition

I heard about lots of cool research this past weekend at Psychonomics – how taking photos affects our memory (not positively), how we prefer musical meters (i.e. 3/4 or 6/8) that we’ve been exposed to earlier, and how we tend to use the same syntactic structure to talk about things as was used when we learned them (even when we’ve heard other structures between the learning and talking).

But my favorite group of talks was a block on Ad Hoc Cognition – the idea that our mental categories, concepts, and word meanings are not stable, but are constructed each time we use them. Daniel Casasanto presented a great example of this theory. We might consider that everyone has a relatively similar concept of what constitutes furniture, or at least that one person’s mental category for furniture is always the same. It’s probably made up of things like tables, chairs, and couches. But what about when you’re camping and someone says, “We need some furniture for this bonfire. Let’s pull over that log.” Although logs aren’t typically included when we think of furniture, in that moment, it seems appropriate to call a log a piece of furniture. We have no problem constructing our idea of what belongs in the furniture category on the spot (ad hoc), and the larger argument is that we’re constantly doing this.

Jeff Elman also presented some cool evidence demonstrating the same point. He (and others) have measured the electrical activity along people’s scalps (using EEG) that occurs when people read sentences, and have found that people have different expectations for what words should come next depending on the context. For example, in the context of an ice skater who just won a championship, when people read “the crowd roared as she took her place on the podium,” they show no evidence or surprise at the word podium (this would be demonstrated by a spike in activity 400ms after the word podium was presented, also known as the N400 component). When they read that “the crowd roared as she took her place on the medal,” they show a medium N400 response, indicating that they were moderately surprised by the word medal, which doesn’t actually make sense but is an object that would likely be involved in the situation. When they read that the “crowd roared as she took her place on the beach,” which makes no sense and should also not be associated with the situation, they show the largest N400 response, or the most surprise. The fact that the responses to bleach and medal differ even though neither makes logical sense shows that people are constantly constructing expectations based on context.

So if we’re constructing our concepts, categories, and word meanings (CC&Ms) on the spot in a new way for every concept, is it futile to study our mental CC&Ms? Casasanto gave a helpful analogy to show that studying how we think about these things is still fruitful, even if they’re context-dependent and therefore unstable. Just as physicists know that Newtonian physics is not quite accurate and that the theory of general relativity is more scientifically sound, we still rely on Newtonian physics all the time – when we go on a diet, we use a scale to measure our mass, since the Newtonian concept of mass is good enough for what we need). Returning to mental concepts, if a child asks you what a plethora is, it’s probably not a good idea to respond that it’s an ill-formed question, since our idea of plethora is constantly constructed from context. We can come up with a definition of plethora that’s close enough for many purposes, and the kid will not be living a lie if he doesn’t acknowledge that the meaning might differ slightly from one context to the next. However, it’s important for people who research CC&Ms for a living to honor their context-sensitivity and bear it in mind as they go about defining and exploring these nebulous ideas.

A movable academic feast

This weekend I’m at Psychonomics, and except for the fact that there’s no food at the conference, it is very much a movable feast. Just like at many restaurants, before the experience even starts you can go online to get a menu in the form of a 300+ page program. Both menus are broken up in a logical sequence – either by appetizers, mains, and desserts or by morning, afternoon, and evening sessions. Instead of separate sections for meat and fish, though, the conference menu has sections for poster sessions and talks, and subsections for posters and talks that are on related topics.

The menu is only a small part of the experience, though. It’s a guide. The feast starts when you get to the conference center, choose an item off the menu, and seek it out. You float from one conference room to another in many cases, each time getting a small taste of something new. It’s not the Olive Garden with whopping portion sizes and bottomless breadsticks, though by the end you’ll probably feel like you ingested the mental equivalent of a huge bowl of penne alla vodka (which is delicious, but also invokes lethargy, a coma-like feeling). It’s rich and filling, an experience you know you want to have again… but first, a recovery period.


The education escalator

I spend a lot of time thinking about the problems with education and what we might be able to do to fix them. I think about it on a small scale (i.e., how can I better explain this concept to the 50 students sitting in front of me right now?) and on a larger scale (can an innovative online-based college become a competitor for traditional elite colleges?)

For these reasons, I was intrigued by this recent NYT article by Nicholas Kristoff (The American Dream Is Leaving America). The core of the article points out that America used to have unrivaled education. As a result, it was a land of opportunity. Now, other countries have improved their education systems, and the formerly stellar American system has become one that perpetuates inequality. This may all be true (the data he presents certainly suggest so).

However, he bookends the piece with a perplexing metaphor: the education escalator. He starts it by saying: “The best escalator to opportunity in America is education. But a new study underscores that the escalator is broken.” The final lines are similar: “A starting point is to embrace the ethos that was born in America but is now an expatriate: that we owe all children a fair start in life in the form of access to an education escalator. Let’s fix the escalator.”


His point is not lost on me, but I don’t think that the American ethos is that all children should be put on an escalator that will take them to success. Usually talk of an American ethos tends to revolve around the idea of a self-made man. These two ideas are incompatible. Once you step on an escalator, you don’t have to do a single thing. Instead, you get to space out for about 30 seconds and gaze down at the ground as you slowly drift away. The most strenuous part of riding an escalator is stepping off at the right time. A self-made man, on the other hand, has to do a lot to get up to the next level. We assume that everything he does on his way up is more strenuous than stepping off an escalator.

For this reason, I don’t think our goal in America should be to fix an education escalator. Equal opportunities for all children – yes. But stepping on shouldn’t guarantee success. Maybe instead we should work on building a big, sturdy education staircase. It’ll be equipped with a handrail to guide weak and unsteady students, but they have to put in effort in order to progress.

The languages of business and love

I just wrote a fun piece for Virgin on the topic: Does business need a new language of love? It was an interesting topic to write on as someone who thinks about language (all day, every day…), but whose engagement with the world of business is roughly limited to occasional trips to the grocery store. The whole series on this topic is a very cool mix of perspectives.

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Body spills into the brain

This quarter I’m TAing for a class called Distributed Cognition, which explores a bunch of ways that cognition might not be something that happens exclusively in the brain. This week we looked at different flavors of embodiment, the idea that the body is crucial for cognition. For example, we talked about one study showing that people who were unknowingly leaning to the left made numerical estimates that were too small (consistent with the location of smaller numbers on our number line), while those leaning to the right made overestimations (Eerland, Guadalupe, & Zwaan, 2011). The overarching theme was that the state of our body can affect thoughts that we typically attribute only to our brain.

One study that I was reminded about when talking to a student is a study that has gotten a good amount of popular press attention. It’s called Extraneous factors in judicial decisions (Danziger, Levav, & Avnaim-Pesso, 2011), but the message that is usually taken is that judges have no mercy when they’re hungry. The authors divided judges’ work days into three chunks, divided by their food breaks. They found that at the beginning of each segment, judges made favorable decisions about 65% of the time, and their favorable decision rate declined steadily, reaching nearly 0%, throughout each segment. As someone whose brain and body shut down without a relatively consistent stream of food, this finding is not too shocking, though the magnitude of the change in favorable decisions is dramatic. I think it’s a great example of “body spills into the brain.”

It’s also an example of what many researchers refer to as “ego depletion,” the idea that we have a limited pool of mental resources, and cognition suffers once they’re used up. We get mentally fatigued, and then make poor decisions or have poor performance on some task as a result. Ego depletion underlies claims that working fewer hours increases productivity. I read this sort of advice often, each time thinking to myself, yes! I should do that. I feel this way especially on days like today, a Saturday morning in which ego depletion is fresh on my mind. I’m in recovery mode. Then, inspired to change my work habits, I’ll open my calendar to decide which work hours I’ll shave off the week, and I just stare at it. My trusty, color-coded calendar feels non-negotiable, so I close it and decide that working fewer hours maybe isn’t that crucial. I convince myself of this by reading reminders that some researchers claim that ego depletion is all in our heads. There’s probably some truth to this too – I often don’t start to feel drained until I acknowledge how busy I’ve been.

I do a lot of meta-cognition about work. By that I mean that I think about my work patterns and other people’s, and I try to evaluate what’s good bad about those patterns. My conclusion, for this morning at least, is that there’s probably not a one-size-fits-all solution to this issue. Some people might suffer from major ego depletion, while others might be more Energizer-bunny-like. Some weeks a person might get tons done while putting in many hours, and other weeks might be more efficient with a leaner schedule. For me, my goal is to work deliberately and mindfully, taking each week, day, or project as it comes, and adapting work habits as necessary. I will probably never discover the secret recipe for 100% efficient work, but that’s ok – it’s kind of fun trying to figure it out anyway.

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Why we LOL

Originally posted on NeuWrite San Diego:

Humor is a difficult concept to articulate. We might not always know why things are funny, but we do tend to know what kinds of things are funny. It comes in many forms, and general consensus is that things like videos of treadmill mishaps, cynical comics and corny puns are funny.

Luckily, there’s a pretty large body of research that takes humor seriously. Technically, humor is “a positive emotion called mirth, which is typically elicited in social contexts by a cognitive appraisal process involving the perception of playful, nonserious incongruity, and which is expressed by the facial and vocal behavior of laughter.” [1]

Not surprisingly, Freud had a few thoughts on humor. He believed that it helps us relieve inner tension that arises from our constant desire for things like food and sex [2]. Jokes allow us to express our anxieties in a lighter way, so the things we…

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Knitting and programming

Two things that I do almost every day are programming and knitting. Programming allows me to implement experiments and analyze the results, and knitting allows me to unwind and recharge, restoring some of the mental energy that activities like programming require for me. Programming is analytic and something that Silicon Valley geniuses do a lot; knitting is artistic and something that your grandmother does a lot. Upon deeper reflection, there are some pretty cool links between the two, though. They both require focused attention to detail and following patterns, and the end goal is usually to create something that has a functional purpose.

This blog post spurred my thinking about knitting and programming as related. The post talks about the benefit that handwork has on diagrammatic thinking and fine motor skills, suggesting that knitting will help children acquire analytical skills. Another post suggests even more strongly that exposing young students to more handwork might help them in computational and engineering fields down the line.

Another blog post shows a different intersection between knitting and coding. Karen Shoop, an engineer from Queen Mary University of London, writes about the complex code that knitters use to convey a pattern (to me, this can be sometimes frustrating when trying to learn a new pattern, but programming languages can be equally enigmatic). There are also some programs (both in her lab and elsewhere) that allow users to input sequences of knit stitches and purl stitches, and the generates what that sequence would look like if implemented. (This is apparently crucial for graphic artists who want to put cable-knit sweaters on their graphic people.)

After a little more searching, I found some more cool intersections between knitting and programming. One is a Japanese knitwear designer, Motohiro Tanji, who has also dabbled in fashion based on 3D geometric algorithms. There’s also a weekly meeting of computer hackers in Portland that appears to include knitters. Not many people will dispute that programming is an increasingly important skill, and kids are being exposed as early as possible in many cases… I wonder if knitting will accordingly make a comeback with younger people!

And finally, why didn’t I think of this!? A “Laptop Compubody Sock privacy, warmth, and concentration in public spaces.”