One goal I have going forward is to write more often, particularly on this blog. In an effort to achieve this goal, I decided I needed to develop a theme. I decided the easiest theme would be to write about what I’ll be teaching in Memory & Cognition throughout the semester. Since each week or so we examine a newish topic, it will give me something distinct to write about on a weekly basis. What’s more, I’m interested in each topic, writing a brief post about each week will help me prepare for class (yay for multifunctional activities!), and it will hopefully be interesting science communication. Plus, I’ll be doing something similar for my other course (Physiological Psychology) on our course blog (sncphysio.wordpress.com).
So I guess this is my declaration. My way to hold myself accountable – putting it out there. I won’t promise every single week, but I’ll aim for at least 2-3 times a month. And if something else catches my eye, I won’t limit myself to this one theme. Rather, this is my way of giving myself automated writing “prompts” for the week.
I’ll start today by discussing the overarching course theme. The course catalog states that we will “examine historical and contemporary research in the study of human cognitive processes, with a particular emphasis in memory.” This is certainly true, but I wanted to develop a theme that could weave each of the topics in the course together. We will be covering pattern recognition, attention, short term memory, working memory, long term memory, language, expertise, and decision-making (not in that particular order).
Of course, each of these cognitive functions interacts. We cannot make a decision without both extracting information from the environment through our senses and pulling information from our long term memory. Our attention is often influenced by previous experiences and expertise. And language develops through learning and memory and distinguishes humans from other animals. But these interactions don’t necessarily allow for a coherent narrative that ties each unit and subunit of this course together.
I kept coming back to the residues of each system. Each cognitive faculty is adapted to serve a specific function (or functions). Yet, we don’t exist in a stable environment. And solutions to most problems involve tradeoffs. Therefore, no matter which mental capacity we examine there are strengths and weaknesses. So the theme of this semester will be adaptive tradeoffs.
For example, memory serves us well. This is illustrated by the devastating the impairment of episodic memory (i.e., memories situated in place and time) and memory formation in cases such as H.M. or Clive Wearing, or by witnessing the changes of a loved-one with Alzheimer’s Disease. We know memory serves an adaptive purpose – one of these being the ability to create a coherent life story. But memory has its downsides. Dubbed the seven sins of memory by Schacter, which he characterizes as the “costs we pay for the benefits of memory.” For example, sometimes memories persist when we do not want them to, such as in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Our memories are also suggestible and biased. Each of these “costs” develops out of an adaptive memory function.
We pay these kinds of costs in the way we perceive the world (e.g., visual illusions), in attention (e.g., the myth of multitasking), and in decision-making (e.g., decision biases), to name a few. What’s more, some of our mental faculties have “spandrels,” which are functions that develop as a byproduct of adaptive selection, rather than directly via selection. For example, reading is most likely a spandrel. We did not specifically adapt to read. Rather, our written language relies on the ability of the brain to detect features and configural relationships. These feature detection functions rely on brain regions that recognize faces and objects and interact with language systems. Combined with the fact that there are individual differences in any mental faculty, this is likely why many struggle with dyslexia and why there are varied hypotheses to explain dyslexia.
Taken together, I find the intersection between adaptive functions and the consequences of these adaptations an intriguing way to link the concepts across the course together. I hope it helps students consider the “why” questions rather than just focusing on “what” something is. During the first week of the semester, we will be primarily exploring perception and pattern recognition by studying face recognition. We will spend considerable time discussing the cross-race effect and some research that has been conducted related to this topic. My next post will focus on this.