Research on the Cognitive Neuroscience of Memory
- How and where memory occurs in the brain, particularly memory acquired through practice
- How experience shapes action, perception and thought through pervasive mechanisms of plasticity throughout the human brain
- Implicit and explicit memory contributions to perceptual-motor skill learning
- Implicit and explicit memory in visual category learning
- How general cognitive ability can be improved through cognitive practice
- Repetitive training of working memory span to improve cognition
- For both younger adults and to remediate age-related cognitive decline
- Perceptual-motor skill learning using the SISL task
- Working memory training using the SeVi-WM task
- Using computational modeling and functional neuroimaging to study interactions among the brain’s memory systems
- Investigating memory system interactions and intuitive decision making using visual category learning.
Check the Presentations link on the right side bar to see the most recent ideas and reports as presented as posters and talks at recent conferences.
309 Cresap Laboratory
Department of Psychology
Phone: (847) 467-5779
2029 Sheridan Road
Evanston, IL 60201
I got another request to comment on yet another media claim that technology is bad for our brains. It’s actually also a good example of really poor science reporting in the media, so I won’t link it, but the topic seems generally of interest and it appears to be based on a curious underlying (folk) model of cognition worth thinking about.
How would this work? How could technology make us less smart? The core idea is that be looking things up, we memorize less and therefore we are less smart than we could be otherwise. But this misses the issue of substitution. If you aren’t memorizing something you can look up, do you learn something else instead?
To me, the interesting underlying idea is: Memory doesn’t have an “off switch”
We are constantly recording experiences from our environment. Of course, not everything gets remembered, so maybe we focus too much on the memory failures. But we aren’t consciously turning our memories on and off through the day. So if we are trying to memorize arbitrary facts that we could look up on google instead, during that time we aren’t doing something else that could have left a useful memory trace. Note that I’m describing this as an attention/perception bottleneck, but it could be a memory consolidation level bottleneck as well (which is probably the actual constraint that keeps us from remembering everything we experience).
The only way for this argument to really make sense is to have a strong theory that everything we would have memorized (instead of relying on google) is more valuable to our internal knowledge state than everything we learn instead. I think that is going to be a hard case to make. And it won’t really be about technology.
There’s another way to make a possible ‘technology hurts the brain’ case based on skill learning/strengthening. If memory is a skill that can be improved by intensive practice, then concentrated attempts to memorize arbitrary information could theoretically make you better at remembering (and over time, you’d just get smarter). But there is no evidence anywhere that long-term memory can be strengthened this way — and many people have tried to do this.
Working memory looks to be trainable, but if anything, technology that makes you hold a question in mind while putting in the search terms to look it up is going to expand your WM rather than causing it to atrophy.
So no, technology is not going to make us less smart. It’s almost certain to be overwhelmingly in the other direction — the access provided by the internet to incredibly rich and diverse kinds of information means the average knowledge content of the average human brain in the 21st century is a lot more than the 20th or any other prior time.
I was asked to answer some questions from a middle school student doing a research project on video games. Since I am interested in the topic generally, I should probably figure out how to answer these kinds of questions at an age-appropriate level. My attempt:
1. Do video games affect the human brain? Do video games affect the way of thinking? Do video games damage the thinking part of the brain?
Yes, video games can affect your brain, like anything else that you do a lot of. However, these changes can sometimes be for the better. There is recent evidence of improvements in “visuospatial attention” (how you see the world) following video game play. There may also be changes for the worse, like increasing aggression, but these are not yet well understood.
2. Can video games improve people’s knowledge? Can they help people’s grades get better in school? Or can the[y] get bad grades?
Video games probably won’t help you in school very much. They can cause problems in schoolwork when kids play too many games and don’t keep up with homework and assignments. If you are getting your homework done, playing games won’t hurt and may actually help a little bit.
3. Can video games make people lose time? With friends and family? Time outside?
If you spend too much time on games and do not make time for friends, family, proper exercise and sleep, then that will very likely cause problems.
4. Can video games make people sick? Gain weight? Headaches or a tumor?
Some people report dizziness and nausea (upset stomach) from games that give you first person perspective. This is very likely related to the kind of motion sickness you can get when riding in a car. In rare cases, some people may react badly to flashing lights/sounds in video games. In general, games won’t make you sick. If you eat in an unhealthy way when playing videogames, that can lead to weight gain and other health problems.
5. Can video games make people addicted to what their mainly about? How do they do this? Why do people get addicted?
Gaming addiction is not well understood. Games aren’t addictive the way other things are (like cigarettes). However, there are certainly some people who have problems like in (2) and (3) above. They seem to play so much that it messes up a lot of other things in their life. That looks a lot like being addicted. It also can look like a lot of other problems that teenagers often run into — mood swings, depression, difficulty in relating to others. I do not think it is well known whether games can cause those problems or whether kids having those kinds of problems for another reason sometimes like to play a lot of videogames.
Thank you very much for your help.
You are welcome, Jose.
This is a very interesting piece on the philosophy of science and popular understandings of science:
As an exercise to the reader, explain what is wrong with his complaint that what most people think of science is actually the opposite of science.
Seems like a topic we should be discussing in 205. I think it’s the right level of ‘meta’ for a class on experimental design.
For some reason, I’ve been getting a lot of requests lately to explain why we are bad at remembering people’s names lately. An email exchange on this with an Atlantic reporter got summarized online here:
Curiously, it then also got picked up on another site, Lifehacker:
And then I was contacted earlier this week and did a short conversation on the phone with a radio show, Newstalk, in Ireland with host Sean Moncrieff.
All the conversations went well, although I’m not sure I had much to say beyond the basics that names are hard and arbitrary, unlike other facts you tend to learn about people you meet.
A more interesting idea is that I suspect there is a “reverse Dunning-Kruger” effect for name memory. Dunning-Kruger effects are cases where everybody thinks they are above average. For names, my sense is that most people think they are below average. I would guess they aren’t, but just that most of us are bad at names. In theory, it wouldn’t be very hard to test this, but I don’t think anybody has even run a real experiment.
I’m a big fan of Jerry, who posts to YouTube as ChessNetwork his videos of playing chess online. One of the things he does regularly is playing online speed chess — ultra-rapid, “bullet” chess where each player has ~1m for the whole game.
Chess is a different game when you have 60 seconds to make every move in a whole game. I find it compelling because it exposes the absence of calculation in very high level chess play. At 1-2 seconds/move, it is almost purely pattern matching, habit and processes we would have to call intuition. There is no time for anything but the most rudimentary of calculation. And yet the level of play is pretty sharp.
Jerry is particularly entertaining because he keeps up a verbal stream of consciousness patter while playing. He notes positional principles that guide some move selection and his voice gives away his excitement audibly when he senses a tactical play coming.
Understanding how this type of cognitive process is accomplished would tell us a lot about human cognitive function. What he is doing here is not really hard for any chess player with decent playing experience (I am decent at bullet chess — nothing like Jerry, but I can play). And relevant to the old post about AI & Hofstadter, the fact that computers are unequivocally dominant at chess has nothing to do with understanding how humans play bullet chess.
I’ve spoken with chess professionals about speed chess in the past and the general sense is that playing speed will not make you better at chess. But studying and playing chess slow will make you better at speed chess. Perhaps a principle of training intuition in complex tasks can be derived from that.