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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

 

Current Projects

  • 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

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.

Interested in Participating in Research?

 

Contact Information
309 Cresap Laboratory
Department of Psychology
Northwestern University
Phone: (847) 467-5779
Mailing Address
Reber Laboratory
Northwestern University
2029 Sheridan Road
Evanston, IL 60201

Questions from a middle schooler about videogames

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:

Jose asks:

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.

Today’s thought exercise

This is a very interesting piece on the philosophy of science and popular understandings of science:

How our botched understanding of ‘science’ ruins everything

http://theweek.com/article/index/268360/how-our-botched-understanding-of-science-ruins-everything

 

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.

Some helpful ideas for this might be found here (Noah Opinion) and here (Crooked Timber, where I first found the links).

 

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.

Forgetting names

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:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/08/why-do-we-forget-names-as-soon-as-we-meet-people/375815/

Curiously, it then also got picked up on another site, Lifehacker:

http://lifehacker.com/why-its-so-hard-to-remember-peoples-names-1620881563

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.

Cognition at high speed

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VSkMH9uBPmI

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.

Neuroscience Meets Cryptography

Our article on our “cortical cyptography” project is out in the Communications of the ACM:
http://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2014/5/174358-neuroscience-meets-cryptography/fulltext

The focus is on how implicit knowledge of a password provides resistance to coercion attacks were you might be asked/forced to give up your password. While true, we frequently see people raising concerns that our method is too slow/cumbersome in its current implementation for regular use — also true! Probably the useful practical application would be things like replacing the current system of personal questions secure websites ask you for when you need to reset your password. If we were really to build an app for that, I think we’d still need to improve the learning rate (shorten time) and the knowledge detection methods.

Fortunately, doing those things requires learning more about how the brain system that does this kind of learning works — which is what we do here every day.

We may have discovered a way to use this method to do secure transmission of arbitrary messages as well. However, to get a reasonably secure amount of entropy, it might be far too cumbersome for actual practical use. I like the idea conceptually, though, so maybe we’ll run a low-entropy proof of concept anyway just because I think it’s cool.

Ego Depletion Impairs Implicit Learning

Thompson, K. R., Sanchez, D. J., Wesley, A. H., & Reber, P. J. (2014). Ego Depletion Impairs Implicit Learning. PloS one, 9(10), e109370. Implicit skill learning occurs incidentally and without conscious awareness of what is learned. However, the rate and effectiveness of learning may still be affected by decreased availability of central processing resources during …

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Questions from a middle schooler about videogames

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: Jose asks: 1. Do video games affect the human brain? …

Read more

Today’s thought exercise

This is a very interesting piece on the philosophy of science and popular understandings of science: How our botched understanding of ‘science’ ruins everything http://theweek.com/article/index/268360/how-our-botched-understanding-of-science-ruins-everything   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. Some helpful ideas …

Read more

Forgetting names

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: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/08/why-do-we-forget-names-as-soon-as-we-meet-people/375815/ Curiously, it then also got picked up on another site, Lifehacker: http://lifehacker.com/why-its-so-hard-to-remember-peoples-names-1620881563 And then I was contacted earlier this …

Read more