Welcome to An Examined Life. Occassionally I delude myself into thinking that I understand some part of my life (or life in general) and I thought it might be a hoot to share those thoughts with whomever happens to stumble across this. I hope you find something enjoyable here. If I'm really lucky, I'll make you stop and think for a moment.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Evolution of My Cognitive Revolution

In the mid-1980’s I was extremely dissatisfied with my career. I’d left an assistant manager’s position at Kmart only to find that things really weren’t any more to my liking at Marshalls. After 3 or so visits with a career counselor, I made the decision to go back to school and finish my undergraduate degree in psychology.

I returned to George Mason University in the fall of 1986 as an undergraduate psychology major with the idea that I’d finish my BA and then get a Master’s degree and become a high school guidance counselor. I’d do that while I worked on my PhD. I wasn’t sure what I’d do with a PhD, only that I wanted an officewith my name on the door stuffed with books. I think I was planning to eventually be some sort of clinician.

A year and a half into my studies I was dissatisfied again. Deep inside I wanted to be a scientist. Psychology was claiming to be a science, but I just wasn’t seeing it in the courses I’d taken so far. It seemed that all you had to do to be a major theorist was to grow a beard and make up stuff about hating mommy. That wasn’t what I was looking for. But that semester I was registered for a course on the history and systems of psychology with Alan Boneau. In that course I found the science of psychology.

I also found a mentor. It was so clear to me that Dr. Boneau was thinking on a level far above the rest of us mere mortals and I wanted desperately to learn to think like that, even if only just a little. I rearranged my schedule for the next semester so I could take Memory and Cognition with him. That class was the one that altered the course of my life and changed my career plans. I gave up on wanting to be a guidance counselor or any other kind of counselor. I wanted to study human information processing.

I learned in that class about the cognitive revolution. In the 1950’s, American psychology was behavioral psychology. It was strongly empirical in the sense that it was widely accepted that humans are born as Locke’s blank slates and that all of our behavior comes from experience with the environment (i.e., learning). I have to admit that this is where I was ideologically when I went back to school. The problem was, there were significant aspects of behavior that behaviorism simply couldn’t explain. Developments from within the field and from other fields, led to a fundamental shift in the focus of American psychology. It was now permissible to study the mind again, but the mind as an information processing mechanism. Theoretical constructs (say, short-term memory) had to be operationalized and tested. This was science and it was my cognitive revolution. I spent the next 20 years investigating human working memory, culminating in a stint at Carnegie Mellon where I helped develop a computer model of working memory limits.

Recently, though, I was getting dissatisfied again. Every time I taught memory and cognition to a new group of students I was troubled by the fact that it all seemed so negative. Working memory capacity is severely limited and that limits performance on some tasks. We don’t make optimal decisions. We don’t store memories in perfect detail and we often twist what we do remember to match our preconceptions. Humans seemed like a bunch of information manglers rather than information processors.

My first glimpse of the answer was in a couple of pieces by Leda Cosmides (one with coauthor John Tooby; you can see them at http://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/getArticle.cfm?id=1960 and http://www.psych.ucsb.edu/research/cep/primer.html). I knew that these were important, but I couldn’t quite get how. Then I checked out Shepherd’s copy of The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology (edited by David Buss) and read a couple of chapters. It was eye opening, to say the least. It provided the beginnings of an answer to a question I hadn’t even thought to ask – why? Why would working memory capacity be limited? Why would we make less than optimal decisions?

The authors of the chapters (David Buss, Peter Todd, Ralph Hertwig, and Ulrich Hoffrage) provided a new framework for understanding humans as information processors. The original cognitive revolution left us with the idea of the mind as a general purpose processor of symbolic information. The evolutionary approach suggests that we have a mind built of modules, each adapted to solve particular problems faced by our ancestors. Instead of a mind similar to a general purpose computer, we actually have a mind something like a Swiss Army knife. In terms of working memory, the argument is that limited working memory capacity facilitates the learning of relationships between variables in the environment (say presence of a particular kind of poo and presence of a bear). It does so by forcing us to rely on small samples (limited capacity), thus skewing the sampling distribution.

So, what does this have to do with leading an examined life? Well, it is part of the story of how I got to where I am today. And it helps explain why my memory and cognition course is going to look a bit different when I teach it in the Spring of 2012.

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