Foundations of Cognitive Psychology

813 Pages · 2006 · 12.88 MB · English

  • Foundations of Cognitive Psychology


    Daniel J. Levitin

    What Is Cognition?

    Cognition encompasses the scientific study of the human mind and how it

    processes information; it focuses on one of the most difficult of all mysteries

    that humans have addressed. The mind is an enormously complex system

    holding a unique position in science: by necessity, we must use the mind to

    study itself, and so the focus of study and the instrument used for study are

    recursively linked. The sheer tenacity of human curiosity has in our own life-

    times brought answers to many of the most challenging scientific questions we


    the twenty-first century, we find that we do understand much about the fun-

    damental laws of chemistry, biology, and physics; the structure of space-time,

    the origins of the universe. We have plausible theories about the origins and

    nature of life and have mapped the entire human genome. We can now turn

    our attention inward, to exploring the nature of thought, and how our mental

    life comes to be what it is.


    try to understand how physical matter can give rise to that ineffable state we

    call consciousness, and the decidedly nonphysical ‘‘mind stuff’’ that Descartes

    and other philosophers have argued about for centuries. Chemists, biologists,

    and neuroscientists join them in trying to explicate the mechanisms by which



    how we balance choices about limited natural and financial resources, and

    anthropologists study the influence of culture on thought and the formation of

    societies. So at one end we find scientists studying atoms and cells, at the other

    end there are scientists studying entire groups of people. Cognitive psycholo-

    gists tend to study the individual, and mental systems within individual brains,

    although ideally we try to stay informed of what our colleagues are doing. So

    cognitionisatruly interdisciplinary endeavor,andthiscollectionofreadingsis

    intended to reflect that.

    Why Not a Textbook?

    This book grew out of a course I took at the Massachusetts Institute of Tech-

    nology (MIT) in 1975, from Susan Carey and Merrill Garrett (with occasional

    guest lectures by Mary Potter), and courses I taught at the University of Ore- xiv Preface

    gon, Stanford University, and the University of California at Berkeley. When I

    took cognition at MIT, there were only two textbooks about cognition asa field

    (if it could even be thought of as a field then): Ulric Neisser’s Cognitive Psy-

    chology and Michael Posner’s Cognition: An Introduction. Professors Carey and

    Garrett supplemented these texts with a thick book of hand-picked readings

    from Scientific American and mainstream psychology journals. Reading journal

    articles prepared the students for the debates that characterize science. Susan


    active lectures and the Socratic method. Cognition is full of opposing theories

    and controversies. It is an empirical science, but in many cases the same data

    are used to support different arguments, and the reader must draw his or her

    own conclusions. The field of cognition is alive, dynamic, and rediscovering

    itself all the time. We should expect nothing less of the science devoted to

    understanding the mind.

    Today there are many excellent textbooks and readers devoted to cognition.

    Textbooks are valuable because they select and organize a daunting amount of

    information and cover the essential points of a topic. The disadvantage is that

    they do not reflect how psychologists learn about new research—this is most

    often done through journal articles or ‘‘high-level’’ book chapters directed to

    the working researcher. More technical in nature, these sources typically reveal

    details of an experiment’s design, the measures used, and how the findings are

    interpreted. They also reveal some of the inherent ambiguity in research (often

    hidden in a textbook’s tidy summary). Frequently students, when confronted

    with the actual data of a study, find alternate interpretations of the findings,

    and come to discover firsthand that researchers are often forced to draw their

    own conclusions. By the time undergraduates take a course in cognition (usu-

    ally their second or third course in psychology) they find themselves wonder-

    ing if they ought to major in psychology, and a few even think about going to


    actual psychology articles, so they’ll know what they’re getting into.

    On theotherhand, abookof readingscomposedexclusively ofsuchprimary

    sources would bedifficult toread without a suitablegrounding in thefieldand


    tend to emphasize the trees at the expense of the forest.

    Therefore, the goal of this anthology is to combine the best of both kinds

    of readings. By compiling an anthology such as this, I was able to pick and

    choose my favorite articles, by experts on each topic. Of the thirty-nine selec-

    tions, ten are from undergraduate textbooks, six are from professional journals,

    sixteen are chapters from ‘‘high-level’’ books aimed at advanced students and

    research scientists, and seven are more or less hybrids, coming from sources



    important papers in the history of cognitive psychology; other authors have

    done this extremely well, especially LloydKomatsuinhisexcellentExperiment-

    ingwith the Mind (1994, Brooks/Cole). It is intended as a collection of readings

    that can serve as the principal text for a course in cognitive psychology or cog-

    nitive science. Preface xv


    at the University of California at Berkeley in the fall of 1999, ‘‘Fundamental

    Issues in Cognitive Science.’’ The readings for that course had been carefully

    honed over ten years by Stephen Palmer and Alison Gopnik, outstanding


    basis for contemporary cognitive psychology. I had never seen cognitive psy-



    is in many respects empirical philosophy. By that I mean that the core questions

    in cognitive psychology were for centuries considered the domain of philoso-

    phers. Some of these questions include: What is the nature of thought? Does

    languageinfluencethought? Are memoriesand perceptionsaccurate?Howcan

    we ever know if other people are conscious?


    tion one can argue that modern cognitive psychology owes him its heritage.

    Descartes launched modern approaches to these questions, and much current

    debate references his work. But for Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Locke, Husserl,

    and others, the questions remained in the realm of philosophy. A century and

    a half ago this all changed when Wundt, Fechner, Helmholtz, and their cohorts

    established the first laboratories in which they employed empirical methods to


    ophers framed the questions, and mental scientists (as they were then some-

    times called) conducted experiments to answer them.

    Today, the empirical work that interests me most in the field of Cognition is


    of philosophers, philosophers of mind, closely monitor the progress made by

    cognitive psychologists in order to interpret and debate their findings and to

    place them in a larger context.

    Who Is This For?

    The book you have before you is intended to be used as a text for the under-

    graduate cognitive psychology class I teach at McGill University. I hope that

    others will find some value in it as well. It should also be suitable for students

    who wish to acquaint themselves through self-study with important ideas in

    cognition. The ambitious student or professor may want to use this to sup-

    plement a regular textbook as a way to add other perspectives on the topics

    covered. It may also be of use to researchers as a resource that gathers up key

    articles in one place. It presupposes a solid background in introductory psy-


    topics previously, and this book gives them an opportunity to explore them

    more deeply.

    How the Book Is Organized and How It Differs from Other Books

    The articles in this reader are organized thematically around topics tradition-

    ally found in a course on cognitive psychology or cognitive science at the uni- xvi Preface


    coherence, although I think that the first few readings fit better at the begin-

    ning. After that any order should work.

    The readings begin with philosophical foundations, and it is useful to keep

    thesein mind when reading the remainder of the articles. This reflectsthe view

    that good science builds on earlier foundations, even if it ultimately rejects


    This anthology differs from most other cognition readers in its coverage of

    several topics not typically taught in cognition courses. One is human factors

    and ergonomics, the study of how we interact with tools, machines, and arti-

    facts, and what cognitive psychology can tell us about how to improve the de-

    sign of such objects (including computers); this is represented in the excellent

    papers by Don Norman. Another traditionally underrepresented topic, evolu-

    tionary psychology, is represented here by two articles, one by David Buss and

    his colleagues, and the other by John Tooby and Leda Cosmides. Also unusual

    are the inclusion of sections on music cognition, experimental design, and as

    mentioned before, philosophical foundations. You will find that there is some-

    what less coverage of neuroscience and computer science perspectives on cog-

    nition, simply because in our department at McGill, we teach separate courses

    on those topics, and this reader reflects an attempt to reduce overlap.



    here, my students, and Amy Brand, Tom Stone, Carolyn Anderson, Margy Avery, and Kathleen


    for their tireless efforts at proofreading and indexing this book: Lindsay Ball, Ioana Dalca, Nora

    Hussein, Christine Kwong, Aliza Miller, Bianca Mugyenyi, Patrick Sabourin, and Hannah Wein-


    and inspiration and whose intuitions about cognitive psychology have led to many new studies.

    Finally, I was extraordinarily lucky to have three outstanding scholars as teachers: Mike Posner,


    fortheirpatience,inspiration,support,andfriendship. part i

    Foundations—Philosophical Basis, The Mind/Body

    Problem Chapter 1

    Visual Awareness

    Stephen E. Palmer

    1.1 Philosophical Foundations

    The first work on virtually all scientific problems was done by philosophers,

    and the nature of human consciousness is no exception. The issues they raised

    have framed the discussion for modern theories of awareness. Philosophical

    treatments of consciousness have primarily concerned two issues that we will

    discuss before considering empirical facts and theoretical proposals: The mind-

    body problem concerns the relation between mental events and physical events


    that other people (or animals) are also conscious.

    1.1.1 The Mind-Body Problem


    the mind (sometimes equated with the soul), the single most important issue

    concernswhathascometobecalledthe mind-body problem:What istherelation

    between mental events (e.g., perceptions, pains, hopes, desires, beliefs) and

    physical events (e.g., brain activity)? The idea that there is a mind-body prob-

    lem to begin with presupposes one of the most important philosophical posi-

    tions about the nature of mind. It is known as dualism because it proposes that

    mind and body are two different kinds of entities. After all, if there were no

    fundamental differences between mental and physical events, there would be

    no problem in saying how they relate to each other.

    Dualism The historical roots of dualism are closely associated with the writ-

    ings of the great French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist Rene´

    Descartes. Indeed, the classical version of dualism, substance dualism, in which

    mind and body are conceived as two different substances, is often called Carte-

    sian dualism. Because most philosophers find the notion of physical substances

    unproblematic, the central issue in philosophical debates over substance dual-

    ism is whether mental substances exist and, if so, what their nature might be.

    Vivid sensory experiences, such as the appearance of redness or the feeling of


    abstract mental states and events such as hopes, desires, and beliefs.

    The hypothesized mental substances are proposed to differ from physical

    ones in their fundamental properties. For example, all ordinary physical matter


    630.Reprintedwithpermission. 4 StephenE.Palmer

    has a well-defined position, occupies a particular volume, has a definite shape,

    and has a specific mass. Conscious experiences, such as perceptions, remem-

    brances, beliefs, hopes, and desires, do not appear to have readily identifiable

    positions, volumes, shapes, and masses. In the case of vision, however, one

    might object that visual experiences do have physical locations and extensions.

    Thereisan important sensein which my perception of a redball on thetableis


    occupied by the ball. What could be more obvious? But a substance dualist

    would counter that these are properties of the physical object that I perceive

    rather than properties of my perceptual experience itself. The experience is in

    my mind rather than out there in the physical environment, and the location,

    extension, and mass of these mental entities are difficult to define—unless one

    makes the problematic move of simply identifying them with the location, ex-

    tension, and mass of my brain. Substance dualists reject this possibility, believ-

    ing instead that mental states, such as perceptions, beliefs, and desires, are

    simply undefined with respect to position, extension, and mass. In this case,

    it makes sense to distinguish mental substances from physical ones on the

    grounds that they have fundamentally different properties.

    We can also look at the issue of fundamental properties the other way

    around: Do experienceshaveanypropertiesthat ordinary physicalmatterdoes


    phenomena in the sense that they cannot be observed by anyone but the person

    having them. Ordinary matter and events, in contrast, are objective phenomena

    because they can be observed by anyone, at least in principle. The other is that

    experiences have what philosophers call intentionality: They inherently refer to

    things other than themselves.1 Your experience of a book in front of you right

    now is about the book in the external world even though it arises from activity

    in your brain. This directedness of visual experiences is the source of the confu-

    sion we mentioned in the previous paragraph about whether your perceptions

    have location, extension, and so forth. The physical objects to which such per-

    ceptual experiences refer have these physical properties, but the experiences

    themselves do not. Intentionality does not seem to be a property that is shared

    by ordinary matter, and if this is true, it provides further evidence that con-

    scious experience is fundamentally different.

    It is possible to maintain a dualistic position and yet deny the existence of

    any separate mental substances, however. One can instead postulate that the


    properties are just the sorts of experiences we have as we go about our every-

    day lives, including perceptions, pains, desires, and thoughts. This philosophi-

    cal position on the mind-body problems is called property dualism. It is a form

    of dualism because these properties are taken to be nonphysical in the sense of

    not being reducible to any standard physical properties. It is as though the

    physical brain contains some strange nonphysical features or dimensions that

    are qualitatively distinct from all physical features or dimensions.

    These mental features or dimensions are usually claimed to be emergent prop-

    erties: attributes that simply do not arise in ordinary matter unless it reaches a

    certain level or type of complexity. This complexity is certainly achieved in the

    human brain and may also be achieved in the brains of certain other animals. VisualAwareness 5

    The situation is perhaps best understood by analogy to the emergent property

    of being alive. Ordinary matter manifests this property only when it is orga-

    nized in such a way that it is able to replicate itself and carry on the required

    biological processes. The difference, of course, is that being alive is a property

    that we can now explain in terms of purely physical processes. Property dual-

    ists believe that this will never be the case for mental properties.

    Even if one accepts a dualistic position that the mental and physical are

    somehow qualitatively distinct, there are several different relations they might

    have to one another. These differences form the basis for several varieties of

    dualism. One critical issue is the direction of causation: Does it run from mind

    to brain, from brain to mind, or both? Descartes’s position was that both sorts

    of causation are in effect: events in the brain can affect mental events, and

    mental events can also affect events in the brain. This position is often called


    causally with each other in both directions. It seems sensible enough at an in-

    tuitive level. No self-respecting dualist doubts the overwhelming evidence that

    physical events in the brain cause the mental events of conscious experience.

    The pain that you feel in your toe, for example, is actually caused by the firing

    of neurons in your brain. Convincing evidence of this is provided by so-called


    in their missing limbs (Chronholm, 1951; Ramachandran, 1996).

    In the other direction, the evidence that mental events can cause physical

    ones is decidedly more impressionistic but intuitively satisfying to most inter-

    actionists. They point to the fact that certain mental events, such as my having

    the intention of raising my arm, appear to cause corresponding physical

    events, such as the raising of my arm—provided I am not paralyzed and my

    arm is not restrained in any way. The nature of this causation is scientifically

    problematic, however, because all currently known forms of causation concern


    that have not yet been identified may nevertheless exist.

    Not all dualists are interactionists, however. An important alternative ver-


    ferent in kind from physical ones yet denies that mental states play any causal


    mental states, such as perceptions, intentions, beliefs, hopes, and desires, are

    merely ineffectual side effects of the underlying causal neural events that take

    place in our brains. To get a clearer idea of what this might mean, consider the

    following analogy: Imagine that neurons glow slightly as they fire in a brain

    and that this glowing is somehow akin to conscious experiences. The pattern

    of glowing in and around the brain (i.e., the conscious experience) is clearly

    caused by the firing of neurons in the brain. Nobody would question that. But

    the neural glow would be causally ineffectual in the sense that it would not

    cause neurons to fire any differently than they would if they did not glow.

    Therefore, causation runs in only one direction, from physical to mental, in an

    epiphenomenalist account of the mind-body problem. Although this position

    denies any causal efficacy to mental events, it is still a form of dualism because

    it accepts the existence of the ‘‘glow’’ of consciousness and maintains that it is

    qualitatively distinct from the neural firings themselves. 6 StephenE.Palmer

    Idealism Not all philosophical positions on the mind-body problem are dual-

    istic. The opposing view is monism: the idea that there is really just one sort

    of stuff after all. Not surprisingly, there are two sorts of monist positions—

    idealism and materialism—one for each kind of stuff there might be. A monist

    who believestheretobenophysicalworld,butonlymentalevents,iscalledan

    idealist (from the ‘‘ideas’’ that populate the mental world). This has not been a

    very popular position in the history of philosophy, having been championed

    mainly by the British philosopher Bishop Berkeley.

    Themost significant problem for idealism is how to explain the commonality

    of different people’s perceptions of the same physical events. If a fire engine

    races down the street with siren blaring and red lights flashing, everyone looks

    toward it, and they all see and hear pretty much the same physical events, al-

    beit from different vantage points. How is this possible if there is no physical

    world that is responsible for their simultaneous perceptions of the sound and

    sight of the fire engine? One would have to propose some way in which the

    minds of the various witnesses happen to be hallucinating exactly correspond-

    ing eventsatexactlycorrespondingtimes.Berkeley’sanswer wasthatGodwas


    modern scientific circles. Without a cogent scientific explanation of the com-

    monality of shared experiences of the physical world, idealism has largely be-

    come an historical curiosity with no significant modern following.

    Materialism The vast majority of monists believe that only physical entities

    exist. They are called materialists. In contrast to idealism, materialism is a very

    common view among modern philosophers and scientists. There are actually

    two distinct forms of materialism, which depend on what their adherents

    believe the ultimate status of mental entities will be once their true physical

    nature is discovered. One form, called reductive materialism, posits that mental


    other successful reductions have occurred in science (e.g., Armstrong, 1968).


    events are actually equivalent to brain events and can be talked about more or

    less interchangeably, albeit with different levels of precision.

    A good scientific example of what reductive materialists believe will occur

    when the mental is reduced to the physical is the reduction in physics of ther-

    modynamic concepts concerning heat to statistical mechanics. The temperature

    of a gas in classical thermodynamics has been shown to be equivalent to the

    average kinetic energy of its molecules in statistical mechanics, thus replacing

    the qualitatively distinct thermodynamic concept ofheat withthe moregeneral

    and basic concept of molecular motion. The concept of heat did not then dis-

    appear from scientific vocabulary: it remains a valid concept within many

    contexts. Rather, it was merely given a more accurate definition in terms of

    molecular motion at a more microscopic level of analysis. According to reduc-

    tive materialists, then, mental concepts will ultimately be redefined in terms

    of brain states and events, but their equivalence will allow mental concepts

    to remain valid and scientifically useful even after their brain correlates are

    discovered. For example, it will still be valid to say, ‘‘John is hungry,’’ rather

    than, ‘‘Such-and-such pattern of neural firing is occurring in John’s lateral


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