An important study out of Cornell confirms something that most of us intuitively know:
The theory that the mind works like a computer, in a series of distinct stages, was an important steppingstone in cognitive science, but it has outlived its usefulness, concludes a new Cornell University study. Instead, the mind should be thought of more as working the way biological organisms do: as a dynamic continuum, cascading through shades of grey.
In a new study published online this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (June 27-July 1), Michael Spivey, a psycholinguist and associate professor of psychology at Cornell, tracked the mouse movements of undergraduate students while working at a computer. The findings provide compelling evidence that language comprehension is a continuous process…
“For decades, the cognitive and neural sciences have treated mental processes as though they involved passing discrete packets of information in a strictly feed-forward fashion from one cognitive module to the next or in a string of individuated binary symbols — like a digital computer,” said Spivey. “More recently, however, a growing number of studies, such as ours, support dynamical-systems approaches to the mind. In this model, perception and cognition are mathematically described as a continuous trajectory through a high-dimensional mental space; the neural activation patterns flow back and forth to produce nonlinear, self-organized, emergent properties — like a biological organism.”
In his study, 42 students listened to instructions to click on pictures of different objects on a computer screen. When the students heard a word, such as “candle,” and were presented with two pictures whose names did not sound alike, such as a candle and a jacket, the trajectories of their mouse movements were quite straight and directly to the candle. But when the students heard “candle” and were presented with two pictures with similarly sounding names, such as candle and candy, they were slower to click on the correct object, and their mouse trajectories were much more curved. Spivey said that the listeners started processing what they heard even before the entire word was spoken.