Looking inside the black box
Cognitive psychology has revolutionised the research domain of the science of human behaviour
since the mid 1950’s. Cognitive psychology deliberately looks at mental processes such as memory, perception, attention, decision making and so on, in direct contrast to its predecessor Behaviourism, a revolution in itself symbolised most strongly by B.F Skinner, and outlined by Lu & Dosher (2007) here. In an effort to study human behaviour with scientific methods, Skinner’s work focussed exclusively and dogmatically on observable behaviour, relegating the domain of exploring the ‘black box’ of mental processes as unscientific. Skinner and other behaviourists stood firm on a theory and range of methods termed operant or instrumental conditioning which showed that an animal, commonly a pigeon or rat could be trained to do certain tasks using the right positive or negative stimuli ie food rewards or electric shock deterrents. Here, pigeons are conditioned play an impressive game of ping pong, with rewards for actually scoring a goal. There is no doubt that behaviourism provided an important revolution in the history of psychology and the development of scientific methods to investigate human behaviour. Anyone who works with children can see operant conditioning in the home and classroom where rewards and punishments are used to produce desirable behavioural outcomes. However, operant conditioning did not provide satisfactory answers for questions such as ‘how does language develop?’ which is the academic debate Skinner and Noam Chomsky, a linguist, engaged in that sparked new interest in cognitive processes. Skinner ventured onto Chomsky’s linguistic territory in 1957 by publishing Verbal Behaviour from a behaviourist point of view with little experimental data. Chomsky responded and published A Review of B.F Skinner’s Verbal Behavior in 1959. While the behaviourist discipline of stimulus, reward and behavioural outcomes are undoubtedly connected in humans as in animals, it was not complex enough to explain how language develops in humans in phenomenal rates in the first two years of life and beyond. The field of psychology started to question its dependence on behaviourism and operant conditioning and looked for new explanations for the acquisition of learning.
Today, 60 years on, psychology is once again consumed with looking inside the black box of human cognition. The broader umbrella of Cognitive Science draws on a range of scientific disciplines such as neurochemistry, linguistics, computer science, artificial intelligence, philosophy and physics. With tools and technology that Skinner could not even imagine, scientists studying human behaviour and cognition continue to work under the assumption that human cognition can be explored using the scientific method (Lu & Dosher, 2007) that Skinner so passionately believed in. One such interdisciplinary cognitive scientist operating today is Dr. Steven L. Prime, director at Victoria University’s Neurocognition and Psychophysics Laboratory. Current research in Dr Prime’s lab uses behavioural experiments, eye-tracking, and MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) technologies to further investigate the black box of mental processes, particularly in the fields of perception, attention and visual integration of sensory information. Dr. Prime, a Canadian import has an impressive resume including government funded research into the attention and distraction of drivers in particular implication to cell phone use. A growing body of research shows that the limited nature of human attention needs to be actively directed at a certain task and can be taxed when a secondary task is introduced. In terms of the driving task, phone use while driving can have deleterious effects on the driving task (for example Richard, C.M., Wright, R.D., Prime, S.L., Ee, C.M., Shimizu, Y., & Vavrik, J., 2002).
Neuro-imaging techniques to look inside the black box have far reaching therapeutic applications. Carl Zimmer’s article in National Geographic earlier this year highlights astounding new technologies in visual mapping of the brain’s neural pathways, with imagery so stimulating that I feel the need to defend myself, that I did indeed buy the magazine for the articles. Not only can we colour code different types of brain activity and function, the image shown here also indicates in red a significant area affected with a tumour, providing accurate and specific information for this patient and any therapeutic options.
We are far from the scientific silos of Skinner and Chomsky, where arguments are polarising and non-compromising. I've not been a fan of behaviourism with its clinical ideas of A plus B equals C. I have enjoyed studying in a point in history where technology and collective understanding allows for exploring D, G and T in our efforts to consider the frontier of the mind. The interdisciplinary approach allows neuro-science to draw collaboratively from the expertise of different areas of science and a power to explore the mind armed with a battalion of methods not the limitations and dogmas of one discipline. Learning about the history of my chosen field has allowed me to see where we have been, where we are and many possibilities for where we are going.
Chomsky, N. (1967) A Review of B. F. Skinner’s Verbal Behaviour. In L. Jakobovits & M. Miron (eds.), Readings in the Psychology of Language, (pp. 142-143) New Jersy, US: Prentice Hall
Clark, R. (2014). The Colour of Thought [Digital Visualisation]. Retrieved from -http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2014/02/brain/clark-photography#/brain-fade-6f.gif
Lu, Z. & Dosher, B. (2007), Scholarpedia, (8):2769. Retrieved 15/06/2014 from http://www.scholarpedia.org/article/Cognitive_psychology
Richard, C.M., Wright, R.D., Prime, S.L., Ee, C.M., Shimizu, Y., & Vavrik, J. (2002). Effect of a concurrent auditory task on visual search performance in a driving-related image-flicker task. Human Factors, 44(1), 108-119Zimmer, C. (2014, February). Secrets of the Brain. National Geographic, February 2014, 28-45. Also retrieved from http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2014/02/brain/zimmer-text
Dr. Steve Prime outlines his research interests at http://www.neurocognitionlab.com/home.html
The basics of behaviourism and operant conditioning can be found at http://www.scholarpedia.org/article/Operant_conditioning