Monthly Archives: July 2008

Passive vs. active learning and brain activation

Science Daily reports on interesting research from a team at Darmouth:

It’s conventional wisdom that practice makes perfect. But if practicing only consists of watching, rather than doing, does that advance proficiency? Yes, according to a study by Dartmouth researchers. They determined that people can acquire motor skills through the “seeing” as well as the “doing” form of learning.

“It’s been established in previous research that there are correlations in behavioral performance between active and passive learning, but in this study we were surprised by the remarkable similarity in brain activation when our research participants observed dance sequences that were actively or passively experienced,” says Emily Cross, the principal investigator and PhD student at Dartmouth.

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Neuroimaging grief

Newsweek reports on imaging research which suggest not all forms of grief are alike:

In a paper in the journal Neuroimage, [Mary-Frances] O’Connor and her colleagues [at UCLA] describe using an fMRI machine to probe the neurological basis for complicated grief among a small sample of women who had lost a close relative to breast cancer. Ordinary grief is apparent on a brain scan: show a bereaved daughter a picture of her mother, and areas of the brain that process emotional pain are activated. The women with complicated grief showed that pattern, but something else as well: activity in the nucleus accumbens, a brain region associated with pleasure, rewards and addiction. “When the women came out of the scanner, the complicated-grief group rated themselves as feeling more negative than the others,” O’Connor said. “But they also said things like, ‘Oh, it was so nice to see my mom again.’ These are the ones who pore over picture albums, talk about the person all the time, almost as if she was still here.” The women in that situation were unconsciously prolonging their grief, she concluded, because memories of the person they missed gave them pleasure—as well as pain.

The impact of Web surfing on cognition

A lengthy but interesting NY Times article examines the debate over the impact of new media such as the Web on literacy.  The cognitive implications of increased Web surfing and ‘non-linear’ reading on the Web also is discussed:

Critics of reading on the Internet say they see no evidence that increased Web activity improves reading achievement. “What we are losing in this country and presumably around the world is the sustained, focused, linear attention developed by reading,” said Mr. Gioia of the N.E.A. “I would believe people who tell me that the Internet develops reading if I did not see such a universal decline in reading ability and reading comprehension on virtually all tests.”

Nicholas Carr sounded a similar note in “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” in the current issue of the Atlantic magazine. Warning that the Web was changing the way he — and others — think, he suggested that the effects of Internet reading extended beyond the falling test scores of adolescence. “What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation,” he wrote, confessing that he now found it difficult to read long books.

Literacy specialists are just beginning to investigate how reading on the Internet affects reading skills. A recent study of more than 700 low-income, mostly Hispanic and black sixth through 10th graders in Detroit found that those students read more on the Web than in any other medium, though they also read books. The only kind of reading that related to higher academic performance was frequent novel reading, which predicted better grades in English class and higher overall grade point averages.

Does extrinsic reward destroy intrinsic motivation?

The Washington Post reviews new research on the relationship between external rewards and internal motivation.  The researcher cited, Edward Deci, has written an excellent text I use in my introductory eductaional psychology classes (Why We Do What We Do).

Psychologists have long been interested in what happens when people’s internal drives are replaced by external motivations. A host of experiments have shown that when threats and rewards enter the picture, they tend to destroy the inner drives. Paychecks and pink slips might be powerful reasons to get out of bed each day, but they turn out to be surprisingly ineffective — and even counterproductive — in getting people to perform at their best.

More than three decades ago, Edward Deci, a social and personality psychologist at the University of Rochester, found the first experimental evidence of a phenomenon with wide relevance to the way most Americans conduct their personal, professional and social lives.

Deci tracked a bunch of college students who were solving puzzles for fun. He divided them into two groups. One group was allowed to keep solving puzzles as before. People in the other were offered a small financial reward for each puzzle they solved.

The psychologist later evaluated the volunteers: He found that people given a financial incentive were now less interested in solving puzzles on their own time. Although these people had earlier been just as eager as those in the other group, offering an external incentive seemed to kill their internal drive.

“They thought of it as something they really enjoy and like to do, but now they do it in order to get money, and they think of the task as an instrument to get money and not an activity that has value in its own right,” Deci said. “Human beings both want to — and, in a deeper way, need to — feel a sense of being autonomous. When someone else begins to seduce you into behaving with an offer of a reward, it takes away your sense of being autonomous. Now you are doing it for someone else.”

Energy drinks and risk-taking among college students

Science Daily reports on two studies conducted at the University of Buffalo:

[One study by Kathleen Miller found that] frequent energy drink consumers (six or more days a month)… were approximately three times as likely than less-frequent energy drink consumers or non-consumers to have smoked cigarettes, abused prescription drugs and been in a serious physical fight in the year prior to the survey. They reported drinking alcohol, having alcohol-related problems and using marijuana about twice as often as non-consumers.

They were also more likely to engage in other forms of risk-taking, including unsafe sex, not using a seatbelt, participating in an extreme sport and doing something dangerous on a dare.

[A second study by Miller] found that undergraduates who consumed energy drinks more often were also more likely to develop a jock identity and to engage in risk-taking behaviors. “Ultimately,” she says, “undergraduates’ frequent use of Red Bull and other energy drinks should be seen by peers, parents and college officials as a potential predictor of ‘toxic jock identity.'”

Low-income lottery players motivated by class consciousness?

New researc from Emily Haisley, formerly a PhD student at Carnegie Mellon and now on the faculty at Yale, and her co-authors “sheds light on the reasons why low-income lottery players eagerly invest in a product that provides poor returns,” according to a Carnegie Mellon press release.

This research is published in the July 2008 issue of the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making here.  The study’s abstract reads as follows:

Despite a return of only $.53 on the dollar, state lotteries are extremely popular, especially among the poor, who play the most but can least afford to play. In two experiments conducted with low-income participants, we examine how implicit comparisons with other income classes increase low-income individuals’ desire to play the lottery. In Experiment 1, participants were more likely to purchase lottery tickets when they were primed to perceive that their own income was low relative to an implicit standard. In Experiment 2, participants purchased more tickets when they considered situations in which rich people or poor people receive advantages, implicitly highlighting the fact that everyone has an equal chance of winning the lottery.

Using the visual system for computation

Science Daily reports on new research by Mark Changizi of Rensselaer:

Since the idea of using DNA to create faster, smaller, and more powerful computers originated in 1994, scientists have been scrambling to develop successful ways to use genetic code for computation. Now, new research from a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute suggests that if we want to carry out artificial computations, all we have to do is literally look around.

Assistant Professor of Cognitive Science Mark Changizi has begun to develop a technique to turn our eyes and visual system into a programmable computer. His findings are reported in the latest issue of the journal Perception.

A pre-print PDF version of this study is available from Changizi’s Web site here.