Music Cognition

A shortened version of this article will appear in the next Psychology in Action Newsletter.

One of the most fascinating and quickly growing subareas of psychology and the cognitive sciences is music cognition, the interdisciplinary study of how the brain processes and perceives music.  Music cognition is driven primarily by the perception of tempo and pitch, as well as the important concept of expectation. Continue reading

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Perceptual Learning: Applications to Education

My lab at UCLA has been in the news twice recently, which is very exciting for us! You may have seen this article in the NYTimes last week or this interview on CBS’ The Early Show this morning. Both stories are about perceptual learning and its applications to education. I thought in this post I would expand on those ideas to give you a deeper sense of what perceptual learning is, why we study it, and what its limitations are.

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What are the Areas of Study within Psychology?

The field of psychology had its modern origin just over 100 years ago, and yet interest in the field has grown rapidly. Researchers with broad and varied interests have expanded the field, and as a result there are many different subdisciplines. Highlighted here are several key areas of psychology.

Biological psychologists apply biological principles to the study of mental processes and behavior. The field examines the basic biological processes that underlie normal and abnormal behavior at the level of nerves, neurotransmitters, and brain circuitry.

In clinical psychology, science, theory, and clinical knowledge are combined to improve psychological distress or dysfunction, and to promote personal well-being. Clinical and counseling psychology are similar subdisciplines.

Cognitive psychology is the scientific study of how people perceive, remember, think, speak, and solve problems, by exploring internal mental processes in the brain.
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What is Cognitive Science?

This article originally appeared in the Psychology in Action Newsletter (Issue 5, Part B).

If you’re in an introductory psychology class, you’ve probably learned about Freud, Skinner, and Piaget, who were profoundly important in the foundations of psychology. But you probably haven’t heard much about Noam Chomsky or Allen Newell, although both of these people have made important contributions to the study of the human mind. Psychology is a broad and diverse field, but psychologists are not the only researchers who study the fascinating abilities of the mind.

Over the course of the 20th century, expert thinkers began developing more complete theories of the mind than previously existed. Researchers from psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, computer science, and linguistics began to bridge the gaps between their areas of expertise. Together they formed the foundation of cognitive science––an interdisciplinary movement to connect ideas and findings from different fields into comprehensive theories.

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Desirable Difficulties in Math Teaching

Continuing in the spirit of my last post, which overviewed the desirable difficulties literature, and Carole Yue’s recent post on how desirable difficulties can improve induction tasks, today I’m highlighting some recent research on applying such difficulties to math learning and practice.  As a quick recap, desirable difficulties are adjustments to teaching that slow down learning in the short term, but improve long-term retention.  In other words, making learning harder can actually make it more effective.  Two of the most robust desirable difficulties are spacing (the distribution of practice sessions over time as opposed to massing them together) and interleaving (alternating practice on different types of problems, like ABCABC, as opposed to blocking them, like AABBCC).  Recently, psychologists have begun expanding research on these techniques to conceptual subjects like math. Continue reading

Synesthesia: When Ordinary Activities Trigger Extraordinary Sensations

Many of us have had the experience of unusual associations between our senses and our memories.  Perhaps a certain smell unexpectedly reminds you of a grandparent, or certain foods evoke memories of old friends.  Associations between memories and sensory experience are normal, but about 4% of the population experiences a condition called synesthesia in which normal sensory experiences – like reading, talking, or listening to music – cause them to experience additional unusual and unrelated sensations.  For example, people with lexical-gustatory synesthesia experience complex tastes when they hear certain words or letters.  One such subject says that the word “jail” tastes like cold hard bacon, and the sound of the letter “L” can taste like potatoes, fingernails, or Rice Krispies, depending on how it is pronounced (Simner, 2006).
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Desirable Difficulties in the Classroom

Over the last couple of decades, learning and memory researchers have become increasingly interested in bringing scientific findings out of the lab and into the classroom, where they can be implemented into teaching methods to produce more efficient and effective learning.  In a nation mired in an educational crisis, there’s never been a better time or place to bridge the gap between modern scientific knowledge and outdated teaching techniques.

One of the greatest insights in the last 20 years that has serious potential to improve classroom teaching has been Robert Bjork’s concept of desirable difficulties (Bjork, 1994; McDaniel & Butler, in press), which suggests that introducing certain difficulties into the learning process can greatly improve long-term retention of the learned material. In psychology studies thus far, these difficulties have generally been modifications to commonly used methods that add some sort of additional hurdle during the learning or studying process.  Some notable examples: Continue reading