Michiel M. Spapé

Cognitology in Perception and Action


Barcelona 2008


      Psychology and neuroscience have generally shown a tenacious preoccupation with isolated aspects of cognition and brain areas. The experimental methodology underlying this tendency has brought tremendous advances to our understanding of the human mind, and questions like "how many numbers can a person remember" can be answered to a certain degree of satisfaction. Yet three fundamental problems call for a more integrative cognitive science.

    One, the brain is too often portrayed as a combination of various pretty blobs of brain areas that function more or less independently, but a more realistic view should underline the fundamental interconnectedness of the central nervous system. Put simply, if we look at a red cup on a green saucer, the two objects activate several separate brain regions, including those which process locations (top and bottom) and colours (red and green). Clearly, the brain needs to make sense of this and not mix up the situation into green cups and red saucers. In my studies, particularly at the University of Nottingham (2009-2011), I spent some time finding out how various areas of the brain communicate over large intracortical distances.

    Second, the mental functions - perception, problem-solving, action, memory, attention and so on - are often treated and analysed as distinct entities, whilst in reality, they generally depend on one another and work in concert in order to reach certain goals. Our cup of coffee obviously needs to be recognised as such, rather than as a blurry configuration of visual features, thus requiring aspects of memory. In order to quickly grab the cup of coffee and continue work, we use such memory so that, with little effort, we can retrieve the action of grabbing the cup with two or three fingers if it has a handle, or a spread-out broad, whole-handed grasp if it doesn't. During my years at the University of Leiden (2005-2008), I conducted a series of experiments showing how functions of visual and auditory perception, memory, action and executive control, are inextricably linked. Currently (2012-) at the Helsinki Institute for Information Technology (HIIT, part of Aalto and the University of Helsinki), I work to demonstrate how the human mind and brain is also fundamentally social: we remember which cup of coffee is our own, thus avoiding fights at the coffee machine.

    Third, an isolationist psychology holds back true interdisciplinary work. Much, particularly in grant proposals, is said about inter-or-multi-disciplinary synergy across sciences, but all too often, we get caught up in a comfortable niche. Even within my own background as a cognitive psychologist, it is not uncommon for someone to know everything about, say, "dual-task paradigms", but next to nothing concerning the "lexical decision task". By focusing on paradigm-transcending cognitive functions, an integrative cognitive science can bring such problems to the fore and bridge the gaps between the sciences.

    So, how do we integrate, across neurological areas (between motor areas and frontal areas), psychological functions (between memory, attention and decision making) and ultimately, between people? Currently, my favourite ways to investigate such issues include:

* Priming tasks: is a left-handed person more easily provoked to respond to the left, if they are subliminally asked to do so?
* Executive and motor control tasks: why is it that, after resisting an automatic reaction once, we are sometimes less but also sometimes more able to resist again?
* Object tracking tasks: how many objects can we keep track of across perception and action?
* Rapid serial visual presentation paradigms: why do we fail to notice stimuli that appear shortly after another important event?
* Mediated interaction tasks: how do people represent others they communicate remotely with (say, via mobile phone or skype)

    My weapons of choice tends to be from the experimental psychology or neuroscientific arsenal: reaction times, eye-tracking, pupillometry, electro-encephalography (EEG), magnetoencephalography (MEG) as well as more peripheral psychophysiology (fEMG, EDA, heart rates, &c.).