Am happy to announce that my month-long hiatus from blogging -- spent on a whirlwind tour of Chicago, New York, Portland & St. Louis -- is finally coming to an end. Before jetting for Psychonomics, Prof Plum and I filmed a spot for Science Saturdays, which is now online! (Good!) But -- which has been more or less universally panned by a clique of rabid commenters over at BloggingHeads (Less happy-making -- mrarm, but possibly deserved).
So, with some hesitation, I am linking to the video, with time notations listed below. If you do end up watching, please be aware that there were some serious technical difficulties midway through the conversation, particularly in the 37-51 minute mark. Plum's headset was -- how shall I say? -- utter crap, and made a very noisy channel all the noisier. And then there was construction and trash trucks. And surely things weren't helped by my undeniably terrible listening comprehension skills; in grade school, I standardly scored below the 10th percentile on listening comp, alongside the ESL kids.*
What's interesting about all this is we didn't spend much time talking about language as prediction -- but the video is, in its own gentle way, a study in how comprehension is a function of prediction (and how failure to predict = failure to comprehend). There is research to suggest that in most phone conversations, people use highly predictable, repetitive speech -- recycling canned phrases, talking about well worn (familiar) topics, and so on. The reason? The limits of the channel. In a phone call, not only is the sound wave attenuated or even broken-down and delayed in places, but we miss all of the attendant visual cues -- the movement of the lips, subtle changes in expression, gesticulation with the hands, etc. All of which is to say that BloggingHeads is an interesting experiment in communication, because it demands conversation of a certain caliber and complexity, while imposing real limits on the two communicators.
In the video we recorded, Prof Plum decided to focus on a topic (capacity limits) that we had actually never spoken about before, in the three years we've worked together. For me, I thought he was going some place completely different with the conversation, which, as you'll see, leads to all sorts of predictive errors. "So you mean... duh duh duh" "No, no, actually I mean... x y z" "Huh, but I thought..." and so on. I'm not going to argue that this makes for compelling video, because a lot of these communication breakdowns get in the way of either one of us getting to the point. However, having rewatched the video -- with undistorted audio and intact visuals -- I actually understand what Plum's trying to get at, and it's pretty fascinating stuff.
The annotations I've provided below are actually meant to help you understand what's going on, as you're watching. Unfortunately, a lot of the topics get picked up, but then never make it past second-base, in the mire of "what did you say's" and "pardon?" So if you have any topics or questions that you'd like addressed, succinctly, feel free to use the comments section of this post, and I'll do my best to respond!
01:12 "How do we learn?" : One of the most interesting questions in cognitive science
02:10 The unpopularity of learning theory in psychology
02:49 How learning works and what we know about it
03:10 We accept our biological continuity with animals, but not our cognitive continuity
03:54 Darwin and "The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals"
04:36 Using animal models to understand how humans learn
06:00 By ignoring animal models, we misestimate the potential of human learning
06:21 The forgotten revolution in learning theory in the late 1960's
07:18 Rescorla's classic "background rate" experiment and error-driven learning
10:38 Learning meaningful relationships in the world
11:32 Universal grammar versus general learning mechanisms
13:11 Most arguments for universal grammar come out of misunderstanding of how learning works
13:26 Divergent literatures: the behavioral neurosciences versus developmental psychology
15:20 Our contemporary computational view of the mind is based on outdated computer systems
16:35 Informativity and the workings of cognition
17:34 Conscious attention and unconscious processing
19:09 Capacity limitations? Or learned 'inattention'?
20:45 How do we predict what's for dinner?
21:54 Information comes in systems
22:31 When we talk about "capacity limitations" we often confuse input with output capacity
23:52 Learning is about filtering for a purpose
24:33 We distort the world in service to our cognitive needs
25:50 How do we choose the right computational metaphor for understanding language and cognition?
27:53 Imposing 'truth' on the world
28:33 In the history of ideas, it's not unreasonable to want to see truth in the world
29:52 The view that the world is rule-based arises out of early notions of computation
32:24 Is the brain finely, innately structured or is it good at discovering structure within the environment?
33:34 Which metaphor is better for mind: spreadsheet or search engine?
37:19 Children's delay in color learning
39:10 Understanding word learning in terms of "informativity" rather than as a "mapping" between words and the world
41:26 Folk psychological confusions
42:27 The ubiquity of color is precisely what makes it difficult to learn
47:23 You don't learn a "word," you learn a system
51:18 The lack of detail in psychology means that many "basic" concepts never get cashed out
51:47 Equality of access to early learning
52:40 The tension between what's optimal in an established communicative system and what's necessary for learning
54:21 The practical import of learning models in education
56:28 How do we learn to discriminate wines? Learning is driven by difference, not similarity
59:30 The Coke / Pepsi Test
1:02:18 How does your name influence your personality?
*Curious about why? I had severe, recurrent ear infections as a toddler which meant that for many of the years in which I was developing language, my hearing was significantly impaired. In fact, to this day, while I'm no longer hard of hearing, I still show auditory-comprehension deficits. For example, in group conversations, I've trained myself to look for social cues as to when to laugh or react, because I often mishear crucial details in stories, or punchlines in jokes. (When it comes to song lyrics, it gets all the more absurd). This also manifests in everything from my steady avoidance of books-on-tape, to my (seemingly bizarre) habit of watching movies -- in English -- with subtitles. Often I wish the world came subtitled; I like reading so much better.