Learning about learning, thinking about thinking.

Before starting a master program in interaction design, I studied Cognitive Science and Human Computer Interaction. Considering that knowledge is right on our fingertips nowadays, it might be true that the total amount of knowledge I gathered in in CMU is not worth the money; however, I don’t think the mindset of a researcher is something one can get simply by reading books about it. I used to think that majors are only for the degree certificates, but after working with people from different backgrounds, I got to acknowledge that those are actually are part of my characters now.

Cognitive Science gave me a solid frame to develop my interest in humans. For me, cognitive science is a field that models human brain and its function based on rigorous reasoning, accumulated behavior data and physiological responses. It is about building a perspective to connect human’s psychology and human behavior, and to revive philosophy into modern world. For example, in Cognitive Brain Imaging class, we discussed a critical age for language acquisition :

“There is a qualitative difference between a language acquired in the early age and the other acquired after certain age. Processing speed, accuracy of pronunciation, understanding of the subtle nuances, the speed of acquisition and so on. It is not just about quantity of vocabulary that I think age has to do something with learning language.”
“Acquisition age indeed influences various domains of brain function related to language, yet in each domain the difference is pretty quantifiable. It is not like there are certain qualities that can only be gained during critical age.”
“I personally think that some neurons might be more proper than the others for certain task due to their structure or location. Like, our brain is constantly trying to take over certain neurons so maybe that is why getting exposed to language in the early age gives comparative advantage for certain abilities.”

Research papers, fMRI images, and neuroscience knowledge were always on the table and still, and we discussed concept of having a concept, the limit of free will, definition of abnormally and so on.

In the field of Cognitive Science, my favorite topic was emotion and memory. Some of the class papers that I wrote were closely related to that. My focus was amygdala, hippocampus, and their relationship to the general neural connection mechanism. For example,

Go with your Amygdala (Cognitive Brain Imaging, 2012)
Abstract : The purpose of this paper is to understand gut reaction and to compare characteristics of gut reaction with the computational qualities of amygdala. So called gut reaction/gut response has four major characteristics; it is instinctive/animal like, unconscious, fast, and emotion-oriented. These characteristics match the function of amygdala in all four aspects. First, amygdala can be considered as an animal like brain area in that it is a part of the limbic system which constitutes paloemammalian brain, a part of the primitive brain area. Also, computation done by amygdala is frequently unconscious; perceiving fearful faces, distinguishing the dilation of the pupil size, and reacting to chemosensory cues. As well as being unconscious, amygdala processes information very fast. In fact, some information goes through amygdala first as a gateway and later further processed by other regions of brain. It is also found out that activation of amygdala in the memory task can shorten the response time. Last but not least, amygdala is strongly involved with encoding and recalling the physiological responses of emotion, suggesting possible explanation of why gut reactions seem to be connected to the feeling. In short, characteristics of gut reaction share many similarities with the function and characteristics found in amygdala computation and it maybe plausible to call gut related cognition process as amygdala oriented cognition process.
Dissociation in memory consolidation (Cognitive Neuropsychology, 2012)
Abstract : Although a term ‘memory’ is very frequently used in daily life communication, it is not easy to accurately define what it is. Unlike common usage of the term which is mainly focused on retrieval process, the field of psychology and brain science defines memory as information that goes through encoding, storing and retrieving process. This paper will first focus on various cases of dissociation that have been observed such as the famous case of HM. Later the discussion will be expended on how the function of memory is coordinated by multiple aspects of cognition.

Since I enjoyed digging concepts and thinking about topics in the field, I naturally started working in the lab and learning what it is like to actually publish knowledge. I chose Health and Performance Lab, led by Dr.Creswell and worked in the lab as a research assistant for two years.

A lab where literally everyone was so nice, it was a pleasure to be part of it.

Most of the research was about interconnecting the cognition and emotion; it was interesting to see how those emotional experiences are quantified by using various physiological data such as heart beat, electroconductivity and hormone level. Dealing with real participants numerous time also helped me envision experiments from the participant’s viewpoint, which becomes a valuable asset in figuring out the confounding variables and the weakness of the experiment as well. Experiments that I participated as an experimenter include :

The Effect of a Primary Sexual Reward Manipulation on Cortisol Responses to Psychosocial Stress in Men , Brief mindfulness meditation training alters psychological and neuroendocrine responses to social evaluative stress , Neural reactivation links unconscious thought to decision-making performance

In later years, as one becomes a senior, it was required to take research method courses and design one’s own experiment. Designing an experiment, finally, I can do something fun!

The realty was not like that. Designing experiment was never easy and then I began to understand why scientist and professors look so serious all the time. Of course, it all starts from a simple (interesting) question that even a 7 year old can find intriguing. Yet, going through a literature review of papers, I realize that the curiosity was way shallow. After reading through some chapters of books and published papers, I feel like I have a better understanding of the field and refine my question. I now know what vocabulary to use. The problem is, while iterating this process for a while, I lose what my original question was and what my experiments were all about.

Even after setting up all the issues, the doubt never disappears : will it be worth it to conduct experiments? Is it likely to bring some meaningful results? Officially, this is not a proper question to ask and every experiment has its value. As long as the hypothesis is testable, one is good to go. However, knowing that gathering data from human subject takes a considerable amount of efforts and time and money, it is reasonable to consider if the experiment will bring a statistically significant result. In short, designing an experiment is not just about ideas but about endurance to pursue an idea for a year or more with focus and rigorousness.

I was always very interested in the role of emotion and the interplay of emotion and other cognition. This was the first experiment I ever designed.
This research was a team project and we wanted to measure how team work and the peer support can influence the problem solving activity. We got a significant difference in result and won the best poster award. :-)

To conclude, well, I don’t even know how I can make a proper ending of this writing about what I learned by majoring in Cognitive Science. As aforementioned, it constructed me a framework to see the world. As long as I continue to see the world and reflect upon it, it will keep bringing me a new insights and ideas.

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