Cognitive science is an interdisciplinary science that draws on many fields (e.g., psychology, artificial intelligence, linguistics, and philosophy) to develop theories about human perception, thinking, and learning. In other words, it is the study of the brains special functions.
These special functions are responsible for analyzing sensory data, performing memory functions, learning new information, forming thoughts, and making decisions. Given this, cognitive science deals primarily with the functioning of the brains frontal lobe, which is responsible for cognition (the act or process of knowing, including both awareness and judgment) and memory. The brains prefrontal area enables concentration, attention, and the elaboration of thought. As the brains gatekeeper (judgment and inhibition), it also is responsible for personality and emotional traits. One of the frontal lobes main functions is memory, a very important topic in cognitive science.
Memory is defined as the power or process of reproducing or recalling what has been learned and retained, especially through associative mechanisms. It is also the store of things learned and retained from an organisms activity or experience, as evidenced by structure or behavior modification as well as recall and recognition.
Just like any other human trait, memory can be empowered and improved. How this is accomplished usually depends upon the individual. Many such techniques and tricks are advertised and marketed in daily life. While some actually work, most are like overloading our already full memory files. Eventually, it comes down to tricks vs. power, just like in sports. Consider the following analogy: If an Olympic boxer wants to improve his skills, should he watch pro-boxing matches on TV or punch a vinyl speed bag to train the muscles he needs to overpower his opponent?
This example might seem a little strange, for it depends heavily upon muscles. But, surprisingly, it really is relevant to the brains memory center, for recent developments in cognitive science show that a specific area behind the forehead (in the pre-frontal cortex) houses the brains memory muscle (1) ”the working memory. The discovery was made possible by advances in such brain-imaging technologies as PET and MRI scans.(2) Suppose you are studying for an exam and have to wade through a mound of reading material, or have to make a 10-digit phone call without the aid of a phone book, or are under a lot of pressure to answer questions rapidly or to make a snap decision. It is your working memory that decides what is relevant and where to best store such data for quick retrieval upon demand.
Pharmaceuticals, memory books, mnemonic tricks, seminars, and mental chronometrics (3) say that we develop our memory muscle and thereby improve our memory power. In reality, our memory muscle is our heads chief executive, for it is in charge of receiving, organizing, encoding, filing, and retrieving just about anything we learn, as well as for all planning and decision-making activity.
This activity is also known as psycho-interactive intelligence, for such tasks challenge all of the powers of working memory, including short-term memory, concentration, and mental speed. Computer-based exercises (CBEs) function in the same way. And, since they are psycho-interactive, they customize new challenges via simultaneous analysis and measurement. In addition, they usually are far more entertaining.
In fact, our memory muscle actually determines how quick, sharp, and focused our thinking is. According to Life magazine (July 1994): Evidence is accumulating that the brain works a lot like a muscle”the more you use it the more it grows. Although scientists had long ascertained that the brains chemistry was hard-wired by adolescence and inflexible in adulthood, its newly discovered ability to change, grow, and adapt is apparently with us well into old age.
NASA continues to make extensive use of training exercises to improve the brainpower of astronauts and pilots. Computer models of the brains functioning also are used in determining how to improve brainpower. Due to such research, they have been able to tap and train the brains memory muscle.
The term mind machines refers to a large variety of technologies that affect ones brain: HemiSynch tapes, light and sound machines, cranial electrical simulation (CES) devices, biofeedback, biocircuits, lucid dreaming tapes and machines, consciousness alteration software, and sensory deprivation tanks. They are designed to transform the users brain waves into a wide variety of new patterns: from focused and alert to creative and ultra-relaxed, meditative to twilight receptive/learning state, or to different states of sleep. It is like instant brainwaves--ready in seconds on demand.
Bio-entrainment is the process of causing neurons to function in a desired manner. For example, a person with attention deficit disorder (ADD) cannot focus due to slow theta rhythms and desynchronous beta waves. Mind machines, especially light/sound and biofeedback, can help break these brain waves out of their scattered gridlock and drive them into open focus (theta) or closed focus (beta) patterns. Bio-entrainment also can enable people to focus better, relax or dive into deep meditation, induce creative or intuitive states, or to enter a deep sleep state quickly.
Encouraged by mind machines, pharmatronics (neuroscience) has induced researchers to postulate the psycho-physiological principle: Every psychological state has a corresponding measurable physiological (i.e., physical, electrical, and biochemical) state, and vice versa. For instance, using biofeedback to reach a state of deep relaxation and serenity (i.e., meditation) may cause the pituitary gland to produce endorphins that make you feel real good. This electronic-to-pharmacological effect, known as pharmatronics, is like an electronic drug or a device (e.g., a computer, game player, biofeedback device, or even software), for it alters the brains electrical (brain wave) pattern and, hence, its biochemical (pharmacological) profile.
One of the first notable pharmatronic agents was Tetris, a computerized puzzle game. Using PET scans, Dr. R. Haier discovered that first-time Tetris players experienced a significant increase in their cerebral glucose metabolic rate (GMR), indicating that their basic brain energy consumption was soaring.(4)
Psycho-interactivity is not the same as interactivity. Clicking on a hyperlinked button to go to another page is interactive, whereas a psycho-interactive activity involves a computer taking the user through a series of mental challenges. But it does not stop there, for it also analyses the individuals reactions and then adjusts the level of complexity in subsequent challenges to ascertain the full potential of the players memory recall, thinking, and decision-making speed. Thus it renders a dynamic brainpower analysis, whereas most mental ability tests are static.
Since the brain is like a muscle, it must be challenged with the appropriate kind of resistance if it is to develop and grow. To develop any muscle, one has to engage in anaerobic exercises that feature a resistance or load that is very difficult to lift more than 10 to15 times (reps). Aerobic exercises (e.g., using a weight that you can lift 100 times), will not develop the muscles power. This is also true with the brain, for it will not develop only by thinking harder (an aerobic activity). What it requires is an anaerobic-like challenge, such as learning a new skill. Playing chess or mastering a new judo move can stimulate the brains neural dendrites to grow. However, the best anaerobic exercise is one that challenges the person to exert maximum mental energy, like running the 100-meter dash instead of a mile. This is what CBEs do.
CBEs also lower the noise in the brain, which leads to a more accurate reading and processing of information. The brains learning and testing is much like computers”its power is indicated by its speed, efficiency, and capacity for reading, filing, and recalling information.
CBEs are a synthesis of cognitive science, educational psychology, computer science, biofeedback, and psychophysiology. In addition to psycho-interactivity, add the law of psycho-physiology: If you can receive immediate on-line measurement of anything, whether it is your heart rate or brain waves, you can control it.(5)
In one experiment, astronauts used cognitive challenges every day and reported back to Houston so that their brains functioning could be recorded for that day. Subtle changes in cabin CO2, CO, ionization, and so on were found to have measurable effects on their brainpower and performance. CBEs do something like this, but their interactivity makes them more challenging and allows researchers to determine good or bad days in terms of brainpower.
Physical, perceptual, and cognitive reflexes are important in athletics. Contrary to common belief, reflexes can be trained and improved. There is plenty of research on how diet and nutritional supplements effects mental and physical performance. But training can sharpen and hone all of three reflexes. Psychology and physiology books say there is a limit to how fast one reacts to a simple stimulus, such as a car suddenly stopping in front of you on the freeway. The limit is assumed to be 150 milliseconds. But CBEs have reduced this to 100 milliseconds.
CBEs can improve perceptual reflexes (seeing speed). Moreover, some cognitive reflexes, strangely enough, are not highly correlated with physical reflexes. Just because an athlete has good hand-eye coordination and reflexes does not guarantee athletic success when the reaction is based on making a split-second cognitive choice or decision. Cognitive reflexes also can be improved.
CBEs that analyze the brain and compute the users IQ may have an important role in studying and detecting Alzheimers, a progressive brain disorder. Josh Reynolds points out that while Alzheimers only affects 4 to 5 million people in the US, PMI (Premature Mental Impairment) is estimated to afflict over 50 million Americans. PMI typically manifests itself as loss of sustained concentration, memory, and mental quickness. It has many causes, such as undetected strokes, poor nutrition, head injury, alcohol and tobacco abuse, and depression.
However, the most prevalent cause of potentially serious brain deterioration may be cortisol, an adrenal hormone produced as a byproduct of stress. Recent research suggests that cortisol may actually kill brain cells and even lead to Alzheimers if the stress is not detected and treated. Ironically, the very medications used to treat stress (e.g., Valium) temporarily impair physical and cognitive reflexes, especially when dosages are too high or mixed with other drugs or alcohol.
CBEs can show the subtle early stages of stress-related memory loss, and can be used to titrate the dosage levels of anti-anxiety and anti-depressant drugs. Thus, they can minimize the temporary impairment mentioned above while maintaining the medications therapeutic efficacy. CBEs are developed on a computer science platform and thorough research into cognitive chronometrics, defined as the direct active computer-assisted measurement of the brains function. CBEs also can diagnose the early stages of a brain disorder before the onset of clinical symptoms. In addition to Alzheimers, CBEs are used to study and detect ADD and head trauma recovery.
The early stages of dementia, especially Alzheimers, are typically characterized by a breakdown in short-term memory. The primary breakdown is believed not to be in memory retrieval, but in the memory consolidation and storage phase, which are believed to be delegated to the hippocampus. According to CDI president Josh Reynolds, one of the earliest markers of Alzheimers is in the cholnergic system in the hippocampus.
PMI is characterized by a loss of sustained concentration, memory, and mental quickness. CBEs assess six areas of neuro-cognitive functions: physical reflexes, perceptual reflexes and thresholds, cognitive reflexes, working memory capacity (short-term memory), neuro-cognitive processing efficiency (concentration/attention), and neuro-cognitive processing speed (mental quickness). This is accomplished by measuring cognitive states (or status) and subtle changes in cognitive states.
CBEs also provide a reflective measure of neural noise, which is measured by analyzing, among other proprietary variables, the standard deviation (consistency) of the subjects intra-trial reaction times.
As in any field of science and life, computers are becoming a ubiquitous element in cognitive science. With its potential prospects and uses, the computer continues to offer many opportunities to improve our life. This article focused on some of the ways in which a computer can be used to aid the brains memory function. However this is just a crawling stage, and the field essentially remains wide open for researchers.
5 Josh Reynolds is the founder of www.brain.com.