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Ψ. Cognitive Psychology Winter 2004 -Discussion Section-. Language. Categorization. Cognitive functions. Perception. Attention. Emotion Motivation Action. Memory. Imagery. Language. Language. Reasoning, problem-solving. Decision-making. Overview.

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Cognitive Psychology

Winter 2004

-Discussion Section-



Cognitive functions










Reasoning, problem-solving



Wrapup of last time: Midterm, diseases



Crain & Steedman

rosch mervis
Rosch & Mervis
  • Then:

Typicality effects in categorization






-Psychology of Meditation

-Buddhist Psychology

-Eastern Religions, Embodiment

-Williams Syndrome

-Genetic Neuropsychology

williams syndrome
Williams Syndrome



Mental retardation

Poor learning abilities

Particularly poor drawing abilities


Normal, but overly friendly. Trusting strangers.


Strong affinity for music, language

williams syndrome1
Williams Syndrome

Prevalence: 1 in 20,000 births.  Rather rare

Etiology: Genetically determined. Missing material on Chromosome #7. Due to random mutation.

Theoretical significance: Basically the „opposite“ of Autism (which is much more common).

Cure and treatments: None

Outlook: Stable. Yet shortened life-expectancy.


Fibrodys plasia ossificans progressiva

=Disease where one progressively ossifies, meaning: Turning into stone.


Wounded tissue (like muscles) is not replaced by that tissue, but by bone-like structures.

As the disease progresses, this ossification becomes increasingly painful and effectively paralyzes the person.


Prevalence: 1 in 2,000,000 births.  Extremely rare

Etiology: Genetic, but Unknown.

Mechanism: Unknown.

Cure and treatments: None

Outlook: Progressive Paralysis,eventuallyfatal

lifetime prevalence ratios
Lifetime Prevalence Ratios

Depression 1:5

Schizophrenia 1:100

Autism 1:500

Williams Syndrome 1:20,000

FOP 1:2,000,000



The cognitive ability of language is extremely rare in organisms. To our knowledge, only humans are able to use what we call „language“ (with all the defining characteristics).

From the viewpoint of neuroscience, as well as engineering, the human ability to express thoughts via language and understand expressions of others is uncanny (compared to programming languages).

Particularly amazing are the facts that there are many ways to express any given thought and yet the very same statement can have different meanings in different contexts. And all that given the fuzzy system of everyday language with poorly defined concepts, etc.


This amazing feat is subject to extensive and intensive study. Both Linguistics and Cognitive Psychology (among others) are devoted to uncover it´s secrets.

 We won´t even be able to scratch the surface. But we don´t have to. A primer how exciting it can be is sufficient.

Our very own Psych Department is particularly strong in the Psychology of Language and Language Development. Our Linguistics Department is ok. In Spring quarter, there are some exciting courses exclusively on this topic.


Defining characteristics: More than communication

Productivity: An infinite number of utterances are possible in any language.

Regularity: However, these utterances are systematic in many ways. Only (relatively) few of the theoretically possible utterances are meaningful.

Example: While sentences can be almost infinitely long (mostly limited by working memory), they only make sense if they are not a random arrangement of words.


Language Myth 1:


Claim: Given enough monkeys and time, a monkey would eventually re-type the bible/Shakespeares work, etc. – just by chance.

Theoretical objection: With all key-states, a conventional keyboard has at least 100 keys. A single page of the bible contains on average 3000 characters. Let´s assume we have 1000 monkeys, each of whom types one character per second, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year – since the beginning of the world, 20 Bln. Years ago. Given independence of key strokes (the optimal case for the monkeys and nothing they are actually capable of), what is the probability that one of the monkeys wrote a page of the bible since the beginning of the universe just by chance?

Well, in the time since the beginning of the Universe, the monkeys were able to type 630,720,000,000,000,000,000 characters, given these assumptions.

Yet, the probability that ONE PAGE is written correctly by chance is much lower than 1e-300. (0.00(296 zeros)001). Effectively zero.

Even a 10-character random password is virtually safe. There are 1:100,000,000,000,000,000,000 possible combinations.


Empirical objection: Monkeys are not interested in typing at all. A 4 week long experiment in an English Zoo settled this issue once and for all:

Researcher Mike Phillips noted the first thing to happen was that the “lead male got a stone and started bashing…it” (as quoted in Bernbaum, 2003). He went on to note “another thing they were interested in was in defecating and urinating all over the keyboard.”

Eventually the six monkeys—named Elmo, Gum, Heather, Holly, Mistletoe, and Rowan—did produce five pages of “text.” However, that “text” was composed primarily of the letter S, with the letters A, J, L, and M added on rare occasions.


Phonemes: The sounds of a language

Morphemes: The meaningful units of a language

Syntax: The structure of each sentence

Semantics: The study of meaning

Pragmatics: Social rules of effective communication

Ironically, Language seems to be an implicit skill. Most people can´t verbalize the rules by which they form sentences, yet they can use them.

pragmatic rules
Pragmatic rules

Gricean maximes:

  • Quantity: Make your contribution just as informative as required.
  • Quality: Try to be truthful
  • Relation: Try to be relevant
  • Manner: Try to avoid ambiguity

These are just surface rules. They don´t explain anything. Yet, a lot bases on violations on it: E.g. Jokes.

  • Language comprehension:

Parsing problem.

Filling in (if encountering noise)

Taking context into account

The short answer is: We don´t know much about the mechanics of language production and comprehension.


Language acquisition:

One word stage (over-inclusive)

Two word stage

Inadequacy of Behaviorism.  Postulation of Universal Grammar.

Critical period (old) vs. Degree of immersion (new)


Language and thought: The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

„If we can‘t talk about it, we can´t think it, hence language guides thought. And cognition in general“.

Picked up by feminist movement:

„Enid: The school is sexist since the word „semester“ obviously prefers „semen“ rather than ovaries. We should replace it with „ovester““.

BUT: It has been shown that cultures that have only very few color names still can perceive all colors normally. Among other things. The hypothesis holds only mildly.


Language Myth 2:

Eskimos (Inuit...) have 50 different words for snow.

(Hence, they are just as civilized as us (Franz Boas)).

Not really. It´s just an agglutinative language (gluing morphemes). This basically means, that you can make up new words by combining old ones.

That way, you end up easily at 50. Sounds impressive in english, but it´s not. German is similar (not that extremely).


Germans have an infinite number of words for „ship“

Dampfschiff Steamer

Segelschiff Sailing ship

Schlachtschiff Battleship

Flussschiff Ship that operates in rivers

Frachtschiff Freighter

Handelsschiff Merchantman

... ...


Trying not to be a dick

Excellence through excitement (not intimidation)

crain steedman
Crain & Steedman

Hardcore theoretical linguistics

Stephen Crain

Mark Steedman

crain steedman1
Crain & Steedman

Garden path sentences: So called, because they lead the listener up the „garden path“ to an incorrect understanding.

Garden Path sentences exhibit local ambiguity. Hence, they are a good paradigm to study human language processing.

„The man who hunts ducks out on weekends“

„The cotton clothing is usually made of grows in Mississippi“

crain steedman2
Crain & Steedman

Specific Question: How do we resolve local ambiguities in sentences?

General Question: Is Human language processing similar to artificial language processing?

Alternatives: We use a) Contextual strategies, b) Structural strategies, c) Both structural and contextual stragegies. D) Neither/something else.

crain steedman3
Crain & Steedman

Logic and Methods:

Problem with other studies: They were using the null context, hence falsely believing that it the nature of the garden path sentence is structural.

Three studies were done that varied the context, presenting subjects garden path sentences and asking them to rate the „grammaticality“ of the sentence. Using different kinds of contexts.

crain steedman4
Crain & Steedman

Results and Conclusions:

Once context was controlled, there was no residual structural effect.

 Local ambiguities are resolved by reference to the semantic context.

A garden path sentence is not a garden path sentence per se (by it's syntactic structure). It becomes a garden path sentence by particular contexts (including the null context).

Hence, humans don't process language like an artificial language processor

crain steedman5
Crain & Steedman


Was this a scientific question?

Wasn´t the used material a little arbitrary?

Since the brain DOES compute, how does it do it? This study doesn´t help at all in that regard.

But generally, they are right:

People understand context based. It often doesn't really matter what you actually say. If I stand on your foot in the subway and say "Oh sorry, I did it intentional", you will most likely say: "Oh, no problem".

(Unless you are in New York, which is a different context altogether).