How do our environments influence human cognition?

Much research has been devoted to “unaided” human cognition, that is neurological functions and processes that seem to operate independently of external devices (i.e. memory, perception, attention, etc.).  Less investigated is the ongoing interaction of humans with artifacts, and the influence that this active relationship with external objects has in the evolution of human learning and cognitive capacities.  We are immersed in a world that presents a myriad of active visual stimuli from video games, to computers, to television.  How do these devices and our habitual interaction with them shape our cognitive development?

This question is addressed in a study conducted by Jenn-Yeu Chen and Chun-Yu Chuang of the Institute of Cognitive Science in Taiwan.  The study’s participants consisted of two groups of fluent Chinese typists, one group proficient users of the zhuyin keyboard (a phonology-based typing system that prioritizes knowledge of a character’s onset consonant, medial vowel if one exists, the rhyme, and tone) and the other proficient cangje users (a typing system based on a character’s orthography, which requires the visual recognition of the two radicals that compose a Chinese character.)  The typists were presented with several tasks such as typing a short piece of text using their respective systems, going through a passage and pointing out a repeating, predesignated radical, and identifying the shared phonological characteristics of spoken characters.  The results of the experiments showed that zhuyin users  made primarily phonology-based errors while typing, passed over the predesignated character embedded throughout the passage with more frequency, and were more rapid in their response to the shared patterns of spoken words.  For each experiment, the opposite proved to be true of cangje users, who favored visual stimuli over phonological cues.  The findings suggest that the methodology of the zhuyin and cangje systems may shape the typists’ cognitive processes to demonstrate a bias for either a character’s phonology or its orthography, respectively.

The article (http://www.cogsci.rpi.edu/csjarchive/proceedings/2008/pdfs/p487.pdf) further illuminates the influence that our world has on our processes of perception and cognition.

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