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Perceptual Learning: Perception and Experience  

Barbara Anne Dosher and Zhong-Lin Lu

Perceptual learning is the training-induced improvement in the accuracy or speed of relevant perceptual decisions about what is seen, heard, or felt. It occurs in all sensory modalities and in most tasks. The magnitude and generalizability of this learning may, however, depend on the stimulus modality, the level of sensory representation most aligned to the task, and the methods of training, including attention, feedback, reward, and the training protocol. What is known about perceptual learning in multiple modalities has been advanced based on behavioral studies and consideration of physiology and brain imaging, and the theoretical and computational models that systematize and promote understanding of the complex patterns of perceptual learning. Perceptual training might be used in translational applications, such as education, remediation of perceptual deficits, or maintenance of performance.


Peripheral Vision: A Critical Component of Many Visual Tasks  

Ruth Rosenholtz

In understanding human visual perception, an important component consists of what people can perceive at a glance. If that glance provides the observer with sufficient task-relevant information, this affords efficient processing. If not, one must move one’s eyes and integrate information across glances and over time, which is necessarily slower and limited by both working memory and the ability to integrate that information. Vision at a glance has to do in large part with the strengths and limitations of peripheral vision, and in particular with visual crowding. Understanding peripheral vision has helped unify a number of aspects of vision.


Physical Activity and Inactivity Impacts on Cognitive and Emotional Functioning in Later Life  

Patrick D. Gajewski and Michael Falkenstein

Healthy aging is associated with changes in sensory, motor, cognitive, and emotional functions. Such changes depend on various factors. In particular, physical activity not only improves physical and motor but also cognitive and emotional functions. Observational (i.e., associations) and cross-sectional studies generally show a positive effect of regular physical exercise on cognition in older adults. Most longitudinal randomized controlled intervention studies also show positive effects, but the results are inconsistent due to large heterogeneity of methodological setups. Positive changes accompanying physical activity mainly impact executive functions, memory functions, and processing speed. Several factors influence the impact of physical activity on cognition, mainly the type and format of the activity. Strength training and aerobic training yield comparable but also differential benefits, and all should be used in physical activities. Also, a combination of physical activity with cognitive activity appears to enhance its effect on cognition in older age. Hence, such combined training approaches are preferable to homogeneous trainings. Studies of brain physiology changes due to physical activity show general as well as specific effects on certain brain structures and functions, particularly in the frontal cortex and the hippocampus, which are those areas most affected by advanced age. Physical activity also appears to improve cognition in patients with mild cognitive dysfunction and dementia and often ameliorates the disease symptoms. This makes physical training an important intervention for those groups of older people. Apart from cognition, physical activity leads to improvement of emotional functions. Exercise can lead to improvement of psychological well-being in older adults. Most importantly, exercise appears to reduce symptoms of depression in seniors. In future intervention studies it should be clarified who profits most from physical activity. Further, the conditions that influence the cognitive and emotional benefits older people derive from physical activity should be investigated in more detail. Finally, measures of brain activity that can be easily applied should be included as far as possible.


Physical Activity, Physical Fitness, and Cognition  

Jennifer L. Etnier

There is substantial interest in identifying the behavioral means by which to improve cognitive performance. Recent research and commercial ventures have focused on cognitive training interventions, but evidence suggests that the effects of these programs are small and task-specific. Researchers have also shown interest in exploring the potential benefits of physical activity for cognitive performance. Because the effects of physical activity have been found to be small to moderate and to be more global in nature, interest in physical activity has been growing over the past several decades. Evidence regarding the efficacy of physical activity is provided through cross-sectional studies, longitudinal prospective studies, and randomized controlled trials. When reviewed meta-analytically, small-to-moderate beneficial effects are reported for children, adults, older adults, and cognitively impaired older adults, and these effects are evident for a wide range of cognitive domains, including executive function, memory, and information processing. Researchers are currently focused on identifying the mechanisms of these effects. Most of this research has been conducted using animal models, but there is a growing body of literature with humans. From this evidence, there is support for the role of changes in cerebral structure, hippocampal perfusion, and growth factors in explaining the observed benefits. Thus far, however, the literature is quite sparse, and future research is needed to clarify our understanding of the mechanisms that provide the causal link between physical activity and cognitive performance. Research is also focused on understanding how to increase the benefits by potentially combining cognitive training with physical activity and by identifying the genetic moderators of the effects. These lines of work are designed to elucidate ways of increasing the magnitude of the benefits that can be obtained. At this point in time, the evidence with respect to the potential of physical activity for benefiting cognitive performance is quite promising, but it is critical that funding agencies commit their support to the continued exploration necessary to allow us to ultimately be able to prescribe physical activity to specific individuals with the express purpose of improving cognition.



Sergio M. Pellis and Vivien C. Pellis

Play behavior is relatively rare in the animal kingdom, but is widespread, and in some lineages is very common not only in childhood but also in adulthood. It can take many forms, as playful actions can be directed to a social partner (social play), to an inanimate object (object play), or self-directed, as the animal, jumps, runs, and turns (locomotor-rotational play). Considerable progress has been made in understanding the neural, emotional, and cognitive mechanisms mammals use in regulating social play, but whether comparable mechanisms are used to regulate other forms of play, or apply to non-mammalian animals, remains to be resolved. Similarly, social play in some mammals has been demonstrated to benefit the development of sociocognitive skills and emotional resilience, while locomotor-rotational play can benefit the development of motor skills. The factors that allow some species to gain these benefits also remain to be resolved. Statistical approaches that take the relatedness of species into account are increasingly being applied to analyze a growing comparative database that includes species from many different lineages. In addition, mathematical and computational models are being used to test the explanatory power of various factors to account for the evolution of play. Coupled with new methods in neuroscience that provide a deeper understanding of the brain during play, these approaches will enable extraordinary progress in understanding play over the next few decades.


The Problem and the Measurement of Time in Psychology (1874–1910)  

Silvia Degni

The problem of time in psychology, which first became the object of attention and investigation by scientific psychology concerning the aspect of temporal measurement of mental processes, has been addressed since the early 20th century with regard to the perception of time, also called the subjective experience of time. The reaction time paradigm, defined as the minimum time between the presentation of a stimulus and the participant’s response to it, is closely related to the birth of experimental psychology. The determination of an objective parameter of the speed of the nerve impulse, therefore, represented the initial purpose of the psychochronometric studies. Defining the object of study for experimental psychology as immediate conscious experience or subjective experience of consciousness has led psychologists to reflect on the distinction between physical time and psychological time—a distinction already present in the philosophical field—and to analyze the latter in all its manifestations through sophisticated and complex experimental investigations. Psychologists, although aware of the reflections on time developed by philosophical doctrines and prepared to take these into account, generally tried to steer clear of the questions relating to the typical problems of philosophy—the nature of the idea of time and its corresponding reality—preferring to concentrate their analysis on the subjective experience of time. In relation to the different varieties of the temporal experience, experiments have been conceived and set up to analyze, measure, and precisely define them using the psychophysical and psychophysiological research paradigm. Between the end of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th century researches concerning perception of the present, simultaneity, succession, instant, and time interval were developed.


Prospective Memory and Cognitive Aging  

Simon J. Haines, Jill Talley Shelton, Julie D. Henry, Gill Terrett, Thomas Vorwerk, and Peter G. Rendell

Tasks that involve remembering to carry out future intentions (such as remembering to attend an appointment), and the cognitive processes that enable the completion of such tasks (such as planning), are referred to as prospective memory (PM). PM is important for promoting quality of life across many domains. For instance, failures in remembering to meet social commitments are linked to social isolation, whereas failures in remembering to fulfill occupational goals are linked to poorer vocational outcomes. Declines in PM functioning are of particular concern for older adults because of the strong links between PM and functional capacity. The relationship between age and PM appears to be complex, dependent on many factors. While some aspects of PM appear to hold up relatively well in late adulthood, others appear to show consistent age-related decline. Variability in age differences appears to partially reflect the fact that there are diverse types of PM tasks, which impose demands on a range of cognitive processes that are differentially affected by aging. Specifically, the level and type of environmental support associated with different PM task types appears to be a meaningful determinant of age-related effects. Given the worldwide changing age demographics, the interest in age-related effects on PM will likely intensify, and a primary focus will be how to optimize and maintain PM capacity for this population. This is already reflected in the increasing research on interventions focused on enhancing PM capacity in late adulthood, and points to important future directions in this area of study.


Psychological Responses to Scarcity  

Jiaying Zhao and Brandon M. Tomm

Scarcity is the condition of having insufficient resources to cope with demands. This condition presents significant challenges to the human cognitive system. For example, having limited financial resources requires the meticulous calculation of expenses with respect to a budget. Likewise, having limited time requires the stringent management of schedules with respect to a deadline. As such, scarcity consumes cognitive resources such as attention, working memory, and executive control and elicits a range of systematic and even counter-productive cognitive and behavioral responses as a result. Specifically, scarcity induces an attentional focus on the problem at hand, which facilitates performance by enhancing cognitive processing of information relevant to the problem, increasing the efficiency of resource use, and stabilizing the perception of value. Such prioritization of the problem at hand may seem advantageous, but it can produce undesirable consequences. For example, scarcity causes myopic and impulsive behavior, prioritizing short-term gains over long-term gains. Ironically, scarcity can also result in a failure to notice beneficial information in the environment that alleviates the condition of scarcity. More detrimentally, scarcity directly impairs cognitive function, which can lead to suboptimal decisions and choices that exacerbate the condition of scarcity. Thus, scarcity means not only a shortage of physical resources (e.g., money or time) but also a deficit of cognitive resources (e.g., attention, executive control). The cognitive deficits under scarcity are particularly problematic because they impair performance and lead to counter-productive behaviors that deepen the cycle of scarcity. In addition, people under financial scarcity suffer from stigmas and stereotypes associated with poverty. These social perceptions of poverty further burden the mind by consuming cognitive resources, weakening performance in the poor. Understanding the cognitive and behavioral responses to scarcity provides new insights into why the poor remain poor, identifying the psychological causes of scarcity, and illuminating potential interventions to stop the cycle of scarcity. These insights have important implications for the design and the implementation of policies and services targeting the populations under scarcity.


The Psychology of Hearing Loss  

Christopher J. Plack and Hannah H. Guest

The psychology of hearing loss brings together many different subdisciplines of psychology, including neurophysiology, perception, cognition, and mental health. Hearing loss is defined clinically in terms of pure-tone audiometric thresholds: the lowest sound pressure levels that an individual can detect when listening for pure tones at various frequencies. Audiometric thresholds can be elevated by damage to the sensitive hair cells of the cochlea (the hearing part of the inner ear) caused by aging, ototoxic drugs, noise exposure, or disease. This damage can also cause reductions in frequency selectivity (the ability of the ear to separate out the different frequency components of sounds) and abnormally rapid growth of loudness with sound level. However, hearing loss is a heterogeneous condition and audiometric thresholds are relatively insensitive to many of the disorders that affect real-world listening ability. Hair cell loss and damage to the auditory nerve can occur before audiometric thresholds are affected. Dysfunction of neurons in the auditory brainstem as a consequence of aging is associated with deficits in processing the rapid temporal fluctuations in sounds, causing difficulties in sound localization and in speech and music perception. The impact of hearing loss on an individual can be profound and includes problems in communication (particularly in noisy environments), social isolation, and depression. Hearing loss may also be an important contributor to age-related cognitive decline and dementia.


Psychophysical Methods  

Frederick A.A. Kingdom

Psychophysics is the primary scientific tool for determining how the physical world translates into the biological world of sensations. As a noninvasive methodology that uses behavioral measurements of sensory function, it is often the first port of call for developing the stimuli, procedures and methods of analysis for subsequent use in neurophysiological, electrophysiological and brain imaging studies of sensory behavior. Psychophysics is not merely a methodology but also a research area in its own right, advancing alongside other developments such as in mathematical analysis and computer technology. Although this article concentrates on psychophysics as applied to vision, the concepts and procedures described are applicable to all sensory modalities.


A Review and Reappraisal of the Default Network in Normal Aging and Dementia  

Jessica R. Andrews-Hanna, Matthew D. Grilli, and Muireann Irish

The brain’s default network (DN) has received considerable interest in the context of so-called “normal” and pathological aging. Findings have generally been couched in support of a pessimistic view of brain aging, marked by substantial loss of structural brain integrity accompanied by a host of impairments in brain and cognitive function. A critical look at the literature, however, reveals that the standard loss of integrity, loss of function (LILF) view in normal aging may not necessarily hold with respect to the DN and the internally guided functions it supports. Many internally guided processes subserved by the DN are preserved or enhanced in cognitively healthy older adults. Moreover, differences in motivational, contextual, and physiological factors between young and older adults likely influence the extant neuroimaging and cognitive findings. Accordingly, normal aging can be viewed as a series of possibly adaptive cognitive and DN-related alterations that bolster cognitive function and promote socioemotional well-being and stability in a stage of life noted for change. On the other hand, the available evidence reveals strong support for the LILF view of the DN in neurodegenerative disorders, whereby syndromes such as Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and semantic dementia (SD), characterized by progressive atrophy to distinct DN subsystems, display distinct aberrations in autobiographical and semantic cognition. Taken together, these findings call for more naturalistic, age-appropriate, and longitudinal paradigms when investigating neurocognitive changes in aging and to adequately assess and control for differences in non-neural factors that may obscure “true” effects of normal and pathological aging. A shift in the framework with which age-related alterations in internally guided cognition are interpreted may shed important light on the neurocognitive mechanisms differentiating healthy and pathological aging, leading to a more complete picture of the aging brain in all its complexity.


The Role of Mental Processes in Elite Sports Performance  

Joan N. Vickers and A. Mark Williams

Considerable debate has arisen about whether brain activity in elite athletes is characterized by an overall quieting, or neural efficiency in brain processes, or whether elite performance is characterized by activation of two simultaneous networks. One network exercises cognitive control using increased theta activation of premotor and cingulate gyrus, whereas the second reduces alpha activation in an inhibitory network that prevents the intrusion of debilitating thoughts emanating from the temporal lobe and other areas. Also, there is controversy about how a long-duration “quiet eye” (QE) can fit within a single efficient neural system, or whether a dual system where both increased cognitive control and reduced inhibitory processes has advantages. The literature on neural efficiency, the QE, and theta cognitive control, suggest that a long-duration QE promotes both an increase in theta band activation of the medial prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate and reduced activation and inhibition of the temporal regions during high-pressure situations when a high level of focused, cognitive control is essential.


Scene Perception and Understanding  

Michelle R. Greene

A visual scene is a visual depiction of a real-world environment that supports human activity. The human visual system has evolved through viewing scenes, so studying scene perception allows researchers to understand how the visual system responds to the stimuli it was optimized for. Visual cognition research has established that scenes form a natural kind that is separate from both object recognition and event cognition. Visual scenes have their own category structure as well as unique neural substrates. Visual scene understanding is highly contextual, and observers use regularities among objects and between objects and scenes to leverage scene and object recognition and visual search. In this way, scene understanding forms an interface between pure visual processing and other cognitive processes. A hallmark of human scene understanding is that it can be performed incredibly rapidly—scenes can be easily understood with tens of milliseconds of exposure, even when masked, and neural correlates of scene understanding emerge before 250 ms after stimulus onset. Memory for visual scenes, though outstanding, is biased toward expanding scene representations in space and time. In all, scene understanding is a core component of human cognition that forms an interface between the mind and the world.


The Social Brain Hypothesis and Human Evolution  

Robin I. M. Dunbar

Primate societies are unusually complex compared to those of other animals, and the need to manage such complexity is the main explanation for the fact that primates have unusually large brains. Primate sociality is based on bonded relationships that underpin coalitions, which in turn are designed to buffer individuals against the social stresses of living in large, stable groups. This is reflected in a correlation between social group size and neocortex size in primates (but not other species of animals), commonly known as the social brain hypothesis, although this relationship itself is the outcome of an underlying relationship between brain size and behavioral complexity. The relationship between brain size and group size is mediated, in humans at least, by mentalizing skills. Neuropsychologically, these are all associated with the size of units within the theory of mind network (linking prefrontal cortex and temporal lobe units). In addition, primate sociality involves a dual-process mechanism whereby the endorphin system provides a psychopharmacological platform off which the cognitive component is then built. This article considers the implications of these findings for the evolution of human cognition over the course of hominin evolution.


Spatial Development  

Jeffrey J. Lockman, Nicholas E. Fears, and Emily A. Lewis

Spatial ability is manifest across different psychological domains, including perception, action, and cognition. The development of spatial understanding originates in the perception-action skills of infants. When infants act on the world, either during object manipulation or locomotion, one may begin to glean the foundations of older children’s and adults’ efforts to think, reason, and solve problems more symbolically and abstractly. Even during infancy, different actions, such as reaching and locomotion, may incur different spatial demands, requiring infants to use spatial information flexibly. In the preschool years and beyond, as symbolic skills become more developed, children’s spatial abilities become more abstract, which are reflected in their abilities to think about the layout of environments and to use maps to learn about environments. Besides differences in spatial ability as a function of developmental level, individual differences in spatial ability have also been documented as a function of gender, daily experience, and blindness. Collectively, research on individual differences in spatial development suggests that training procedures can reduce differences in spatial skill that may arise in different individuals. Finally, to understand spatial development more fully, research is needed on the neural bases of spatial development, cross-cultural differences in spatial development, and the impact of technology on spatial behavior.


Specific Language Impairment  

Laurence B. Leonard

Children with specific language impairment (SLI) have a significant deficit in their ability to acquire language that cannot be attributed to intellectual disability, neurological damage, hearing loss, or a diagnosis of autism. These deficits can be long-standing, and adversely affect other aspects of the affected individual’s life. There seems to be a genetic component to SLI, but the disorder is not likely to be traced to a single gene. The problem appears to be universal, but symptoms vary depending on the language being learned. Current attempts to account for SLI have increased our understanding of the most salient symptoms of the disorder, but a full understanding of SLI is not yet within reach.


Speech Comprehension and Cognition in Adult Aging  

Nicole D. Ayasse, Alexis R. Johns, and Arthur Wingfield

The comprehension of spoken language is a complex skill that requires the listener to map the acoustic input onto the meaningful units of speech (phonemes, syllables, and words). At the sentence level, the listener must detect the syntactic structure of the utterance in order to determine the semantic relationships among the spoken words. Each higher level of analysis is thus dependent on successful processing at the prior level, beginning with perception at the phoneme and word levels. Unlike reading, where one can use eye movements to control the rate of input, speech is a transient signal that moves past the ears at an average rate of 140 to 180 words per minute. Although seemingly automatic in young adults, comprehension of speech can represent a greater challenge for older adults, who often exhibit a combination of reduced working memory resources and slower processing rates across a number of perceptual and cognitive domains. An additional challenge arises from reduced hearing acuity that often occurs in adult aging. A major concern is that, even with only mild hearing loss, the listening effort required for success at the perceptual level may draw resources that would ordinarily be available for encoding what has been heard in memory, or comprehension of syntactically complex speech. On the positive side, older adults have compensatory support from preserved linguistic knowledge, including the procedural rules for its use. Our understanding of speech perception in adult aging thus rests on our understanding of such sensory-cognitive interactions.


Statistical Learning  

Louisa Bogaerts, Noam Siegelman, and Ram Frost

Statistical learning refers to the ability to pick up on the statistical regularities in our sensory environment, typically without intention or conscious awareness. Since the seminal publication on statistical learning in 1996, sensitivity to regularities has become a key concept in our understanding of language acquisition as well as other cognitive functions such as perception and attention. Neuroimaging studies investigating which brain areas underpin statistical learning have mapped a network of domain-general regions in the medial temporal lobe as well as modality-specific regions in early sensory cortices. Research using electroencephalography has further demonstrated how sensitivity to structure impacts the brain’s processing of sensory input. In response to concerns about the large discrepancy between the very simplistic artificial regularities employed in laboratory experiments on statistical learning and the much noisier and more complex regularities humans face in the real world, recent studies have taken more ecological approaches.


Surgical Performance From a Psychological Perspective  

Aidan Moran, Nick Sevdalis, and Lauren Wallace

At first glance, there are certain similarities between performance in surgery and that in competitive sports. Clearly, both require exceptional gross and fine motor ability and effective concentration skills, and both are routinely performed in dynamic environments, often under time constraints. On closer inspection, however, crucial differences emerge between these skilled domains. For example, surgery does not involve directly antagonistic opponents competing for victory. Nevertheless, analogies between surgery and sport have contributed to an upsurge of research interest in the psychological processes that underlie expertise in surgical performance. Of these processes, perhaps the most frequently investigated in recent years is that of motor imagery (MI) or the cognitive simulation skill that enables us to rehearse actions in our imagination without engaging in the physical movements involved. Research on motor imagery training (MIT; also called motor imagery practice, MIP) has important theoretical and practical implications. Specifically, at a theoretical level, hundreds of experimental studies in psychology have demonstrated the efficacy of MIT/MIP in improving skill learning and skilled performance in a variety of fields such as sport and music. The most widely accepted explanation of these effects comes from “simulation theory,” which postulates that executed and imagined actions share some common neural circuits and cognitive mechanisms. Put simply, imagining a skill activates some of the brain areas and neural circuits that are involved in its actual execution. Accordingly, systematic engagement in MI appears to “prime” the brain for optimal skilled performance. At the practical level, as surgical instruction has moved largely from an apprenticeship model (the so-called see one, do one, teach one approach) to one based on simulation technology and practice (e.g., the use of virtual reality equipment), there has been a corresponding growth of interest in the potential of cognitive training techniques (e.g., MIT/MIP) to improve and augment surgical skills and performance. Although these cognitive training techniques suffer both from certain conceptual confusion (e.g., with regard to the clarity of key terms) and inadequate empirical validation, they offer considerable promise in the quest for a cost-effective supplementary training tool in surgical education. Against this background, it is important for researchers and practitioners alike to explore the cognitive psychological factors (such as motor imagery) that underlie surgical skill learning and performance.



Jonathan R. Brennan

To “know a language” is to know, in part, the rules by which individual words can be combined to make new meaningful expressions. Theories of syntax aim to specify the mental representations that constitute this knowledge. Evidence from diverse spoken and manual languages indicates that these representations are hierarchically structured and include dependencies between elements that point to a constrained class of rules that are characteristic of human language. Experimental studies show that language users recognize and interpret these representations rapidly, in real time. Debates center on the precise format of these representations and the degree to which they share fundamental and perhaps universal properties across different languages. Theories are constrained by the fact that syntax is acquired without explicit instruction by young children, who show exquisite sensitivity to the usage patterns of their language community while also inducing rules that go beyond the surface patterns of the input they receive. Standing at the intersection of multiple scholarly traditions, syntax has faced historical tensions with adjacent disciplines in the cognitive sciences. Interdisciplinary cross-fertilization is supported by open discussion of methodological practices as well as shared interests in rigorous computational accounts of human language and linguistic diversity.