Author Archives: jwebb3

Understanding Cognition to Transform Healthcare

I’m sure that everyone in our class is aware of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act No_Change(PPACA) aka Obamacare seeing as it has been a controversial topic in many political debates. Essentially, the goal of Obamacare is to increase the number of insured individuals in the US by making insurance available to everyone. There are various political reasons people are disputing the effectiveness of Obamacare but I’m more interested in the reason brought up in a blog post by Dr. Nelson Soken: That we, as human beings, resist change.

Earlier this month Dr. Soken titled a post “Understanding of Human Cognition and Behavior Can Help Transform Healthcare” on the Association for Talent Development’s Healthcare blog detailing the Cognitive Biases that are barriers to change and then describing how he believes we can overcome those biases and the resistance to change. Several of the Cognitive Biases Cognitive_Bias_Unconscious_Mind_Adam_Eason_Hypnotherapy_01-600x675that Dr. Soken lists are ones that we have gone over in class; Confirmation Bias, Functional Fixedness, Loss Aversion, and Group Think. Additionally, Dr. Soken listed Egocentrism, turning a blind eye to the point of view of others (such as those who couldn’t obtain insurance under the old healthcare system), and Salience, focusing on the “louder” issues that get the most attention rather than the important issues (like the focus on the ramblings of politicians instead of on the actual issues surrounding individuals struggling without health insurance). He goes on to state that these cognitive biases tend to “reinforce the status quo” instead of promoting change, even if change is for the better. The doctor then lists out the mind and skill sets that he believes are imperative to the change in healthcare for the future: empathy, observation, a defined vision, collaboration, constructive debating, and prototyping (if you need elaboration on what any of these are, you’re welcome to read the original post which I have cited below). He concludes his post by stating that change is challenging regardless of the context, but that we stand a greater chance of accepting change if we have an awareness of the cognitive biases working against us as well as a valid list of strategies to combat those biases.

I found Dr. Soken’s take on the controversial subject to be much more interesting than the political ramblings that are portrayed throughout the media on an everyday basis. After reading the post, I have to say that I agree with him overall, that cognitive biases truly do have a strong effect on our openness to change. I would also have to agree that being aware of strategies that can be utilized to combat those cognitive biases definitely improves the likelihood of changes being accepted.


Soken, N. (2016, April 22). Healthcare Blog. Retrieved from Association for Talent Development:

Shoulda Been Raised Bilingual.

Until we began discussing it in class, I had never even considered how complex languages are or just how much our brain has to go through to process simple phrases. From morphemes and phonemes to semantics, syntax, and phonology(luckily they can do these things without us having to know their definitions), our brains go through numerous complex processes that give us the ability to communicate verbally with others whose brains go through those processes in the same way. But most of us only speak one language. What about those talented individuals who speak more than one language? Are the cognitive skills of bilinguals, who can parse sentences in two completely distinct languages, more advanced than the cognitive skills of monolinguals?

Recently (March 11, 2016), The New York Times posted an article by Katherine Kinzler entitled “The Superior Social Skills of Bilinguals”.  In the article, Kinzler states that in recent years two new studies have come out that show that multilingual exposure improves both children’s cognitive skills and social abilities. In a study conducted in Kinzler’s lab, 4-6 year old children who were being raised multilingual performed better in a task designed to determine the capabilities of considering others’ perspectives when compared to children who were being raised monolingual. They also determined that children who were monolingual but were exposed to other languages performed better at this same perspective-consideration task than children who were only ever exposed to one language. This discovery prompted her and her colleagues to administer a cognitive test of executive function to each of the children to test their “cognitive skills”. Not surprisingly, the children being raised bilingual performed better than the children being raised multilingual, however, the “exposure” children did not score any better than the children who had only ever been exposed to one language. They theorized that something more “social” must be influencing the “exposure” children’s ease in adopting another’s point-of-view. Kinzler later re-conducted this experiment with even younger children. This time, 14-16 month-old babies, who could barely speak, were given a similar point-of-view recognition task. Once again, both multilingual raised babies and babies exposed to multiple languages performed better than babies only ever exposed to one language. She concluded that multilingual exposure facilitates the basic skills of interpersonal understanding.

The fact that these superior cognitive skills are noticeable in babies and children blows my mind. These children’s brains are being exposed to at least twice as much language related information as mine ever was, are having to break down situations in at least two distinct languages, and are being shown to be more advanced both cognitively and socially because of it. Now I kinda wish that my parents could have been at least bilingual…


Improve Your Memory

Go up to any student on campus and ask them, “If there was a foolproof way to increase the amount of information you can retain from your working memory, would you try it?” and I can almost guarantee that if they are able to understand what you are asking them, they will say yes. I mean, who wouldn’t want to increase their memory capacity? Especially around mid-terms and final exams, every student on campus is looking for a way to make all the facts and concepts of multiple subjects stick in their minds at least long enough to make it through whichever exam they have coming up next. Unfortunately, I don’t know any foolproof ways to increase your memory capacity (and to be honest, if I did, I would probably write a book about it and then sign some multi-million-dollar contract to become one of those self-improvement lecturers that live on massive yachts in the middle of the Caribbean, not put up a post detailing it for our class).  However, in class we learned about an excellent strategy to help Improve our working memory; Chunking.

Before I continue with the rest of my article I want to bring your attention to the difference between Improving and Increasing:

To Improve is to make or become better; To Increase is to become or make greater in size, amount, intensity or degree. In relation to Memory:

To Improve Memory is to become better at remembering information; To Increase Memory is to make greater the amount of information that can be remembered.

Back to the article, our book defines a “chunk” as the hypothetical storage unit in working memory; essentially a piece of information. In class we defined Chunking as the repackaging of information to create meaning from working memory. To simplify that, Chunking is combining multiple individual pieces of information into a larger group. This group of associated information then becomes its own chunk (the more I read it, the more it looks like “chunk” is not a real word). According to a study by George Miller (Miller, 1956) working memory holds 7 plus-or-minus 2 chunks. The theory behind chunking improving memory is that you can increase the amount of information in each chunk. You are still only remembering approximately 7 chunks, they are just larger chunks of information. It does not increase the size of working memory itself. In class, Dr. Rettinger listed the following series of letters for us to remember:

 H, O, P, T, R, A, S, L, U.

While it is certainly possible for someone to remember those 9 letters as they are, isn’t it a lot easier to remember when broken up into chunks?


The 9 individual pieces of information became 3 chunks of extremely easy to remember information. Another, much more relatable example of chunking involves numbers:

5, 4, 0, 6, 5, 6, 8, 7, 9, 2.

This string of 10 random digits is much harder to remember than the following three chunks:

540, 656, 8792.

Phone numbers (and yes, for those of you who were wondering, that is my number, you’re welcome) are generally remembered in chunks for the area code, prefix, and line number (learn something new every day) making them easier to remember. Then they came out with this handy thing called the Contacts App on cell phones so who needs to bother remembering phone numbers.

I found an article online titled “What is Chunking and How Can it Increase Your Memory?” The article initially just summarizes Chunking similarly to the way I did above and then goes into a few ideas for how to group together similar items to help remember them:

  1. Group Items by the First Letter
  2. Break Strings of numbers up into groups of three or four
  3. Categorize items, like on a grocery list

While I can’t help you Increase your memory capacity, Chunking (I swear I’m almost done with the word) is an effective way of Improving working memory.  Practice and you might find you can remember more with this technique than whatever method you use currently.

Do They Work?

Brain Enhancing Drugs: Do They Work?

Nearly every college student has either taken or knows someone who has taken some form of brain enhancing drug, usually in an attempt to get a better grade on a test. Especially around exam times many students seek drugs as a quick way to make cramming for a difficult test just a little bit easier. These “smart drugs” (as they have been nicknamed) “… are taken to allegedly improve memory, learning, focus, attention, and other cognitive skills.” Two of the most common brain enhancers are Adderall and Ritalin, both of which are prescribed to many college age students and are easily acquired on the streets either from friends or drug dealers.

In this article Deanne Alban started off with the statistic that, “As many as one in five college students have used these drugs to help them study…” Many of these drugs/medications are prescribed for individuals diagnosed with ADD and other attention-related disorders to help them focus therefore it makes sense to assume that they would improve the focus of an individual without a disorder too. What intrigues me is the second part of the aforementioned sentence, “As many as one in five college students have used these drugs to help them study but research has found these drugs impair rather than boost mental performance.” Alban mentioned a study in support of this hypothesis in which healthy students were given Modafinil, a drug that supposedly helps with focus and concentration, but instead of their cognitive functions improving, “their thinking slowed down with no improvement in performance…”

The article also pointed out that “… smart drugs don’t make you smarter but they’re pretty good at making you think you’re performing better.” In support of this claim, Alban brought up a study in which participants were divided into four groups. Two of the groups were told they were being given Ritalin while the other two were told they were being given a placebo. In reality, one group expected Ritalin and received it, one group expected Ritalin but received a placebo, one group expected a placebo but received Ritalin, and one group expected a placebo and received it. Across the board, the participants who expected to receive Ritalin “… reported better focus regardless of whether they were given Ritalin or a placebo.” According to this study the belief in the positive effects of a brain enhancer is more effective than the drug itself!

The article also discussed other downsides of the drugs but they are not related to cognitive psychology.

In addition to being written creatively and put together in an easy-to-read fashion, the author supports each claim of her article with citations linked to the source of information. While the article itself isn’t found in some scholarly database, it has almost 30 links to reputable sources backing up the claims she makes with scientific findings (with the exception of one link to Wikipedia for a definition- I let it slide).

Personally I was astonished by this information. Ever since I arrived in college I’ve been told that drugs like Adderall are miracle workers for finals. People occasionally mentioned the downsides of addiction and illegality as far as usage was concerned but this was the first time I had heard that the benefit was most likely just a placebo effect. The fact that there is proof of these drugs being ineffective makes me wonder why more of these studies aren’t advertised on campuses. From my perspective, the vast majority of individuals who use these brain enhancing drugs in college don’t know that the benefits perceived from taking the drugs are most likely just a placebo effect. If they knew the facts then the downsides might outweigh the possible benefits for more people making usage less prevalent.


Alban, D. (2015, September 19). Brain Enhancing Drugs: Do They Work? Retrieved January 30, 2016, from