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Human Brain Is No Computer

Study supports a new interpretation of the thinking process

FRIDAY, July 1, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Upsetting a long-held theory, Cornell University scientists say the mind works in a continuous, dynamic process, not in a series of distinct stages like a computer.

Researchers tracked the computer mouse movements of 42 student volunteers given verbal instructions to click on pictures of different subjects on the computer screen. When the students were given a word such as "candle" and shown two pictures with names that didn't sound alike, such as candle and jacket, their computer mouse trajectories were straight and went directly to the candle.

When the students heard the word "candle" and were given two pictures of items that sounded similar, such as candle and candy, their computer mouse trajectories were much more curved and they were slower to click on the correct picture.

This indicates that the students started processing the word before the entire word was spoken, suggesting that language comprehension is a continuous process, the researchers said.

"For decades, the cognitive and neural sciences have treated mental processes as though they involved passing discrete packets of information in a strictly feed-forward fashion from one cognitive module to the next or in a string of individuated binary symbols -- like a digital computer," study author Michael Spivey, a psycholinguist and associate professor of psychology, said in a prepared statement.

"More recently, however, a growing number of studies, such as ours, support dynamical-systems approaches to the mind. In this model, perception and cognition are mathematically described as a continuous trajectory," he said. The result is a more interactive, organic flow of information "back and forth to produce nonlinear, self-organized, emergent properties -- like a biological organism," Spivey said.

The findings appear in this week's online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

More information

For how the mind affects the body's health, visit the National Institutes of Health.

SOURCE: Cornell University, news release, June 27, 2005
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