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Friday, May 4, 2018

Psychology will fail if it keeps using ancient words like “attention” and “memory”

Olivia Goldhill
Originally published April 7, 2018

Here is an excerpt:

Then there are “jangle fallacies,” when two things that are the same are seen as different because they have different names. For example, “working memory” is used to describe the ability to keep information mind. It’s not clear this is meaningfully different from simply “paying attention” to particular aspects of information.

Scientific concepts should be operationalized, meaning measurable and testable in experiments that produce clear-cut results. “You’d hope that a scientific concept would name something that one can use to then make predictions about how it’s going to work. It’s not clear that ‘attention’ does that for us,” says Poldrack.

It’s no surprise “attention” and “memory” don’t perfectly map onto the brain functions scientists know of today, given that they entered the lexicon centuries ago, when we knew very little about the internal workings of the brain or our own mental processes. Psychology, Poldrack argues, cannot be a precise science as long as it relies on these centuries-old, lay terms, which have broad, fluctuating usage. The field has to create new terminology that accurately describes mental processes. “It hurts us a lot because we can’t really test theories,” says Poldrack. “People can talk past one another. If one person says I’m studying ‘working memory’ and the other people says ‘attention,’ they can be finding things that are potentially highly relevant to one another but they’re talking past one another.”

The information is here.