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See Inside October 2005

Think Ensemble



The brain does not function linearly, as most computers do. Instead groups of neurons compete to represent a concept, until one emerges dominant. The mind consists of an ensemble of such states, continuously evolving and sharing information. Michael Spivey, a psychologist at Cornell University, recently presented one more piece of evidence for this conclusion.

The researcher asked 42 volunteers to move a cursor toward one of two images at the top of a computer screen after hearing a recorded voice speak the name of one of them. When the two objects had phonetically similar names, such as “candle” and “candy,” the volunteers took longer to click on the correct object than when the names were distinct (“candle” and “jacket”). Furthermore, the cursor trajectories were more curved when the words sounded similar. The curvature represents the time during which the two interpretations are competing, before one finally wins out, which Spivey says, “argues against the traditional modular framework”—the model in which the mind works like a computer.

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