Author Archives: jmr6242

Language and the Cognitive Challenge

Like many people these days, I’m bilingual. I spent a large portion of my life living in a foreign country where my first language was not spoken. Also like many people, my first few weeks living in a culture that uses different structures of audible communication (not just the language) were some of the most stressful, terrifying weeks of my life.

I arrived in Venezuela where most people do; the airport. I’d taken a rudimentary crash course in Spanish before arriving, and felt reasonably confident that language would not be a challenge.

And then I stepped off of the plane.

Eventually, I learned to speak the language; it was either that, or starve to death. Yet the difficulties and challenges that presented themselves, and the gradual transition to understanding and comprehension formed a recognizable path that is traceable through the applied used of cognitive psychology.

First, a language is defined (for our purposes) by Penn State as “a system of communication using sounds or symbols that enables us to express our feeling, thoughts, ideas and experiences” (PSU, 2015). It’s necessary to note that not all of these things need language to communicate, at least not in the most explicit sense; hand gestures, facial expressions, and even the ‘point and grunt’ of the foreign tourist in a kitschy souvenir shop are all forms of communication that rest outside of this boundary. That being noted, language itself is much more than simply communication.

When thinking back on my experiences as I struggled to learn a language that sounded nothing like my Spanish teacher’s lessons, wondering how I would ever survive or make friends, the first thing that I now realize I latched onto were phonemes and morphemes, which constitute (respectively) the different sounds in a language, and the smallest sounds that carry meaning (PSU, 2015).

An advantage that I had going in was the fact that the phonemes in Spanish are similar to those found in English, to wit, the languages are similarly structured in this particular category. Yet they are not identical, and it wasn’t until my mind was able to hear the difference between the actual sounds being made that comprehension ever began to show itself as a possibility. On the other hand, while the morphemes are similar on paper, in speech, they are sometimes subtly different and sometimes altogether confusing. A good example of this dichotomy between languages is the ‘-s’ at the end of many words in both languages that indicates plurality. In Venezuelan Spanish, it is incredibly rare that the above morpheme is actually heard. Instead, the word takes on a subtle variation of stress, without the ‘-s’ sound ever actually being intoned. It is reasonable to infer that for a new learner of a language, such as myself as a teenager, there is at least a portion of the learning process that is facilitated by phoneme restoration, or the filling in of gaps in received sounds with the expected signals, or, in this case, the filling in of sounds that aren’t there through either context or a very slight or nonexistent change in the pronunciation of certain words (PSU, 2015). This is a fantastic example of top-down processing.

Once that challenge had been surpassed, or at least met with a moderate amount of success, sentence structure was on the docket. The ambiguity of sentence structure is a challenge in any language, as Penn State’s lesson on the subject in Psychology 256 proves, but converting the structure from one of conscious processing to automatic processing requires even more exposure and practice to master. Every language structures its sentences differently; syntax being defined as the way in which proper sentences are structure, it is critical to a language learner that they expose themselves to the syntax until it becomes natural, which follows on with Grice’s maxims of conversation as cited in the lesson on language in Penn State’s Introduction to Cognitive Psychology class (PSU, 2015). In this way, the training becomes more a form of unconscious priming (PSU, 2015), and less a matter of hearing a sentence and translating.

Once sentence structure and sounds that have meaning were understood, it became a matter of avoiding the final sentence of the former paragraph. Most people attempting to learn a language attempt to hear the input and consciously convert it to the language that they speak naturally in their minds; this makes for a great deal of time spent literally lost in translation. Just and Carpenter make a case for this in their 1987 study that focused on the amount of time a reader’s eyes would spend looking at words and assigning them meaning. In their study, larger words (or less common ones) would typically take longer to comprehend than common words like ‘on’ or ‘if’ (Just and Carpenter, 1987). Given this fact, it is fair to say that when a reader attempts to read (or understand in spoken form) a word or sentence from a language that they are unfamiliar with, even if they know the vocabulary, the processing time will be greater, and less effective.

Eventually, the four conversational maxims Grice came up with began to make sense on their own, just as the phonemes, morphemes, sentence structures, and comprehension did. I found myself thinking in Spanish sentence structure. When talking with my friends back in the US, I would often break the maxims as held by standard English, using Spanish structuring and even some morphemes without realizing it. Eventually I got to the point where I could pass in Venezuela as a Venezolano, despite my obvious ‘gringo’ features. I’ve ruminated for most of my adult life on the process involved, and only after learning about the cognitive aspect of language has it ever made any sense. Which is the great thing about cognitive psychology as a subject of study; obscure concepts and complex transitions can all be rationally (if not easily) explained.

Works Cited:

Penn State University. (2015). Introduction to Cognitive Psychology, Lesson 11: Language. Retrieved from

Just, M. A., & Carpenter, P. A. (1987). The psychology of reading and language comprehension. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

On Implicit Memory In Battle

It is fair to state that, by many standards, and in many ways, human beings employ implicit memory through a number of ways, most of which few are truly aware. In repetition, we prime memory. In practice, we develop procedure. While the events analyzed below culminate in an example of procedure and priming of implicit memory in action, it is important to consider exactly what the process of gaining the implicit memory required to begin with.

For those who aren’t aware, I am a veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, more commonly known as the war in Afghanistan. In personal experience, I feel my experiences have given me a powerful example of implicit memory. As I would find it rather gauche, I will not share my personal experiences specifically around combat itself, but will for that portion share those of a good friend who has asked that his name not be used. It is fair, however, given the generalization and standardization of the training received by soldiers who attend the Fort Benning School for Wayward Children (also known as Basic Combat Training, or BCT/OSUT),  to allow for similar conditioning and implicit memory to be present in both of us.

The first morning of Basic, after having arrived, been assigned to my training company, issued my gear, and so forth, I was awakened by a loud, angry crashing sound coming from the hallway outside our eight-man bay. The racket was accompanied by a vicious stream of curses and commands, screaming for the trainees to get up, get their uniforms on, and get into the hallway, where we were expected to “toe the line,” in reference to the platoon all standing at the position of attention with our toes touching a small line that ran the length of the hallway. As I flew out of my bed and began to furiously don my clothing, I saw that the racket in the hallway was in fact a pair of large metal garbage cans being thrown haphazardly down the corridor, with a drill instructor pounding on the lid of one can, held in one hand, with a two by four in the other, causing a perfect cacophony that made it all but impossible to think. Shortly after all of the would-be-soldiers managed to get into the hall, we proceeded to do pushups, sit-ups, and flutter kicks for well over an hour.

A lot of my platoon-mates grumbled about this. “Why not just tell us to get up?” they would ask miserably, as the cycle of the garbage can alarm clock symphony continued, day in and day out, for several weeks. Every morning was the same drill, at slightly varied times within a ten-minute deviation of four o’clock in the morning. We would awaken to thunderous noise and screaming, cursing and yelling, and then proceed to perform many varied and strenuous exercises for the next long while.

In the interest of reference to scientific work, it is appropriate to cite Penn State’s World Campus Lesson on Memory. “Repetition priming occurs when cognitive processing of information is facilitated by previous exposure to the same information” (PSU, 2015). Given the context of implicit memory, the purpose and effect behind this routine is rather obvious. Don’t worry, we’ll get there.

Later, throughout the rest of BCT/OSUT, and in training with the actual unit I was assigned to upon graduation, we would practice our actions in simulated combat. The simulations were made as real as possible; blanks for our weapons, laser-tag-style harnesses and weapon attachments to let us perform and react in an unpredictable scenario, and shooting. We shot our rifles, shot our machine guns, shot our rifles, and shot our machine guns again. We spent so much time on the range that, though now several years removed, I can still remember the perfect olfactory blend of wet foliage and gunpowder that seemed to permanently inhabit the folds of my uniforms. We would practice loading and unloading, swapping magazines, reacting to ambushes or improvised explosive devices (IEDs), maneuvering in squad and platoon formations on the ground, until we could do it all in our sleep.

Fast forward a couple of years, to my good friend; let’s call him Jim. He found himself on a mission with his platoon in the mountains of Afghanistan, in hostile territory, with no support to speak of being any closer than 30 minutes by attack helicopter in any direction. By this time, Jim was a young Sergeant, tasked with leading a team of four soldiers, under the direction of his higher chain of command. On the day in question, his platoon (three squads, with 2 teams of five each) was on foot, moving to a village in the higher part of the mountainous region with the hope of forging a tentative alliance with the village elder, when they were attacked. Jim recalls the moment of the attack as confusing; a few snapping noises, and some splinters suddenly breaking off from the trees around them, followed then by the report of the gunshots in the direction from which their enemy approached.

The platoon sprung into motion; each soldier had a task, under the supervision of their NCOs, and the soldiers had drilled their tasks to perfection. Jim’s team was on the flank of the platoon that took the initial contact, nearest to the enemy. They got into a holding position, and began to return fire.

While the details of the firefight are similar to many, Jim’s experience included one thing that most soldiers in combat do: He didn’t have to think about diving to the ground, or finding cover, or getting his weapon trained in the right direction and returning suppressive fire (gunshots designed to slow an enemy advance, or pin them down, to slow their rate of fire long enough for the platoon to position itself more advantageously for the engagement). All of it was automated. In Jim’s case, he couldn’t recall any conscious thought outside of what would give him and his team the best tactical advantage over the attacking force. When orders were called out, they were followed. During the battle, they were asked to suppress, flank, bound, peel, form up in different positions, and more. All of this was done reflexively; where one who has never been trained for combat may have difficulty accomplishing these things (most don’t know what any of the above terms even mean), Jim’s team, and the other teams around them, were able to execute the actions asked of them without hesitation. In confluence with this, again going to the Penn State lesson on implicit memory, “These memories typically involve some kind of action like shooting a free throw in basketball or tying our shoes” (PSU, 2015).

Jim’s platoon succeeded in fending off the attack; more so, they were able to maneuver and rout the enemy forces. All things told, it was a great microcosm of military success on a battlefield. For the sake of narrative, it’s worth noting that several soldiers, including Jim, received commendations for their bravery and audacity on the side of the mountain.

But what is the point of this story? It highlights the procedural and priming implicit in, well, implicit memory. From day zero of basic training, soldiers are primed; gunfights are loud. Very loud. The only difference between them and a metal garbage can being thrown down a hallway is, functionally, the source of the noise. There is screaming, cursing, orders being hollered out over the din; all of these things are congruent from one scenario to the other. Through the repetition of the drill, followed by the repeated physical exertion of exercise in a barracks hallway, soldiers are primed to react to the disturbance, listen for orders, and then exert themselves physically. As an aside to those who may not understand this fact, combat is physically exhausting.

As for procedural, after the fight, Jim’s team performed equipment checks, and he (and several others) were surprised to see how many magazines of ammunition they’d gone through. For my friend’s part, Jim was entirely unaware of several magazine changes he’d performed automatically. Again, the repetition served a purpose. One soldier had gone through three belts of ammo for his machine gun, yet didn’t remember making his last belt change, which is a rather more complex process than the magazine swaps that Jim had to perform. Yet, the endless repetition made the procedure implicit in these soldiers’ minds; they were able to focus on the task at hand, the enemy they were fighting, rather than shift their vantage points to the mundane and time consuming tasks of changing belts and mags.

Training soldiers to have the appropriate reactions in battle is similar to training a child to ride a bicycle. It seems simple to those of us who have been doing it for years, but if we tried to write a manual, we’d likely still fail our readers with alarming regularity (PSU, 2015). It is through the training, the years and months of repetition, the conditioning to react to scenarios appropriately, that make the kind of soldiers who, if they’re lucky, are like Jim, the kind that save lives and return home to their families. It is easy to look at the moment of implicit memory and understand it, but it is equally important to consider the process that created those memories. Only then can we truly perceive them; but that’s another matter entirely.

Works Cited

PSU, (2015). PSYCH 256 Lesson 6: Long Term Memory. Pages 11-12. ANGEL Course Management System. Retrieved from


Gestalt Laws of Perception as applied to Camouflage

Brad Paisley may have said it best when he said “ain’t nothin’ [that] doesn’t go with camouflage.”

We’ve all been walking down the street, on our way to some more important task or place, when we’ve noticed the guy wearing what appears to be an entire forest printed on the pattern of his shirt, usually accompanied by a beaten up pair of leather boots and a can of chew, walking the other direction. It’s likely that any of us (and likely most of us) experienced an introspective moment of mature and adult consideration, thinking “ha! I can still see you!”

What we failed to consider in that moment of introspection and solemn consideration of the brain’s ability to perceive is specifically where the odd amalgamation of tree branches, leaves, and pine cones in resplendent 2-D would in fact be useful in hiding from Gestalt grouping laws. As humans, it’s important to remember: if we don’t have customization, what do we have?

In all seriousness, consider this image:

US Army Selects Scorpion Camouflage Pattern (aka: MultiCam variant)

The above images are examples of a less effective (left) and more effective (right), universally applicable patterns that are designed to help make the wearer more difficult to spot in any natural environment. Specifically, the pattern on the left is the recently replaced Universal Camouflage Pattern, formerly the pattern used by the US Army. The pattern on the right, as some may know, is its replacement, known as Scorpion W2, or more officially, Operational Camouflage Pattern.

Consider the above patterns from the vantage point of a Gestalt psychologist; a camouflage pattern is designed to exploit multiple Gestalt Grouping Laws, which we will consider. These laws will be discussed in the order listed in the Course Content for Lesson 3.

Proximity: The human mind tries to group similar items by proximity, so the camouflage pattern is designed to never look like what it is- a pattern- to the casual eye, thus deflecting the brain’s natural ability to see it as a grouping of similar blobs or squares printed on a jacket or pants.

Good Continuation: Possibly the most functional part of camouflage, the pattern serves to break up the outline of the human form, which is usually starkly recognizable amidst any surroundings. The pattern is designed to break up the human form, blocking the casual viewers ability to see the wearer by looking for a human shape.

Connectedness: Similarly to the previous paragraph, a good camouflage pattern will inhibit the minds ability to see that the blobs of color are all connected to the same outfit, and therefore to each other.

Common Fate: Probably the best example of a camouflage pattern’s limitations, movement cannot be easily concealed by a printed pattern on fabric. However, in the right environment, more effective forms of camouflage, like ghillie suits, can help inhibit the minds ability to process the moving bush as a person for just a bit longer than it normally would take, giving the wearer a critical, split second advantage.

Pragnanz: The purposes of camouflage being what they are, the successful pattern attempts to prevent the observer from being able to immediately interpret the wearer as a human-shaped pattern. While it’s not the same as invisibility, the idea is to keep the brain processing longer, giving the wearer the ability to strike first. The pattern is designed specifically to avoid any shapes that could be associated quickly, or as uniform in any way.

Overall, Brad Paisley, if he were being literal, would be only marginally correct. Camouflage doesn’t truly hide the wearer or make them invisible. Our thoughts while walking down the street and passing someone replete in Mossy Oak brand clothing (“Ha! I can still see you!”) are off as well, if only considering the environ around us. It’s not an invisibility cloak; it’s anti-Gestalt engineering.