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How the Outcomes of Cognitive Science Research Can Make You a Better Geologist

Basil Tikoff¹, Cathryn Manduca², Carol J. Ormand¹², and Thomas F. Shipley³
¹Department of Geoscience, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI
²Science Education Resource Center, Carleton College, Northfield, MN
³Department of Psychology, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA


For the last six or more years, two coauthors and myself have worked intensively with cognitive scientists. Much of my role in this collaboration has been that of a guide (in both literal and figurative senses), introducing scientists to the scientific methodologies and cultural norms of the field of geology. Another aspect of my role has been the gate-opener, to allow the cognitive scientists access to both geological classes and parts of the geological community. I have also learned a reasonable amount of cognitive science and enough about the field of cognitive science to know that they operate in a very different cultural environment.

I will use this presentation to reflect on how my practice as a professional geoscientist has changed as a result of my acquisition of knowledge from cognitive science (through interaction with cognitive scientists). Arguably, the largest impact has been on my teaching: My inability to teach three-dimensional relations to some students is what drove me to collaborate in the first place. Among other aspects, I now understand why sketching is important for student learning, have an appreciation for the use of gesture to convey spatial information, and know that "spatial thinking" is a series of embedded skills. However, the major question remains: Does learning about cognitive science change my geoscience practice as a professional? The answer, I think, is yes. I see four broad categories in which my practice has changed: 1) Cognitive offloading; 2) Emphasizing transformations; 3) Animating geology; and 4) Metacognitive awareness. These topics are all interconnected, but I will address them individually.

Interaction with cognitive scientists has made me aware that I am limited by the amount of information that I can hold in my mind. Whether it is on the outcrop, mapping-scale, regional compilation, or tectonic synthesis, I am trying to integrate different types of information and hold all of it in my mind to reach conclusions. Moreover, particularly in the field, any given observation underconstrains the interpretation, so you need the geologic context to truly appreciate the significance of any data to the whole problem. The difficulty, of course, is that one cannot remember all that information, and the amount retained decreases over time and with the acquisition of additional information. A useful strategy – known as cognitive offloading – is to store that information elsewhere, so that the mind does not need to keep it in active memory. Geologists have come up with a number of ways to cognitively offload (including field notes, sketches, annotated pictures, mental models, etc.) and could employ other strategies (gesturing, embodiment, etc.). In fact, models, language, gesturing, and sketching all fit together for this purpose. I think my geological practice is getting better in two ways: 1) Explicitly using a combination of methods to offload information; and 2) Getting more sophisticated about how I deal with models. Through this process, I have realized that many "working" models that geologists have are really ways of cognitively offloading. The difficulty is that models might take over as the "lens to view reality", rather than the "framework to integrate data"; I have observed this shift many times (and have been guilty of it myself). Keeping these different roles distinct is critical and, I hope, has resulted in letting me see more of the reality as it exists.

I often use the term "transformation" in a mathematical sense as applied to tensors: A tensor transforms one set of values into another set of values (or one set of coordinate systems to another, as we are used to thinking about with strain). Interestingly, cognitive scientists also use the term transform, which differs in detail but not substance from what we use: a cognitive transformation is any kind of change. Since I have found out about this simultaneous word usage, I have realized that my training was too strictly on what was there (final state) and what it was originally (initial state). Really, the interest is in the transformation between the two. (I see it as possibly analogous to the role of unconformities in sequence stratigraphy). If you accept that the interest is in the change, then mental processes associated with how that change occurred become important. Let me attempt to elucidate this point. Cognitive scientists also think about invariants associated with transformations (another weird word correspondence occurs with the word invariants). In one study, there was a distinction made between structural and transformational invariance. Structural invariants stay the same over the transformation, such as the recognition of a person at different ages. Alternatively, transformation invariants are the properties that remain constant across a series of objects. For example, one is reasonable at guessing the age of a man from specific features (many of them associated with strain, sadly). Thinking about how we mentally consider these transformations (whether tectonic development, human timescale changes associated to extraction/change, etc.) may have major impact on how well we can understand these processes. For myself, this approach has changed how I address problems associated with deformation.

Atwater (1970) is one of my favorite scientific papers, because of its simplicity, synthesis, and far-reaching impacts. Despite that, the animation done 20 years later by T. Atwater is significantly better than all the figures that are in that original paper. The animations are effective because they effectively capture a lot of information in a way that allows it to be accessible without heavy demand on spatial skills. But, there is another aspect of why the animation is so good, from a cognitive science perspective, that has to do with how the mind works. In a recent paper, Chatterjee (2008) distinguishes between dichotomies of spatial thinking: 1) Reasoning that involves a single object versus many objects; and 2) Reasoning about stationary versus moving objects. These represent fundamental divisions in the way the brain further processes spatial relations, as they are basic ways that the mind uses spatial information. Moreover, cognitive studies clearly show that expertise moves in a single direction toward single objects and moving objects. In the example of the Atwater videos, the point is that she treats the western US as a single, coherent whole though the animation (inherently moving). It is an expert version of California tectonics, which allows those who have not studied it for their entire life to understand it. I now realize that this is the goal with much of what I am trying to do; to treat it as a single object (a single thing) and to understand its evolution. But, recognizing that the moving axis and the combining axis are really different in terms of mental processes, allows an effective parsing of information and strategies for data collection.

Finally, I think – possibly because of a liberal arts education as an undergraduate – that being aware of what is going on makes you better at what you do. Work with the cognitive scientists has made me become aware of the variety of tasks that I do, and how these tasks are not the same, but that they are related to one another. I have no concrete evidence for this assertion, but I think the quality of my science (and graduate training) has improved.

References cited: Atwater, T., 1970. Implications of plate tectonics for the Cenozoic tectonic evolution of western North America. Geological Society of America Bulletin 81, 3513-3536.
Chatterjee A., 2008. The neural organization of spatial thought and language. Seminars in Speech and Language 29, 226–238.


AAPG Search and Discovery Article #120140© 2014 AAPG Hedberg Conference 3D Structural Geologic Interpretation: Earth, Mind and Machine, June 23-27, 2013, Reno, Nevada