What is cognitive science?

Cognitive Science Myth-Busting

After a hiatus due to collecting dissertation data during a pandemic, I’m back to blogging. I am going to * try * to make this more of a regular thing, because I think that community engagement is arguably the most important thing I do as a scientist.

As many of you know, I work as a cognitive neuroscientist. While I have posted extensively about some of my specific research here, especially on the neuroscience side, I realized I have never covered the basics on here! In particular, I have never really even covered what cognitive science in general is. Therefore, I’m going to try to make a concerted effort each month to post at least one blog, and for the next several months I will go over the basics.

First, just a review of what cognitive science even is. In my own words, cognitive neuroscience is the study of how processes of the mind like memory, attention and language work, and how the brain helps us do these things!

If you could think of psychology and neuroscience on a spectrum, where at one end we have cellular neuroscientists who study neurons (cells of the brain) and at the other end we have social psychologists who study how individuals behave in certain situations, cognitive neuroscientists sit somewhere in the middle.

My particular research interests and expertise lies in understanding attention and cognitive control, and how the brain helps us stay on task. I use a lot of tools in my research, but I really enjoy using electroencephalography of EEG (brainwaves, for a refresher, see here).

OK. Now that we have that covered, I’d like to start off today with a little bit of cognitive science myth-busting. Now- without cheating (looking below)- answer true or false to the following statements.

  1. Driving while talking on the phone is safe if you are using “hands-free” technology like Bluetooth
  2. Flash cards are a better study strategy to promote memory than highlighting important material in the reading.
  3. Eyewitness testimonies are highly reliable in court 
  4. Information can only be stored in long-term memory if you paid attention to it in the first place.
  5. Speed reading techniques can dramatically improve reading speed without sacrificing comprehension

Now for the answers!

  1. FALSE

Studies indicate that talking on the phone will driving is still unsafe, even if it is hands-free! This is because we can only focus on so much at once, so when you are talking on the phone you are using cognitive resources that you would otherwise use for paying attention to driving (Strayer, Watson & Drews, 2011). Talking on the phone is also more distracting than having a passenger for two main reasons: 1) because the person on the phone is not receiving the same environmental cues as you are (i.e. talking less when traffic increases) and 2) There is more effort devoted to listening to speech on the phone than in person, as the audio is more difficult to hear and comprehend. In fact, talking on the phone while driving is comparable to drinking while driving (Strayer, Drews & Crouch, 2006).


Testing yourself on material (preferably in the same format you’d be tested in) is the best way to promote retention of material and understanding of material! This is what cognitive scientists called the “desired difficulty” that improves memory for material (Bjork & Bjork, 2011), much more so than re-reading it


Our memories are much worse than we tend to think they are—studies have indicated that eyewitness testimony is very unreliable. In fact, about half of all wrongful convictions occur as the result of faulty eyewitness testimonies! In particular, faulty eyewitness testimonies happen disproportionately to people of color being misidentified by white witnesses- a phenomenon known as “own-race bias” (e.g. Slone et al., 2000).


We can really only form long term memories if we paid some amount of attention to it in the first place! This is supported by some neuroscience evidence (e.g. Wagner et al., 1998). As an example- could you confidently, without looking, identify which of these pennies pictured below is the correct and accurate design? Probably not, unless you pay attention to pennies pretty regularly.


Unfortunately, reading, like many human tasks, is governed by the “speed-accuracy tradeoff.” This means that as speed increases, your accuracy (in this case, reading comprehension) decreases. There is little evidence to suggest that speed reading techniques will dramatically increase your reading speed while retaining comprehension (Rayner et al., 2016). If you want to become more efficient at reading, you should practice reading more, and in particular, increase your vocabulary skills (Rayner et al., 2016).


Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2011). Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. Psychology and the real world: Essays illustrating fundamental contributions to society2(59-68).

Rayner, K., Schotter, E. R., Masson, M. E., Potter, M. C., & Treiman, R. (2016). So much to read, so little time: How do we read, and can speed reading help?. Psychological Science in the Public Interest17(1), 4-34.

Slone, A. E., Brigham, J. C., & Meissner, C. A. (2000). Social and cognitive factors affecting the own-race bias in Whites. Basic and applied social Psychology22(2), 71-84.

Strayer, D. L., Drews, F. A., & Crouch, D. J. (2006). A comparison of the cell phone driver and the drunk driver. Human factors48(2), 381-391.

Strayer, D. L., Watson, J. M., & Drews, F. A. (2011). Cognitive distraction while multitasking in the automobile. In Psychology of learning and motivation (Vol. 54, pp. 29-58). Academic Press.

Wagner, A. D., Schacter, D. L., Rotte, M., Koutstaal, W., Maril, A., Dale, A. M., … & Buckner, R. L. (1998). Building memories: remembering and forgetting of verbal experiences as predicted by brain activity. Science281(5380), 1188-1191.

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