I'm interested in how readers process and remember news stories, and I'd like to better understand how stories can be made more comprehensible and memorable. This means I need to study the brain. I’ve spent my first few weeks of The Washington Post’s Reynolds Fellowship trying to brush up on the basics of psychophysiology.

I started out by reading a few pop-science books: Steven Pinker's "How the Mind Works," Leonard Mlodinow's "Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior," Daniel L. Schacter's "The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers," and Sudarsan Raghavan's "The Hidden Brain." (I had previously read Daniel Kahneman's "Thinking, Fast and Slow," which is very much in this vein.) All were good, and reasonably useful as introductions to the basic concepts of the study of the mind. First, they provided me with a rough sketch of how scientists believe the brain behaves, and second, they described numerous experiments to illustrate how scientists came by these insights.

Here are a few of the basic points:

  • Our brains evolved in an evolutionarily adaptive manner.
  • Most of what we do, we don't think about, we don't remember, and we aren't conscious of doing it.
  • A few things require conscious cognition. This is when we perceive ourselves "thinking."
  • Memory is not a snapshot: it is fragmentary data interpolated with a series of reasonable and often erroneous assumptions. Much of what we do bypasses memory altogether.

The most important thing, though, is that the brain is not a black box. Its activity can be measured and its internal processes can thus be inferred, and that's what I want to design an experiment to do. This background prepared me for a week of meetings and research during a visit to the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism, where I met professors and graduate students and started gathering more sophisticated literature. In particular, I started reading "Psychophysiological Measurement and Meaning: Cognitive and Emotional Processing of Media," co-written by Paul Bolls, the co-director of the Psychological Research on Information and Media Effects (PRIME) Lab at the University of Missouri, and I spoke to Paul while I was in Columbia. I want to measure how the brain processes media, and this book is a handbook for how to do so. Four weeks ago, I never even knew what psychophysiology was. I have a lot to learn.

But it's a whole lot of fun. I feel like my project is finally underway. 

Alex Remington  
Institutional fellowship project lead


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