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I have come across a lot of articles that suggest learning across disciplines would improve cognitive abilities. This is more often referred to as Integrative Learning. Also, nowadayas a lot of emphasis seems to be placed on Interdisciplinarity and cross-disciplinary research.

Thus (putting it plainly) if a economist learns psychology, his brain can draw inferences from psychology that could help his cognitive abilities in dealing with economics.

  • Is this true and supported by facts?
  • If this is true, does the brain automatically interrelates concepts or we need to train the brain in a particular manner?
  • Does this depend on age?
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I believe this has to do with some form of transfer of learning, but it would be good if you could provide us with some of the references you came across, as pointed out by @Jeromy. –  chl Jan 30 '12 at 12:36
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5 Answers

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The answer to this question will depend on how you construe 'cognitive abilities.' For instance, for certain formulations the answer is trivially yes: an economist who learns psychology may come away with psychological knowledge that could help his economics, like how to space out his studying to maximally improve retention; or how to deal with the cognitive dissonance of causing widespread financial collapse. Demonstrations of transfer in the other direction -- from economics to psychology -- are even easier to demonstrate. Our department, for example, has in recent years seen an influx of psychology graduate students whose backgrounds are in much more mathematically sophisticated disciplines. These students are able to leverage their mathematical skills to great advantage in what has, in past years, sometimes been a field with excessively 'fluffy' methodology. But in both these instances -- psych --> economics and economics --> psych -- we're talking not so much about 'transfer' of knowledge as of literal re-use. If you buy paper plates for a picnic, can you also use them inside your house? Of course you can.

The question gets harder when we zoom in further. If we accept as given that the techniques of economics would be useful in the field of psychology, what about the atomic cognitive units which collectively constitute the edifice of economics knowledge? Does the way of viewing the world one adopts when one has knowledge of economics, or the process of abstract thinking and symbolic manipulation one must acquire in the course of it, help with other disciplines in ways that do not directly relate to full-blown techniques one learns in economics?

The short answer is that nobody knows, so far as I'm aware. Which doesn't mean that people don't have strongly held beliefs. For many years students spent years learning Latin because it was thought to have various beneficial effects, though these have never been demonstrated to my knowledge. Coming back to the economics example, the issue is that nobody seems to know what it even means to know economics. Aside from the specific ability to solve economics problems, what kind of cognitive capacity can an economics expert demonstrate? We have only begun to be able to answer this question with regards to mathematics (c.f. Ansari et al, 2005.) or to much of anything else. Our sense of what mental representations are -- of what knowledge is built from -- is extraordinarily primitive.

However, there are substantive reasons to continue to believe in the possibility of non-trivial transfer. The most compelling of these is the study of metaphor, for which the canonical work is probably Lakoff & Johnson's (1980) phenomenal and very readable book (see also Bowdle & Gentner, 2005; Holyoak & Thagard 1997 for more technical treatments.) The idea is that knowledge structures representing one thing can sometimes be mapped onto knowledge structures representing another thing. When such a mapping can be found, one is able to make additional inferences on the second thing that correspond to inferences based on the first thing. According to these theorists, the ability to make inferences about the world that flow from these kinds of metaphorical transfer account for a large part of our intellectual ability.

An example might be useful. A prominant metaphor, according to Lakoff and Johnson, is "An argument is a war." According to this metaphor, we might understand a destination domain (argument) in terms of a source domain (war.) This mapping between the two domains allows us to structure the former in terms of the latter. Wars have winners and losers, for instance; wars end when one side surrenders or is destroyed; one succeeds in war by hurting one's enemy; and so on. By extension, then, an argument has a winner and loser; an argument ends in surrender or destruction; and in an argument the goal is to hurt your opponent.

This construction of what it means to have argument, and of how one should conduct onself in the course of an argument, would lead to very different results than, say, the metaphor "An argument is a dance." It's clear, from this formulation, how consequential is the choice of metaphor in constructing one's attitude to and behaviors during an argument. Metaphors are not simply colorful language (the argument goes) they are instructions for how we might leverage certain knowledge structures and behaviors (those involving war, in this case) for application in a completely unrelated domain (an argument, in this case.)

The most powerful idea latent in this metaphorical construction of cognition is that metaphorical extension is not only (or even mostly) about language -- any knowledge representation can potentially be aligned with another, and the tools and circumstances governing the use of the former could (potentially) be used to gain 'experience' in the latter automatically, for free. (See Durso et al., (1994) for a nice example of how this might culminate in an 'insight' experience.) And in fact, DARPA has been very interested in this kind of 'bootstrap learning' looking for ways where experience in a relatively cheap (in dollars or risk) domain might be leveraged to benefit a more expensive domain, although the results of this work have not yet lit the world on fire.

Concerning the automaticity of this process, the answer seems to be both yes and no. Insofar as people do use some kind of metaphorical extension to understand the world, and to apply knowledge across situations, then the process occurs automatically, at least to some extent. (Note that the details of this process are still very much in question.) But even if it is automatic, Chrysikou (2006) showed that the cross-pollination between disparate types of knowledge can be improved by conscious effort. In her study, subjects who spent ten minutes performing the "creative uses" task (in which they generated novel and unusual applications for various objects; for example, a creative use for a toothpick might be as a javelin for a grasshopper) solved significantly more insight problems than subjects who did not perform the CUT beforehand. One theory for these results is that the process of coming up with creative uses energized the machinery used to create ad hoc categories (see Barsalou 1983), and that the ability to blend disparate forms of knowledge in these dynamic bundles is an important component in problem-solving.

This seems relevant to the original question in that whatever benefit is automatically gained simply by possessing a varied store of cross-discipline knowledge, seems to be enhanced by purposeful engagement and cross-linkage between these cognitive components, an enhancement that manifests concretely in increased problem-solving performance.

All that being said, in my opinion the extent and mechanisms of cross-domain transfer are still largely undetermined. Despite the considerable theoretical literature in support of it, at this point the proponents of deep transfer are running on faith as much as anything.

EDIT: Note that an earlier question on this site explores some of these same ideas.

References:

Ansari, D., Garcia, N., Lucas, E., Hamon, K., & Dhital, B. (2005). Neural correlates of symbolic number processing in children and adults. NeuroReport, 16(16), 1769.

Barsalou, L. W. (1983). Ad hoc categories. Memory & Cognition, 11(3), 211–227.

Bowdle, B. F., & Gentner, D. (2005). The career of metaphor. Psychological Review, 112(1), 193–216.

Chrysikou, E. G. (2006). When Shoes Become Hammers: Goal-Derived Categorization Training Enhances Problem-Solving Performance. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 32(4), 935–942.

Durso, F. T., Rea, C. B., & Dayton, T. (1994). Graph-Theoretic Confirmation of Restructuring during Insight. Psychological science, 5(2), 94–98. Association for Psychological Science.

Holyoak, K. J., & Thagard, P. (1997). The analogical mind. The American psychologist, 52(1), 35–44.

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. The University of Chicago Press.

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There are two types of learning - knowledge and skills. Knowledge can be used in many different contexts, but skills are extremely narrow and precise. For example, subjects trained in memorizing numbers do not have any better ability at memorizing lists of words than untrained individuals.

We tend to think that practicing mental tasks must also have some sort of general benefits beyond the particular tasks being practiced. At present, however, one of the few well-supported conclusions of cognitive psychology is that this simply does not happen, however much we would like to believe it does (Woodworth & Schlosberg, 1954); baron, 1985c). The specificity of practice effects has been known to psychologists (and ignored by everyone else) since Thorndike and Woodworth first discovered it in 1901.

On the other hand, knowledge learning develops a different sort of skill,

An expert in a certain field can develop all sorts of ways to represent complex ideas in terms of a word or two, a mathematical symbol, or a visual image such as a graph.
that could transfer in the narrow circumstance that the "condensed" representation would be useful to the individual - for example, as in your question, in using psychology to extend or understand economics.

Quotes from Jonathan Baron's book, Thinking and Deciding, second edition, 1994, New York: Cambridge University Press.

references in quote:

Baron, J. (1985c). What kinds of intelligence components are fundamental? In S F Chipman, J W Segal, & R Glaser (Eds), Thinking and learning skills. Vol 2: Research and open questions. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Woodworth, R S & Schlosberg, H. (1954). Experimental psychology. New York: Holt.

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There can be real isights from cross-disciplinary study, because the patterns of thinking and problem solving differs between differet disciplines. So an issue that someone cannot see an answer to might be very clear to someone from a different discipline, because they view problems in a different way. I am sure that some of the physicists who have made breakthroughs in the last 50 years have had insights from other disciplines, but I cannot find examples at the moment.

So, in your example, if an economist learns psychology, he can put his psychological approach to issues to use in his economics, and vv, meaning that he might be able to do well at both of them. A lot of "performance" at a discipline is about seeing things in different ways, and so seeing resolutions to issues.

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I'm not formally educated in any area of psychology or neuroscience, but I will say that from my personal experience, I've found that performance is improved when more than one discipline is drawn upon.

Just like your example suggests, someone trained in both economy and psychology can intertwine those disciplines and apply a concept of one area with a concept of the other.

I apply concepts I've learned in algebra and geometry to writing, playing, and arranging music. For example, I draw upon these math disciplines to compute the amount of times a drummer would need to repeat his beat and how many times a guitarist would need to repeat his riff in a polyrhythmic song. I found out that I could compute each player's permutations required to both end their respective lines at the same time. There is a forumla you can apply to SIN functions that changes the length of it cycles. By overlaying the two equations of the two players' lines' time signatures, I could see both how many times the line crossed the X-axis (when one crossed, it inferred the upbeat or downbeat of that player's line) and also when both lines finished their cycle at the same time. Then I could determine that the drummer needed to repeat his beat 5 times and the guitarist needed to repeat his riff 7 times before they both started their respective lines at the beginning of the phrase (aka when both equations crossed the X-axis with an upward inflection at the same coordinate)

I think that this ability to apply sometimes unrelated topics into one application or idea is a separate area of cognition that some are able to access and use better than others. There is probably a specific area of study for this too, but that's only a guess.

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I too feel the same. The recent example being using the concepts learnt from Distributed/Parallel computing to distribute work within colleagues(actually, it must be the other way round to learn things). I also believe learning psychology and economics would make people more rational. But is is my belief and I just can't generalize it. Also, learning more than one discipline takes real good time and unless it is proved that the benefits are bigger than the time lost, it isn't to be adopted at large. Thanks for the positive reply –  Ubermensch Feb 2 '12 at 4:10
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In my personal experience, your questions are not easy to answer. I try to answer your questions by my best effort:

1.Is this true and supported by facts?

Yes, I would says that in your example(economist learns psychology), in the first sight it seems not related too much, but in deep feeling, any discipline will strong connect to human. It exist a very big system that include all the disciplines, so any discipline just a part of system. For example, economist needs to know the money works in the society. When he just thinking about that question, he may get the first spirit layer of answers that someone really needs an object so he use money to buy it. And in some opportunities, he learn psychology and find that many people buy things not for really needs but for desires or other people encourage him. In this concept, it shows that when you learn more and have more deeper feelings, you can see more details of the same thing,and it will really help you lift your origin thinking level.

2.If this is true, does the brain automatically interrelates concepts or we need to train the brain in a particular manner?

Both are right, because of different motivation. First, you can try to think this: When you see something A, you may just see at a glance. But in later maybe some objects or cases that let you remember A, in this time,your brain just collect them together automatically. What I want to say is : It just a glance maybe have many impacts. If you try to focus to learn something, they will carve more deep in your mind, and get more opportunities to get it out for your work.

Second, Focus,calm down,...etc, such of ways that you are really familiar with. So you may use these method,but you haven't aware of that because it is not so hard for forming a habit. In these particular manners, you may get more chances to learn more and deep.

3.Does this depend on age?

Actually, it is not dependent on age but depends on:

  1. Do you focus on learning?
  2. For how long can you learn without taking a break?
  3. How familiar are you with the subject you are learning? ...etc

If you feel I haven't answer your question totally, feel free to ask more questions.

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