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2004-2005 Faculty Research Fellows

John Coley
Associate Professor
Psychology - College of Arts & Sciences
Northeastern University
125 Nightingale Hall

Cognitive Consequences of Conceptual Change: The Case of Traditional Chinese Medicine

John’s proposal seeks to examine how both formal education and informal practice-oriented experience impacts conceptual functioning at multiple levels in a complex domain of knowledge. Recent work in cognitive psychology emphasizes the role of explanatory theories—implicit or explicit beliefs about the nature of causal relations relevant to a particular domain of experience—in organizing knowledge and driving conceptual change. However, there is little detailed research specifying what these theories actually look like, or what specific impacts they might have on how information is acquired, encoded and processed.

The domain John will focus on is the theory and practice of acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine, a promising domain because of the richness and complexity of the knowledge and phenomena involved, the complex causal interactions among concepts within the domain, and the non-obvious nature of relations among concepts. The general design will involve measures at 3 levels: (1) at the highest level, we will assess the nature and complexity of domain-relevant causal theories via a causal diagramming task; (2) at an intermediate level, we will assess explicit conceptual knowledge via sorting tasks (e.g., categorization of symptoms) and inductive projection tasks; (3) at the lowest level, we will examine implicit processing of relevant concepts by adapting established tasks based on measures of reaction time and semantic priming. The project will employ a cross-sectional longitudinal design in which students in each of 3 years at a Boston-area school of acupuncture will be tested each year, for the 3 years of the proposed project. This will enable us to assess differences between cohorts at a given point in time, and also eventually collect longitudinal data on conceptual change within individual students as they progress through the program.

Several comparisons will be of interest. First, relations among causal theories, explicit conceptual tasks, and lower-level processing tasks at a given point in time have not been previously explored in this detail. Second, changes in each of these types of processes as students progress through the program will illuminate the impact of experience on different levels of conceptual organization. Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, we will be able to discover the degree to which relations between higher-level causal theories and lower-level cognitive processing change with increased experience and learning. More generally, results promise to contribute substantially to current knowledge about how explanatory theories change with experience, and the conceptual and processing consequences of such theory change.

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