Gray, Neth, & Schoelles (2006)

Gray, W. D., Neth, H., & Schoelles, M. J. (2006). The functional task environment. In A. F. Kramer, D. A. Wiegman & A. Kirlik (Eds.), Attention: From theory to practice (pp. 100-118). New York: Oxford University Press.

The Functional Task Environment ( From the Introduction )

Although human thought may be possible in those floatation tanks that are used to encourage meditative states, in by far the majority of instances thought occurs in the context of some physical task environment. The physical environment can be as simple as a light and book. It can be as complex as the face of a mountain and the equipment of the climber. It may be as dynamic as the cockpit of an F-16 in supersonic flight and as reactive as a firefight in Iraq or as a heated argument between lovers.

An emphasis on the environment in cognitive science research is not new. The environment was of prime concern to Simon in his famous “Ant on the Beach” parable (Simon, 1996) in which he warned of the perils of mistaking limits imposed by the environment for limits inherent to human cognition. However, the environment can include an infinity of detail. To be at all useful to understanding human cognition requires a focus on the environment from the perspective of the to-be-accomplished task; that is, it is the task that “allows an environment to be delimited” (Newell & Simon, 1972, p. 55).

The task delimited environment, or more simply the task environment, forms the first blade in Newell and Simon’s oft-quoted scissors analogy,

Just as a scissors cannot cut paper without two blades, a theory of thinking and problem solving cannot predict behavior unless it encompasses both an analysis of the structure of task environments and an analysis of the limits of rational adaptation to task requirements (p. 55).

Although the importance of the task environment has been recognized by cognitive science for at least 50 years, it seems fair to say that for most cognitive scientists (especially those working within the experimental psychology tradition), the task environment is something to be rigidly controlled and factored so as to shed light on just one aspect of cognition, or one aspect of perception, or one aspect of action. Indeed, to further dampen the extent of change during task performance the other blade of the scissors, human cognition, is also carefully controlled. Many cognitive studies of both complex (e.g., chess, reading, etc) as well as very simple tasks (e.g., rapid serial visual presentation, visual search, task-switching, etc) use expert subjects or train subjects and discard the training trials so that the trial-to-trial operations of the human element remain largely constant.

Unlike critics of contemporary cognitive science research, we do not see these limits on past and current research as an indictment of the failure of cognitive science as a discipline. Rather, we see these limits as a necessary requirement for making advances in our field. Just as it would be unreasonable to ask particle physicists to eschew linear accelerators to pursue their research by studying billiard balls slamming against each other in an actual game of pool, it is also unreasonable to ask cognitive scientists to eschew experimental designs that allow them to isolate and identify the elements and laws of functional cognition. Indeed, these limits on past and some current research have enabled the advances needed for a more integrative approach to cognitive systems.

This chapter introduces the concept of the functional task environment (a brief definition is provided in the next section). This concept integrates disparate findings that show important differences between the physical task environment and the ways in which humans perceive, think about, and act on the physical world. The productivity of this concept will be judged by its success at motivating research that leads to the building of integrated models of cognitive systems (Gray, in press).

The functional task environment encompasses both blades of Newell and Simon’s scissors. Indeed, rather than the metaphor of the scissors, which suggests two structurally independent blades that are used to cut the mental world into small pieces, a metaphor for the functional task environment might be a laser beam that combines “an analysis of the structure of task environments” with “an analysis of the limits of rational adaptation” to provide a strong and focused light onto the operation of a cognitive system that is integrated with the world as well as with perception and action. The functional task environment is closely related to the main theme of this book: applied attention. Attention operates within the functional task environment and at the same time shapes it. As we discuss in the next section, the functional task environment is defined over three time spans: evolutionary, lifespan, and individual tasks. Attention operates both within and on the constraints imposed by each of these time spans. Indeed, the locus of attention, the cost of shifting attention, and the cost of maintaining attention needs to be understood within the context of the functional task environment.

For this chapter to be successful, by the end its reader will understand the functional task environment to be a concept that draws on and unifies much contemporary cognitive theory. Our further goal is to provide the reader with a new appreciation of the, at times exquisite, adaptation of the functional task environment to the demands of interactive behavior. These adaptations run in both directions: adaptations of the cognitive system to meet the demands of the physical task environment, as well as adaptations of the physical task environment to minimize demands on the cognitive system.

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