Tag Archives: working memory

Review of “The Sciences of the Artificial,” by Herbert Simon

It is perhaps the curse of the successful explorer that, after new lands have been found and the surveys made, his own writings become collections of obvious cliches and bizarre assertions. Surely Christopher Columbus felt this. In 1492 you are a visionary and a hero. But by 1505 everyone knows there is a large land mass west of Europe, and no one believes it is China.


Herbert Simon’s The Sciences of the Artificial is, objectively, one of the worst books I have ever read.
There is some obvious discussion of local maxima and satisficing (picking the best solution you can find, rather than holding out for the perfect one), some more-or-less obvious if somewhat simplistic speculations about how business functions (it might be modeled as a problem-solving entity), and an incredibly tedious discussion of “standard social sciences model” (SSSM) psychology, in which a the interpretation of some early psychology studies is tortuously interpreted to imply that the human mind runs on a relatively small number of simple algorithms, albeit in a complex environment.

(If you read the Wikipedia page on SSSM , you will find criticisms that the SSSM is a ridiculous straw-man, and that it was “comical” to assert anyone believed it. But Herbert Simon, very definitely pushes such a view in his book.)


Indeed, Simon’s discussion of psychology is so dangerously wrong-headed I will spend a paragraph here refuting it. Simon describes the human memory system, and describes two systems long-term memory (which he is generally accurate about) and “short term memory” (which appears to be a confused mix of working memory, associated with general intelligence, and sensory memory, which provides the awareness of taste, etc). In mainstream psychology, long-term-memory and working-term memory as associated with the automatic, highly parallel, intuitive, and effortless “System 1” cognition system, and the manual, serial, logical, and painfully slow “System 2” cognition system. In academia these two systems are often studied under “dual process theory,” and in the military they are described as part of the OODA loop.”


While Simon does not use the “System” nomenclature, his description of it is oddly incomplete, basically missing the most important studies of the last few decades to provide an oddly limited view of human thinking. The only mental processes he implies occurs in System 1 is the passive maintenance of memories. And while he cites such famous studies as “The Magic Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two” (a measure of the range of working memory) and B.F. Skinner,” influential System 2 studies simply do not occur.

Now…. the reason for this is that Simon wrote The Sciences of the Artificial in 1969, and the last edition was published in 1996, perhaps the last year that his view on psychology could be taken seriously. Simon is a Nobel prize winner and, even more prestigious, a Turning Award winner. The reason for his digressions into “satisficing” and “organizational behavior” is he coined the term satisficing, and is a founding father of organizational behavior. The Sciences of the Artificial is like a letter from Columbus in 1505, describing his views on geography: Cliched, tired, ridiculous, and an artifact of a pathfinder.

I read The Sciences of the Artificial in the Nook edition.

The Unfairness of Working Memory

Several interrelated posts this morning, including “Intelience and the President of the United States, “Capturing my Thoughts: How could Demographic Warfare me used with 5GW?,” “Fixing Milwaukee Notes: Milwaukee School District Governance,” and “U.S. college panel calls for less focus on SATs.”

The topics all revolve around Working Memory, the capacity of the adult to keep 7 (ish) things in mind at the same time. Some people have more, some have less. Working memory is heritable and impacts life outcomes. Working memory is not “fair.” It is predicted by your class origin, your socio-economic status, your race, and so on while its variance is predicted by your sex. (Being male is risky business.)

Many social problems will be eleviated when we can use retroviruses or stem cell therapy to increase the working memory of the underclass. At the same time, any individual with low working memory can more than compensate by building up his long-term memory (his knowledge and experience), his self-efficacy (how he responds to failure), and his behavior.

Working Memory and Orientation

Three articles this week on working memory.

Three articles today: “Am Embedded-Processes Model of Working Memory” by Nelson Cowan, “Working Memory: The Multiple-Component Model” by Alan D. Baddeley and Robert H. Logie, and “Modeling Working Memory in a Unified Architecture: The ACT-R Perspective” by Marsha C. Lovett, Lynne M. Reder, and Christian Lebiere.

The ACT-R paper (Lovett, et al) is not very relevent to what I am doing. It continues the attempt to apply literal information processing theory to human thinking, in the tradition of George Willer and nowadays of John Robert Anderson. ACT-R, like the other theories, is perhaps better for building a computer that works in ways analogous to the brain rather than understanding the brain itself.

The Baddeley piece was assigned to set the stage for the episode buffer, which he covered in his Nature Reviews Neuroscience article I read a bit ago. So: an OK article, but recognized by everyone (including Baddeley) as out of date.

What was really exciting was Nelson’s Cowan “embedded” working memory model, which is actually a dual processing model. Excitingly, it appears to date from the same time as Boyd’s final presentation, and even includes orientation! An excerpt:

THe focus of attention is controlled conjointly by voluntary processes (a central executive system) and involuntary processes) the attentional orienting system.)

All of this is exciting to read this morning, especially as this afternoon I present the OODA loop as a “Dual-Processing Theory of Learning” to some colleagues today. Talk about neat!

How to measure working memory

Working memory is nearly the same thing as general intelligence. It is highly heritable, it determines how much attention you pay to tasks, and without it logical reasoning is impossible.

For the spring experiment I will be stressing participants’ working memory (like I did in The wary student), but this time I will be measuring the amount of working memory the high-workload condition consumes, too.

Therefore, I’m incredibly grateful Randall Engle’s lab at University of Georgia, as well as open-access articles such as “How does running memory span work? by Bunting, Cowan, and Saults.

Measures of working memory capacity that work

Working memory capacity and attentional control: An electrophysiological analysis

(Working memory can also be improved through pharmaceuticals, by the way.)