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The thermodynamics of human reaction times

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Document pages: 18 pages

Abstract: I present a new approach for the interpretation of reaction time (RT) data from behavioral experiments. From a physical perspective, the entropy of the RT distribution provides a model-free estimate of the amount of processing performed by the cognitive system. In this way, the focus is shifted from the conventional interpretation of individual RTs being either long or short, into their distribution beingmore or less complex in terms of entropy. The new approach enables the estimation of the cognitive processing load without reference to the informational content of the stimuli themselves, thus providing a more appropriate estimate of the cognitive impact of dierent sources of information that are carried by experimental stimuli or tasks. The paper introduces the formulation of the theory, followed by an empirical validation using a database of human RTs in lexical tasks (visual lexical decision and wordnaming). The results show that this new interpretation of RTs is more powerful than the traditional one. The method provides theoretical estimates of the processing loads elicited by individual stimuli. These loads sharply distinguish the responses from different tasks. In addition, it provides upper-bound estimates for the speed at which the system processes information. Finally, I argue that the theoretical proposal, and the associated empirical evidence, provide strong arguments for an adaptive system that systematically adjusts its operational processing speed to the particular demands of each stimulus. Thisfinding is in contradiction with Hick s law, which posits a relatively constant processing speed within an experimental context.

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