Cognitive Psychology

Cognitive Psychology


Cognitive Psychology, the scientific study of cognition. Cognition refers to the process of knowing, and cognitive psychology is the study of all mental activities related to acquiring, storing, and using knowledge. The domain of cognitive psychology spans the entire spectrum of conscious and unconscious mental activities: sensation and perception, learning and memory, thinking and reasoning, attention and consciousness, imagining and dreaming, decision making, and problem solving. Over the years, cognitive psychologists have discovered that mental activities that seem simple and natural are, in fact, extraordinarily complex.

For example, most children have no trouble learning language from their parents. Why do children learn language more easily and rapidly than adults? Explaining these puzzles has proven very difficult, and attempts to duplicate true language ability in machines have failed. Even the most advanced computers have trouble understanding the meaning of a simple story or conversation. Cognitive psychologists have found similar complexity in other mental processes.

Cognitive psychology is one field within cognitive science, an interdisciplinary approach to the study of the human mind. Other fields in cognitive science include anthropology, linguistics, neuroscience (the study of the brain and nervous system), and artificial intelligence.

Cognitive neuroscience, or neurocognition, combines cognitive psychology and neuroscience.

Origins of Cognitive Psychology The Greek philosopher Plato held that the seat of knowledge was in the brain, but his pupil Aristotle believed that knowledge was located in the heart. Many others since have wondered about how we come to know and understand our world, how we remember or represent information about the world, and how we arrive at decisions.

Early Studies of Cognition In 1879 German physiologist Wilhelm Wundt founded the first psychological laboratory, at the University of Leipzig in Leipzig, Germany. Reasoning that people are the best source of information about their own thoughts, Wundt set about studying consciousness through the method of introspection.

The Shift to Behaviorism This shift occurred because many psychologists thought that it was impossible to study mental life using scientific methods. For example, critics of introspection labeled it subjective and speculative, and even its supporters found that people were unable to report on their own mental states in much detail.

Reemergence of Cognitive Psychology In 1949 Canadian psychologist Donald O. Hebb published pioneering work, based in part on animal studies, that theorized about the biological basis of memory and other psychological phenomena. In the late 1950s American linguist Noam Chomsky refuted Skinner’s behaviorist explanation of language development as overly simplistic.

Chomsky’s theory, which proposed that children possess an innate ability to extract meaning from speech sounds, stimulated further interest in cognitive psychology. Cognition as Information Processing The development of digital computers introduced new metaphors for thinking about human mental operations. Philosophers had offered such mechanical metaphors many times before, likening the mind to a blank slate (tabula rasa), a black box, and even a mechanical robot.

But the computer metaphor was more powerful because it provided both a way for psychologists to conceptualize their observations and a common language for theorists to communicate their ideas. Computer terms such as input, output, processing, information storage, and information retrieval seemed to resemble the “real” mental activities of people.

The information-processing model sees human cognition as a series of stages through which information passes sequentially. In this model, information gets into our brain (is encoded), is retained briefly or for longer periods of time (short-term or long-term storage), and is later reactivated (retrieved) for further processing or use.

With the development of more-sophisticated computer systems in the 1980s and 1990s, cognitive psychologists extended the computer metaphor to new models of cognition. These models rejected the idea of information processing as linear and sequential and instead proposed that the brain is capable of parallel processing, in which multiple operations are carried out simultaneously.

Although the information-processing model is a powerful tool for guiding the study of cognitive processes, many psychologists argue that it falls short of capturing the full richness of people’s cognitive experiences. Describing the act of remembering as a process of storage and retrieval, for example, neglects the subjective experience of remembering.

Simplified Model of Memory In this information-processing model of memory, information that enters the brain is briefly recorded in sensory memory. If we focus our attention on it, the information may become part of working memory (also called short-term memory), where it can be manipulated and used.


One of the broadest branches of psychology, cognitive psychology encompasses dozens of topics of study. This article briefly describes some of the most important areas in the field: perception, learning and memory, thinking and reasoning, and language.

Perception The human sense organs receive information about the world in the form of physical energy—for example, light waves and sound waves. This energy is converted by our sensory system into electrical impulses that travel to the brain. Perception is the mental process that translates these impulses into things we can recognize and understand: people, objects, places, sounds, tastes, and smells.

Perception is such a natural, effortless process that most people are not even aware of it. But to cognitive psychologists, perception is one of the great mysteries of the mind. They wonder about questions such as “How do we perceive the world in three dimensions even though the images projected into the eyes are two-dimensional?”

Learning and Memory Memory plays a central role in nearly all mental activities. More than just a fact-retrieval system, memory allows us to make inferences, solve unfamiliar problems, and relate objects and events to prior knowledge. Memory is one of the most active areas of research in cognitive psychology.

Thinking and Reasoning Thinking involves the mental manipulation of information for the purpose of reasoning, solving problems, making decisions and judgments, or simply imagining. Although cognitive psychologists cannot see thinking processes, they can make inferences about these processes from behavior.

Language Of all human abilities, language is perhaps the most impressive. In spoken, written, and gestured forms, language is the primary means of communication among people. Although other animal species have evolved sophisticated systems of communication, none of these systems approaches human language in complexity.

Language is a central topic of study in cognitive psychology because it is closely connected with perception, memory, thinking, problem solving, and other mental processes.

Untill next time… God bless us all…


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