Essay Title: Assume you are writing to a non-psychologist friend and you want to describe cognitive psychology to them. Do so in no more than 800 words, avoiding technical jargon.
Broadbent (1958) and Neisser (1967) provided the principal starting points for cognitive psychology – a subject that has over the past fifty years developed to become the foremost approach encompassing nearly all aspects of human psychology (Kellogg, 2002). In general terms, cognitive psychology concerns the study of the way in which information from the external world is processed and represented in the brain and how these representations function. Due to the fact that the brain exists in a closed system, what has been termed a “black box”, these representations remain hidden. By employing several different strategies, it has therefore been the task of cognitive psychologist to reveal the kind of information stored within this box as well as how it is processed.
Most abilities to do with human behaviour depend on mental representations that are coded in the brain in particular ways. In this regard, and in contrast to behaviourists, cognitive psychology accepts the existence of internal mental states. The aim of cognitive psychology has therefore been to reveal how the systems and principles that give rise to mental representations occur and operate. Cognitive psychology is thus concerned with understanding the internal processes to do with how the brain makes sense of the world, comes to decisions, and acts upon this information in order to take appropriate action (Eysenck and Keane, 2005 p. 1). The internal processes include attention, perception, memory, learning, attention, language, problem solving, reasoning and thinking. As a result of the various types of representation employed in realising these abilities, information is transformed in a number of ways and it is the purpose of cognitive psychology to work out the underlying rules and functions involved. Understanding the nature of these functions has mainly been achieved by giving individuals specific activities in a way whereby the resulting behaviour can be objectively recorded. By collecting data from a wide array of different tasks, psychologists have thereby been able to deduce the nature of the essential cognitive processes involved. In this respect, assessing how information is processed at various levels – as it passes through different stages of processing in the brain – has been fundamental. Cognitive psychology has also provided new concepts and theories as to brain functioning such as top-down/bottom-up models and automatic to more intentionally mediated behaviour.
Another key aspect of cognitive psychology has been to demonstrate how the processes of cognition can be compartmentalised in the sense that each stage involved is capable of being identified as a distinct functional entity. In this regard, cognitive psychology is concerned with specifying the stages whereby stimuli from the external world are processed by the brain from its initial registration to how meaning is realised e.g., from retina to visual memory (Kellogg, 2002. p. 5). More recently, however, the compartmentalised approach has been regarded as an oversimplification of a much more complex process whereby different levels and stages can merge and overlap in particular ways. For example it has been difficult to clarify exactly when perception, or registration of information, ends and memory begins.
There have been three main approaches to studying cognitive mechanisms:
- Experimental Psychology.
- Computer Modelling,
- Cognitive Neuropsychology.
Experimental Psychology relates to controlled laboratory tests with human subjects to ascertain how various kinds of information might be processed. This usually involves investigations carried out in a laboratory setting using objective measurements such as response times. Computer Modelling entails simulating how cognition functions by working out how computers might solve the same problems that the brain is confronted with (e.g. Marr, 1982). Cognitive Neuropsychology, however, concerns investigating the activity of the brain through the use of brain scans etc., to assess how neural activity and functions relate to different kinds of behaviour (Kellogg, 2002). This approach also involves the study of patients who have suffered brain damage in an attempt to understand the cognitive deficits arising in connection to the specific brain regions concerned and how these relate to preserved abilities (Parkin, 1996). In addition, whereas experimental psychology and computer modelling depend on a controlled systematic approach to resolving these problems, neuropsychology, on the other hand, is more concerned with actual brain physiology (Groome and Dewart, 1999).
An important sub-discipline of cognitive psychology has been the investigation of the processes of development from infancy to adulthood that seeks to define those abilities that have a natural predisposition as opposed to those that are learned. And, recently, cognitive psychology has taken into account that brain and mind seem also to be a product of evolution (Kellogg, 2002. p. 6). Finally, the importance of cognitive psychology in understanding how the brain processes information is not just theoretical because the models arising from such research have, for example, helped devise methods for the assessment of various cognitive problems as well as treatments for those suffering brain damage.
BROADBENT, D (1958) Perception and Communication. Pergamon Press, London
EYSENCK, MW, KEANE, MT (2005) Cognitive Psychology: A Student’s Handbook. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Hove
GROOME, D, DEWART, H, ESGATE, A, KEMP, R, TOWELL, N (1999) An Introduction to Cognitive Psychology: Processes and Disorders. Psychology Press, Hove, UK
KELLOGG, RT (2002) Cognitive Psychology. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA
NEISSER, U. (1967) Cognitive Psychology. Appleton-Century-Crofts, New York.
MARR, D (1982) Vision – a computational investigation into the human representation and processing of visual information. W. H. Freeman, New York.
PARKIN, AJ (1996) Explorations in Cognitive Neuropsychology. Blackwell, Oxford.