Cognitive Psychology

Have you ever thought about everything that happens in your mind in a single day? You learn new information or continue processing old information; you access old memories and create new ones; you use intelligence to make decisions and figure out problems, and you use written or spoken language to communicate with others. Wow! Your mind is incredibly busy, and everything it does falls under the field of cognitive psychology.

Cognitive Psychology Cognitive Psychology

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Table of contents
    • What is cognitive psychology?
    • What do cognitive psychologists study?
    • Who are some important people in cognitive psychology?
    • Why is cognitive psychology important?

    Definition of Cognitive Psychology

    How do your thoughts work? There are so many functions in our minds, and most of these happen without any effort or awareness. Our attention to objects and details, the things that we remember, the languages we speak, and the decisions we make all fall under the category of cognitive psychology.

    First, what is cognition as a biological function? Cognition is all the mental or brain activities involved in thinking, remembering, and knowing things. Since these processes happen inside the brain, they are internal and mostly unobservable. They are subjective experiences that inform our behavior, such as sensations, perceptions, dreams, thoughts, beliefs, and feelings.

    Cognitive psychology is the study of all mental processes and their connection to the brain and behavior.

    Technological advancements in recent history have allowed psychologists to discover and develop new theories about cognitions such as thinking and memory. Cognitive psychologists seek to understand better the important processes of receiving, storing, and processing information, reasoning and thinking, and the human ability to understand and use language.

    Brief History of Cognitive Psychology

    Believe it or not, psychology did not always include a focus on studying mental processes. Before the cognitive revolution in the 1960s, psychologists focused mostly on studying observable behaviors (behaviorism) and treating mental disorders (psychoanalytic and psychodynamic). Many psychologists recognized that a big piece of the puzzle was missing by leaving out mental processes.

    Psychologists have always been interested in the mind, but they had different approaches to understanding and studying it. The structuralists, led by William Wundt (1879), studied the structure of the mind and consciousness. They recognized that the only way to study subjective experiences of the mind was to use introspection or self-reflection.

    Today, cognitive neuroscientists can map mental functions within the brain through advanced scientific imaging devices! Machines like fMRIs, CAT scans, and PET scans give us an inside look at our normally unobservable mental processes. They show us which areas of the brain are activated during certain activities. What does our brain do while we sleep? What about when we are dreaming? What kind of brain processes are involved in speaking, writing, or painting? Cognitive psychologists study all of these topics and more!

    Examples of Topics in Cognitive Psychology

    There are nine big topics that cognitive psychology covers: memory, learning, intelligence, language, thinking, problem-solving, reasoning, biases, and creativity.

    Cognitive Psychology a graph of the main topic areas in cognitive psychology StudySmarterFg. 1 Cognitive topics, Wikimedia Commons

    Cognitive psychologists try to discover how and why cognitive processes happen, change, develop, and fail. Some cognitive psychologists focus mainly on intelligence and the individual differences that make us unique. These ideas and theories help us understand how our thinking can impact our behavior. They also help us better understand mental disorders and how to treat them.

    Attention and Memory

    With all the information that bombards us every day, how do we take in all of it? Attention in cognitive psychology is the ability to concentrate on processing information. Cognitive psychologists study the four types of attention and how they work. They try to understand things like multitasking, difficulties in attention, and factors that influence attention. Attention is linked to states of consciousness, meaning how alert we are to ourselves and our environment.

    Cognitive psychologists also study how we take in, store, and access information in our memory. Our ability to remember information allows us to learn, reason, and problem-solve. You will probably notice throughout this section that all of the areas of cognitive psychology are connected to each other! Each one plays a role in the others somehow (like the role of attention in memory).

    Parallel processing is the two-way highway of information in cognitive psychology. Consciously and unconsciously, we process a huge amount of information at any given moment. Imagine you walk into a crowded area. If you are awake and alert, your brain immediately begins parallel processing noises of conversations, the movement of chairs, people's facial expressions, and the shape and size of the room. Maybe this crowded area is the cafeteria at your school. Can you smell the food and feel the heat coming off the serving line? Yes! Parallel processing allows your brain to process all of this at once.

    Thinking and Problem-Solving

    Thoughts seem pretty self-explanatory, right? It is actually more complicated than you might think. It mostly happens automatically, so it requires intentional effort (or attention!) to understand our thinking processes. It might help you to think of your mind like a super-advanced computer. It is incredibly organized, down to the smallest details. Your brain automatically sorts the information you learn into concepts, prototypes, and schemas to inform your daily decisions and activities.

    The organization of your brain allows you to sort through and select information from storage as needed quickly. Imagine opening the file folders on your laptop to search for a particular document with a specific piece of information on it. This is a lot like how your brain works! In fact, artificial intelligence is an entire field of study focused on imitating human reasoning, learning, and language ability through the use of computers and technology.

    Cognitive psychology a virtual projection of a tablet touchscreen with multiple data charts and graphs on it StudySmarterFg. 2 AI,

    All of this information sorting helps us solve problems and make decisions. Our species would have quickly become extinct if we were not able to figure out the solutions to so many different problems in life. We use these abilities every single day! Cognitive psychologists study the different strategies we use to solve problems and make decisions. Of course, our thinking abilities are connected to our intelligence: the ability to apply knowledge in everyday life.

    Did you know that there is a word for thinking about thinking? It's called metacognition. When we think about our current understanding of a topic to improve or alter it, we are engaging in metacognition.

    Intelligence and Creativity

    Thought processes and intelligence are also connected to creativity. Ultimately a special type of problem-solving, human creativity is the ability to generate innovative, unconventional, or useful ideas to solve problems. There is no commonly accepted understanding of intelligence; like creativity, it is about practically applying solutions to problems. Someone can be creative but relatively unintelligent, or intelligent but relatively uncreative. The best combination is a high degree of both!

    Language and Learning

    Another huge area of study in cognitive psychology is how we learn and use language. Learning really connects all of the areas of cognitive psychology together. We need all kinds of mental processes to learn new information. Learning a language, however, requires some special learning abilities. Humans possess the awesome natural ability to understand grammatical structures at very early ages and begin using language.

    Why are humans uniquely suited to learn and use language? How does the learning process work? What role do mental processes play in behavioral learning theories? The way learning is described in behavioral theory leaves out the role of our thoughts, but our mental processes are part of what makes behaviors possible! Cognitive psychologists draw attention (pun intended) back to this part of learning and help us understand it better.

    Founder and Theorists of Cognitive Psychology

    Considered the father of cognitive psychology, Ulric Neisser published his book Cognitive Psychology in 1967 and officially started the field of cognitive psychology. Neisser understood that the way our minds process information is extremely important. He was not a huge fan of behaviorism, and he felt that most behavioral theories were incorrect or limited in scope. He wanted psychologists to recognize the importance of our thoughts in our learning and behaviors, and his work led the way for the cognitive revolution.

    Other Theorists Within Cognitive Psychology

    While the cognitive psychology boom began with Ulric Neisser, it did not stop there. Many theorists used Neisser's work as a foundation for their own theories. So who are these other theorists? Here's a list!

    • Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1936) developed stages of cognitive development that begin in the earliest years of life.

    • Aaron Beck (1967) developed an approach to therapy based on cognitive psychology called cognitive therapy. Later it was combined with behavioral approaches to form cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Beck took the ideas and findings of cognitive psychology and used them to help treat mental disorders.

    • Noam Chomsky studied how we acquire or learn a language, and he argued that the human ability to learn a language is innate. Children are preprogrammed with a special ability to learn a language early in life. He called this intrinsic cognitive ability the learning acquisition device (LAD).

    • In 1885, Herman Ebbinghaus created a revolutionary theory in cognitive psychology. He studied memory and developed the idea of the forgetting curve. We tend to forget things after a certain amount of time has passed unless we review the information multiple times and it is meaningful to us.

    • In the 1920s, Wolfgang Köhler studied apes in hopes of better understanding aspects of learning. Through his research, Köhler developed the theory of insight learning. Sometimes we suddenly arrive at the solution to a problem seemingly without effort!

    • Elizabeth Loftus (1974) wanted to better understand memory functions from a more modern perspective. Her research demonstrated that what we think are memories can actually be full of falsehoods as our minds fill in gaps of missing information. Most of her research was based on eyewitness statements and testimonies of events, and she demonstrated that eyewitness testimonies are often faulty or unreliable.

    • In the 1950s, George A. Miller developed the information-processing model of memory that we use today. He was the first to compare human memory functions to the way a computer processes information. His model is extremely important in our understanding of memory, and it also contributes to the field of artificial intelligence.

    Advantages and Disadvantages of Cognitive Psychology

    Obviously, cognitive psychology has given us some really important, interesting findings. What about the possible disadvantages of cognitive psychology? What areas in cognitive psychology are limited or could be improved?

    Strengths of the Cognitive Approach in Psychology

    Thanks to cognitive psychology, we have learned so much about many processes within our minds. Much of cognitive psychology research is done through computer-based models of thought processes and seeks to identify the biological functions of cognition.

    The cognitive revolution and cognitive psychology filled in some of the gaps in the behavioral approach or behaviorism. Behaviors are important, but there are many things that influence behavior that is unobservable. Cognitions, feelings, memories, instincts, intelligence, decision-making, and problem-solving are unobservable mental processes, but we need to understand them better in order to truly understand behavior. Since the cognitive revolution, many other theorists have filled in the gaps in cognitive psychology by focusing on emotions and cultural influences!

    Cognitive psychologists make use of both introspection and biological technology to do research. Behaviorists typically leave out introspection or self-reflection, since our inner experiences are unobservable. The cognitive revolution helped the field of psychology as a whole accept other approaches to research and understanding human behavior other than the behavioral approach.

    One of the biggest strengths of cognitive psychology is how it can be used to help individuals suffering from mental disorders. Cognitive therapy and other therapy approaches that include a cognitive element were revolutionary in treating disorders like depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and anxiety. Many modern approaches to therapy are based at least partially on cognitive psychology.

    Weaknesses of the Cognitive Approach in Psychology

    One reason why behaviorism worked well is that it fits well with the scientific method. We can observe, track, and record behaviors. Thoughts, on the other hand, are way harder to understand or verify. As a reaction to behaviorism, cognitive psychologists focused so much on thoughts or cognitions that they left out other important things, like emotions and culture. Just like the behavioral approach has its limitations, so does cognitive psychology.

    When Jean Piaget developed his stages of cognitive development, he focused so heavily on thoughts that he left out societal and cultural influences. Do his stages of development take place in all cultures and environments in the same way? Many other cognitive theories have this same problem. Fortunately, many theories developed after the cognitive revolution recognized these gaps and began filling them in. They recognized that even though our cognitions are extremely important, they are only one piece of the puzzle in understanding human behavior and mental processes.

    Cognitive Psychology - Key takeaways

    • Cognition is all the mental or brain activities involved in thinking, remembering, and knowing things, and these processes are internal and mostly unobservable subjective experiences.
    • Before the cognitive revolution in the 1960s, psychologists focused mostly on studying observable behaviors (behaviorism) and treating mental disorders (psychoanalytic and psychodynamic).
    • There are nine big topics that cognitive psychology covers: Memory, Learning, Intelligence, Language, Thinking, Problem-Solving, Reasoning, Biases, and Creativity.
    • Considered the father of cognitive psychology, Ulric Neisser published his book Cognitive Psychology in 1967 and officially started the field of cognitive psychology.
    • Cognitive psychologists make use of both introspection and biological technology to do research.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Cognitive Psychology

    What is cognitive psychology?

    Cognitive psychology is the study of mental processes and how we process information.

    What is an example of cognitive psychology?

    An example of cognitive psychology is studying how the encoding, storage, and retrieval of information in memory works. 

    What is the main idea of cognitive psychology?

    The main idea of cognitive psychology is that our mental processes inform the rest of life.

    What are the 6 areas of cognitive psychology?

    The 6 areas of cognitive psychology are memory, learning, intelligence, language, thinking, and problem-solving. 

    Who founded cognitive psychology?

    Ulric Neisser founded the field of cognitive psychology in the 1960s. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Generalized intelligence factor that can be measured through standardized tests is called _______?

    True or False: G-factor can be observed in other areas of the human experience in addition to intelligence.

    Which is not one of Sternberg's three types of intelligence?


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