What is Cognitive Psychology

‘Cogito ergo sum’, ‘I think, therefore I exist’ the basis of Rene Descartes’ philosophy is a simple but magnificent definition of our human mind, in my opinion. Cognitive psychology, with all its many direction, connections, science and investigations, is encapsulated in those words, as this branch of psychology strives to discover and define the workings of the human mind.

So what exactly is this? Cognition as a word, means thinking and the process of knowing. It is, according to Mary Ann Foley of Skidmore College, “the study of all mental activities related to acquiring, storing and using knowledge.” It extends historically back to the 19th century and the psychological studies of Wilhelm Wundt at Leipzig,and forward into the 21st and the computer analogy of “processes that store, retrieve and make use of those (internal mental) representations”. The basic definition could well be a psychology that studies the workings of the human mind. The main areas included are;


Looking at those, it is apparent that a huge area of study, research, theory and experimentation has been, and is involved in cognitive psychology, and also that it links to so much more seeking to understand how we learn, remember, speak, and ultimately, make sense of our world. It has taken influences from and impacts upon many other disciplines; philosophy, history, anthropology, neuroscience, linguistics and artificial intelligence.

By looking at each of the four areas in turn, a deeper understanding of the topic might be achieved.

PERCEPTION: This is about how we use sensory information to interpret and understand. Light, sound, aromas, are waves of physical energy that bombard our senses. That energy is turned into electrical impulses to the brain, which then translates them into something we can understand and recognize. That is the process of perception; the sensory organs have connected to mental activity and given meaning to sights, sounds, tastes and smells. An example is the way in which a very young baby recognizes the smell, facial pattern and sound of its mother and responds to these stimuli.

LEARNING AND MEMORY: Cognitive psychologists consider learning to be the way in which we gain knowledge, use it in developing new and different behaviors, and to alter and adapt to meet challenges. Complex learning includes difficult areas such as new languages or higher mathematics. We can learn by conditioning, by observation, by experiential processes, but whichever way works at any given time, we have a great capacity for complex mental processes.

Memory is hugely important to support and make learning effective. But the mental activity of recalling is not just about retrieving facts, but relating the current situation to the earlier knowledge experience. Cognitive psychology seeks to determine what is going on and why. Research and empirical evidence has shown that memory is made up of three systems. Sensory memory, where the information is held in the system for an instant. Short term memory, known as working memory, keeps information on a conscious level for as long as it is needed or useful. Finally, long term memory holds a huge amount of information, for a great length of time. Cognitive psychology attempts to discover our memory’s capacity, our brain’s involvement, how knowledge and learning are arranged and represented, whey we can accurately remember some things, yet forget others.

THINKING AND REASONING: When we think, we are using our mental capabilities to take information and solve problems, reason things out and make decisions, and to imagine. How we behave goes some way to suggest how thinking processes occur, for after all, thoughts cannot be seen, but the evidence of them shows in what we then do. Cognitive psychologists suggest that we use two forms of reasoning when problem solving; deductive and inductive logic. The first uses the belief that general principles are true and can thus be applied to a specific instance or case. The second, inductive, accepts that a general rule can come from specific cases. For example, if the deductive reasoning was applied to the principle that state education for all children is good,so it must be true, then deciding to place a particular child into that system must be right. Inductive reasoning would say that because one or two individual children have benefited from state education, then it must be true that it is good. Evidence shows that this is not always the case. Decision making is thus not always rational, and cognitive psychologists have suggested that thinking and reasoning can be influenced by what they call the ‘framing effects’, how information is ‘framed’. While it is a whole other can of worms, their findings provoke thoughts such as advertising, politics, spin and lies, damn lies and statistics. So while they study how we arrive at decisions, the cognitive psychologist cannot be certain as to how, using all our mental processes, we arrive at what is not always rational. But that is the challenge.

LANGUAGE: This is a hugely complex ability that cognitive psychology has focused on for years. Gesture, spoken and written word is our communication system that allows us to link past to future, express abstract concepts and do what no other animal species can, with such complexity. In particular, cognitive psychologists are interested in how children acquire language, being able to master it better than adults trying to learn a second language. They debate whether an inborn ability exists, or whether our brains are primed to learn it at certain early childhood stages. Cognitive psychology seeks to determine how the other areas of perception, learning and memory, thinking and reasoning, all mental processes in fact, come together and interconnect with language.

If we put them all in a nutshell, very difficult indeed, we would need a very large nut, the hardware of the brain and the software – steps it carries out – are studied and researched so that all mental activities can be better understood. So much, such variety, such complex and majestic capacities, that is the human mind. Cognitive psychology and all that goes with it, is a vast and fascinating subject. But then, so are we, the humans who provide the sources and are ultimately the beneficiaries of its science.

Sources: Cognitive Psychology: Historical and Modus Operandi. At
Cognitive Psychology.MSN Encarta. At http://encarta.MSN.com/text_761595627_1/Cognitive_Psychology.html.

Further Reading – Works By: Rene Decartes, Wilhelm Wundt,Jean Piaget, Ulric Neisser and Noam Chomsky.