Cognitive psychology is the study of brain processes concerning learning, memory, language and speech. The ways people acquire information, retain it and convey it can vary greatly from one person to the next. Studying cognitive psychology allows scientists to understand behaviors that occur because of the way information has been received and interpreted. Similar to the great thinkers of ancient times, psychologists are concerned with how information is obtained, although the methods used to study these processes are far more complex than those used by Aristotle or Plato.
Although Aristotle and Plato (and many others of the day were far from correct about many of their assumptions, they did help to lay the groundwork for future research in the field of cognitive psychology (Willingham, 2007, p.7). It was not until the Renaissance, however, that a greater emphasis was placed on observation. It was during this time that the fields of physics, chemistry, biology and astronomy advanced, and underlying assumptions of each of these areas came into greater focus.
Although newer methods of inquiry were being developed during the Renaissance, logic and assumptions were still being utilized. “Renaissance philosophers and scientists made mistakes in interpretation (like Aristotle and like scientists today), but they were sound in their emphasis on observation” (Willingham, 2007, p.9). A sound hypothesis, indeed, relies on its ability to be tested repeatedly and over time, while still producing the same results. It was this lack of science that rendered many of the ancient assumptions useless from a scientific perspective, although the processes used to arrive at them had been a valuable contribution. One notable figure during the Renaissance, concerning the study of the mind, was Rene Descartes. Descartes asserted that knowledge was derived not only from experience, but also from “innate knowledge that everyone is born with” (Willingham, 2007, p. 9). Of course, there were opposing viewpoints, but all were extensions of thought previously espoused by ancient philosophers.
A variation in thought between nativists and empiricists (that all knowledge comes from experience) was put forth by Immanuel Kant. It was his view that individual perception played a significant role in how knowledge was obtained. How one person thinks and feels about an experience may be entirely different to another, and that perceptions of some things such as time and space are innate abilities (Willingham, 2007, p. 11). Rene Descartes, Kant and other philosophers managed to arrive at invaluable conclusions; however, it was ultimately Wilhelm Wundt who was credited with founding the discipline of psychology in 1879.
Wundt spent many years writing, teaching and training students about his scientific methods of inquiry for studying the mind. His methods became known as structuralism, because “the goal was to describe the structures that comprise thought” (Willingham, 2007, p. 15). Wilhelm Wundt also trained others to examine their own minds using a self-assessment method he developed, which was called introspection. Unfortunately, introspection turned out to be less than successful because it failed concrete answers to any profound questions. Wundt ideas were swiftly replaced by behaviorist views when John Watson published a comprehensive paper on that subject in 1913. (Willingham, 2007, p.16).
It was John Watson’s belief that behavior and not its underlying processes should be the focus of scientific investigation in the field of psychology. Although behavior was observable, however, it was soon replaced with new research known as cognitive psychology, because it too failed to provide valid answers to important questions, particularly about the underlying processes that preceded behavior. Behaviors could be predicted by manufacturing experiments designed to produce them, but of course, humans are more complex than laboratory animals with no life experience. In addition, behaviorists could not account for all behaviors, for all people.
Observable behavior remains an important part of cognitive psychology. Methods have evolved with the advent of technology. In particular, brain scans can detect specific areas of the brain that are active during certain activities. For example, asking a person to speak in a different language will highlight one area of the brain, while asking them to remember a favorite childhood story would possibly highlight a different region. Other simpler forms of observation are also used. Association with certain stimuli can also produce observable and often predictable behaviors, and treatment plans can be devised if those behaviors need to be changed.
Being able to isolate different cognitive processes can help scientists understand how information is acquired, stored, retrieved and conveyed. The use of assumption is still as important as it was to philosophers in ancient times, although the introduction of the scientific method, as well as the emphasis on observation has proven to be invaluable in field of cognitive psychology.
Willingham, D. T. (2007). Cognition: The thinking animal (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall.