Cognitive psychology  

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Diagram of the human mind, from Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet et minoris metaphysica, page 217[1] by Robert Fludd

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Cognitive psychology is the scientific study of mental processes such as attention, language use, memory, perception, problem solving, creativity, and thinking. Much of the work derived from cognitive psychology has been integrated into various other modern disciplines such as educational psychology, social psychology, personality psychology, abnormal psychology, developmental psychology, linguistics, and economics.



Philosophically, ruminations of the human mind and its processes have been around since the times of the ancient Greeks. In 387 BCE, Plato is known to have suggested that the brain was the seat of the mental processes. In 1637, René Descartes posited that humans are born with innate ideas, and forwarded the idea of mind-body dualism, which would come to be known as substance dualism (essentially the idea that the mind and the body are two separate substances). From that time, major debates ensued through the 19th century regarding whether human thought was solely experiential (empiricism), or included innate knowledge (nativism). Some of those involved in this debate included George Berkeley and John Locke on the side of empiricism, and Immanuel Kant on the side of nativism.

With the philosophical debate continuing, the mid to late 19th century was a critical time in the development of psychology as a scientific discipline. Two discoveries that would later play substantial roles in cognitive psychology were Paul Broca's discovery of the area of the brain largely responsible for language production, Both areas were subsequently formally named for their founders and disruptions of an individual's language production or comprehension due to trauma or malformation in these areas have come to commonly be known as Broca's aphasia and Wernicke's aphasia.

From the 1920s to the 1950s, the main approach to psychology was behaviorism. Initially, its adherents viewed mental events such as thoughts, ideas, attention, and consciousness as unobservables, hence outside the realm of a science of psychology. One pioneer of cognitive psychology, who worked outside the boundaries (both intellectual and geographical) of behaviorism was Jean Piaget. From 1926 to the 1950s and into the 1980s, he studied the thoughts, language, and intelligence of children and adults.

In the mid-20th century, three main influences arose that would inspire and shape cognitive psychology as a formal school of thought:

  • With the development of new warfare technology during WWII, the need for a greater understanding of human performance came to prominence. Problems such as how to best train soldiers to use new technology and how to deal with matters of attention while under duress became areas of need for military personnel. Behaviorism provided little if any insight into these matters and it was the work of Donald Broadbent, integrating concepts from human performance research and the recently developed information theory, that forged the way in this area.
  • Developments in computer science would lead to parallels being drawn between human thought and the computational functionality of computers, opening entirely new areas of psychological thought. Allen Newell and Herbert Simon spent years developing the concept of artificial intelligence (AI) and later worked with cognitive psychologists regarding the implications of AI. This encouraged a conceptualization of mental functions patterned on the way that computers handled such things as memory storage and retrieval, and it opened an important doorway for cognitivism.
  • Noam Chomsky's 1959 critique of behaviorism, and empiricism more generally, initiated what would come to be known as the "cognitive revolution". Inside psychology, in criticism of behaviorism, J. S. Bruner, J. J. Goodnow & G. A. Austin wrote "a study of thinking" in 1956. In 1960, G. A. Miller, E. Galanter and K. Pribram wrote their famous "Plans and the Structure of Behavior". The same year, Bruner and Miller founded the Harvard Center for Cognitive Studies, which institutionalized the revolution and launched the field of cognitive science.
  • Formal recognition of the field involved the establishment of research institutions such as George Mandler's Center for Human Information Processing in 1964. Mandler described the origins of cognitive psychology in a 2002 article in the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences

Ulric Neisser put the term "cognitive psychology" into common use through his book Cognitive Psychology, published in 1967. Neisser's definition of "cognition" illustrates the then-progressive concept of cognitive processes:

The term "cognition" refers to all processes by which the sensory input is transformed, reduced, elaborated, stored, recovered, and used. It is concerned with these processes even when they operate in the absence of relevant stimulation, as in images and hallucinations. ... Given such a sweeping definition, it is apparent that cognition is involved in everything a human being might possibly do; that every psychological phenomenon is a cognitive phenomenon. But although cognitive psychology is concerned with all human activity rather than some fraction of it, the concern is from a particular point of view. Other viewpoints are equally legitimate and necessary. Dynamic psychology, which begins with motives rather than with sensory input, is a case in point. Instead of asking how a man's actions and experiences result from what he saw, remembered, or believed, the dynamic psychologist asks how they follow from the subject's goals, needs, or instincts.

Major research areas


Knowledge representation






Influential cognitive psychologists

See also

  | Cognitive bias
  | biology
  | description
  | development
  | interventions
  | module
  | neuropsychology
  | poetics
  | robotics

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