Approaches to cognitive psychology

Cognitive psychology is a field concerned with the internal processes that we use to perceive our environment, process those perceptions, and decide on an output (action). Anything to do with perception, attention, memory, problem solving, creativity, etc., are of interest to cognitive psychologists.

They say that the human brain is one of the biggest unsolved mysteries there is. Some people even say this is a mystery that can’t be solved; that the brain, cognition, and all that goes with it are too complex for us to really know what’s going on. Of course, people have said that about a lot of things. Research into cognition has been picking up pace since the 1950s, and started sprinting within the last 15-20 years when neuroscience got involved too. I remember watching a TED talk (don’t remember off hand who it was, sorry), where the speaker said we’d have a full specification of the brain and how it works by the 2020s. I think that’s a bit optimistic, but since there are so many useful approaches to cognition, it might not be far off. Here are the four main approaches to this area of psychology.

Approaches to cognition

1) Experimental Cognitive Psychology – This involves doing experiments under laboratory conditions, trying to get a handle on a specific brain process that has been theorised. For example, in tests of memory they might see how well people can remember a list of words under various conditions (long words, short words, interfering noises, and so on).

2) Cognitive Neuropsychology – One way of investigating cognition is to study people who have suffered brain damage. Are there any specific cognitive impairments brought about by damage to a particular brain region? If so, it’s likely that the damaged area is involved in that cognitive function.

3) Computational Cognitive Science – This involves creating computer-based models of human cognitive functions, as well as work from artificial intelligence.

4) Cognitive Neuroscience – This has become very popular in the last decade or so, and involves using brain-imaging devices to study cognitive functions. This can help to discover where these processes occur in the brain, and when (including for instance, the order that different areas are activated when a person attempts a task).

On their own, these approaches to cognitive psychology have their limitations. For example, you could argue that experimental cognitive psychology takes people too far out of their real-life environments to be able to generalise from, and computational cognitive science can often be used to create a huge number of potential models and there is controversy over how relevant it is to knowing where cognition happens in the brain.

But the main value is in seeing where each approach agrees and disagrees with the others; there are four different ways to test a theory, so what comes out the other end intact will be good candidates for solid theories. This is commonly known as converging evidence, and it’s a very powerful way to conduct research. But powerful enough to give us a full map of the brain and how it works in the next 20 years? I’m saying no. What do you think?


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