Introduction (Psychology and Mental Health)
Cognitive psychology is that branch of psychology concerned with human mental activities. A staggering array of topics fits under such a general heading. In fact, it sometimes seems that there is no clear place to end the catalog of cognitive topics, as mental operations intrude into virtually all human endeavors. As a general guideline, one might consider the subject matter of cognitive psychology as those mental processes involved in the acquisition, storage, retrieval, and utilization of information.
Among the more specific concerns of cognitive psychologists are perception, attention, memory, and imagery. Studies of perception and attention might be concerned with how much of people’s vast sensory experience they can further process and make sense of, and how they recognize incoming information as forming familiar patterns. Questions regarding the quality of memory include how much information can be maintained, for how long, and under what conditions; how information is organized in memory and how is it retrieved or lost; and how accurate the memory is, as well as what can be done to facilitate a person’s recall skills. Cognitive researchers concerned with imagery are interested in people’s ability to “see” in their minds a picture or image of an object, person, or scene that is not physically present; cognitive researchers are interested in the properties of such images and how they can be manipulated.
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Theoretical and Methodological Approaches (Psychology and Mental Health)
To understand cognitive psychology, one must be familiar not only with the relevant questions—the topic matter of the discipline—but also with the approach taken to answer these questions. Cognitive psychologists typically employ an information-processing model to help them better understand mental events. An assumption of this model is that mental activities (the processing of information) can be broken down into a series of interrelated stages and scientifically studied. A general comparison can be made between the information processing of a human and a computer. For example, both have data input into the system, humans through their sense organs and computers through the keyboard. Both systems then translate and encode (store) the data. The computer translates the keyboard input into electromagnetic signals for storage on a disk. People often translate the raw data from their senses to a linguistic code that is retained in some unique human storage device (for example, a piercing, rising-and-falling pitch may be stored in memory as “baby’s cry”). Both humans and computers can manipulate the stored information in virtually limitless ways, and both can later retrieve information from storage for output. Although there are many dissimilarities between how computers and humans function, this comparison accurately imparts the flavor of the information-processing model.
In addition to...
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Applied Research in Cognitive Psychology (Psychology and Mental Health)
For many psychologists, the desire to “know about knowing” is sufficient reason to study human cognition; however, there are more tangible benefits. Examples of these widespread practical applications may be found in the fields of artificial intelligence and law and in the everyday world of decision making.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is a branch of computer science that strives to create a computer capable of reasoning, processing language, and, in short, mimicking human intelligence. While this goal has yet to be obtained in full, research in this area has made important contributions. The search for AI has improved the understanding of human cognition; it has also produced applied benefits such as expert systems. Expert systems are computer programs that simulate human expertise in specific domains. Such programs have been painstakingly developed by computer scientists who have essentially extracted knowledge in a subject area from a human expert and built it into a computer system designed to apply that knowledge. Expert systems do not qualify as true artificial intelligence, because, while they can think, they can only do so very narrowly, on one particular topic.
A familiar expert system is the “chess computer.” A computerized chess game is driven by a program that has a vast storehouse of chess knowledge and the capability of interacting with a human player, “thinking” about...
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Cognitive Contexts (Psychology and Mental Health)
The workings of the human mind have been pondered throughout recorded history. The science of psychology, however, only dates back to 1879, when Wilhelm Wundt established the first laboratory for the study of psychology in Leipzig, Germany. Although the term was not yet popular, Wundt’s primary interest was clearly in cognition. His students laboriously practiced the technique of introspection (the careful attention to, and the objective reporting of, one’s own sensations, experiences, and thoughts), as Wundt hoped to identify through this method the basic elements of human thought. Wundt’s interests remained fairly popular until around 1920. At that time, John B. Watson, a noted American psychologist and behaviorist, spearheaded a campaign to redefine the agenda of psychology. Watson was convinced that the workings of the mind could not be objectively studied through introspection and hence mandated that the proper subject matter for psychologists should be overt, observable behaviors exclusively. In this way, dissatisfaction with a method of research (introspection) led to the abandonment of an important psychological topic (mental activity).
In the 1950’s, a number of forces came into play that led to the reemergence of cognitive psychology in the United States. First, during World War II, considerable research had been devoted to human-factors issues such as human skills and performance within, for example, the...
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Sources for Further Study (Psychology and Mental Health)
Ashcraft, Mark H. Human Memory and Cognition. 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006. A fine textbook, geared for college students who have had some background in psychology but accessible to the inquisitive layperson. Ashcraft writes informally and provides chapter outlines and summaries, a glossary of key terms, and suggested supplemental readings. Perception and attention, memory, language, reasoning, decision making, and problem solving are all well covered.
Baddeley, Alan D. “The Cognitive Psychology of Everyday Life.” British Journal of Psychology 72, no. 2 (1981): 257-269. An interesting journal article in which Baddeley describes his research conducted outside the laboratory environment. Considers such practical topics as absentmindedness, alcohol effects, and the effectiveness of saturation advertising. A must for those who question the ecological validity (the real-life applicability) of cognitive research.
Berger, Dale E., Kathy Pezdek, and William P. Banks, eds. Applications of Cognitive Psychology. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1987. Five chapters each on three topics: educational applications, teaching of thinking and problem solving, and human-computer interactions. The chapters range in sophistication and accessibility, so this book should appeal to readers of diverse backgrounds. There are helpful name and subject indexes....
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Cognitive Psychology (Encyclopedia of Psychology)
An approach to psychology which focuses on the relationship between cognitive or mental processes and behavior.
The cognitive psychologist studies human perceptions and the ways in which cognitive processes operate to produce responses. Cognitive processes (which may involve language, symbols, or imagery) include perceiving, recognizing, remembering, imagining, conceptualizing, judging, reasoning, and processing information for planning, problem-solving, and other applications. Some cognitive psychologists may study how internal cognitive operations can transform symbols of the external world, others on the interplay between genetics and environment in determining individual cognitive development and capabilities. Still other cognitive psychologists may focus their studies on how the mind detects, selects, recognizes, and verbally represents features of a particular stimulus. Among the many specific topics investigated by cognitive psychologists are language acquisition; visual and auditory perception; information storage and retrieval; altered states of consciousness; cognitive restructuring (how the mind mediates between conflicting, or dissonant, information); and individual styles of thought and perception.
The challenges of studying human cognition are evident when one considers the work of the...
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