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Welcome to Psych 321, Cognitive Psychology. Cognitive psychology is the study of human thinking and memory processes. In many ways, it is the oldest part of psychology, going all the way back to Aristotle and Plato. Although its roots are old, the field as we know it today is relatively new--about 60 years old. It is concerned with such topics as how we learn and remember information, how we comprehend and use language (oral and written), how we solve problems (why, for example, do students have so much trouble solving statistics problems?), and how we acquire and use new concepts. For example, how are children able to master the complex skill of spoken language in just a few years with almost no instructions (by their 4th year kids are fluent in their language), and yet it takes them many years to master the skill of reading and some children never learn to read well?

I think cognitive psychology is a fascinating area of psychology and look forward to teaching you what I know about it this semester. You will discover that cognitive psychology is somewhat different from other areas of psychology that you may have studied. The
level of description that cognitive psychology is concerned with is different than what you may be used to. The cognitive level tries to understand the mind at an abstract functional level, which is not the same as the neural level and is not the same level of description as our everyday intuitions about mental processing, although often cognitive structures and processes will have a correspondence to things we intuit. In the end, we infer cognitive structures and processes from behavior in careful and cleverly designed experiments and studies. For example, we all have a subjective sense of internal mental imagery that we experience in our minds. If you try, you can picture the rooms in your apartment or house while you are sitting here in class. However, a cognitive psychologist is interested in understanding the nature of the actual internal mental representation and this may be different from what we are consciously aware of. How is mental imagery representation different from what occurs when you are actually at home viewing these rooms? What things are characteristic of mental images for everyone? Can people rotate an image of a specific object, for example, and accurately ‘see’ the changes in the appearance of the object. The corresponding neural level description would try to describe what brain areas and processes underlie those cognitive structures and processes that give rise to our experience of imagery.

Consider another example:
short-term memory versus long-term memory. Most of us have an intuitive idea of what short term and long term memory are and could probably give a basic definition—short term memories are relatively brief and can be easily lost; long term memories are relatively permanent and less easily lost. However, cognitive psychologists who study memory are interested in understanding the structural and functional characteristics of short term and long-term memory. For example, are these two types of memory actually two separate functional systems or are they simply two different aspects of a single memory system. Is information represented differently in the two systems or is long-term memory just a stronger version of the information in short-term memory? This is the sort of issue that cognitive psychologists have investigated with great energy and commitment. Most importantly, the functional structures and processes identified by cognitive psychologists have proven essential in identifying brain structures and processes that underlie mind. In fact, cognitive psychology and behavioral neuroscience have merged into a new discipline called cognitive neuroscience.

Cognitive psychology is committed to an empirical, scientific approach to studying human cognition. Much of the practice of cognitive psychology involves the following: We first try to come up with a description of how an underlying cognitive process works (e.g. how new memories are encoded). Such descriptions come from a variety of places including earlier cognitive theories, theories in other areas of psychology or in other fields (e.g. computer science, communications theory, sociology, or even our own intuitions). We then generate hypotheses or predictions that should follow if the description of the underlying cognitive process is on the right track. Finally we conduct experiments to test our predictions and based on the outcome of these experiments we strengthen or revise our theory.

This is sometimes called the
experimental method, used by all of the sciences, including psychology. Obviously, it is not the ONLY way to gain knowledge concerning mental process; however, it has proved to be the most powerful way and is used by cognitive psychologists, neuroscientists, and other psychologists (e.g. clinical psychologists). Thus, much of the content of the course will concern ideas and theories proposed by cognitive psychologists and the empirical studies conducted to test these theories. Part of what I hope you will gain from all of this is an appreciation for the process of doing science, in this case in the domain of cognitive psychology.

I sincerely hope that you will be able to take some of what you learn in this course and apply it to your own life. Many of the topics we will discuss concern cognitive processes that influence every moment of our waking lives. I encourage you to look for examples in your own day-to-day activities of how the ideas in this course are realized or can be applied. Some of what we will cover can make a tremendous difference in how well you learn new material and/or do on tests. I will try to highlight some of this in the lectures but it will be even more valuable to you if you do it yourself as we cover the various topics.

Why study cognitive psychology: There are many reasons to study cognitive psychology besides that it is utterly fascinating. Cognitive psychology is one of the most important and influential areas of modern psychology. It may not be your area but it will help you master your area because many of its techniques, methodologies, and theories have been employed in nearly every other areas of psychology: behavioral neuroscience, social psychology, and clinical psychology, just to name a few. In addition, cognitive psychology has many applications to everyday life, such as: improving learning and memory (e.g. aiding young children with reading deficits); helping design complex systems and machines (e.g. computer software and interfaces, car dashboards, jet cockpits, and voice answering systems just to name a few); finding ways to improve decision making (e.g. juries); aiding occupational therapists in treating individuals with brain and behavioral deficits, as well as many other applications. Finally, if you plan to go to graduate school, you will find when you take the Psychology Test of the Graduate Record Exam that there are many cognitive questions on the exam.