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Cognitive psychology is the 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 of psychological study including educational psychology, social psychology, personality psychology, abnormal psychology, developmental psychology, and economics.
Philosophically, ruminations of the human mind and its processes have been around since the times of the ancient Greeks. In 387 BC, 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 18th 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, and Carl Wernicke's discovery of an area thought to be mostly responsible for comprehension of language. 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.
In the mid-20th century, three main influences arose that would inspire and shape cognitive psychology as a formal school of thought:
Ulric Neisser is credited with formally having coined the term "cognitive psychology" (in terms of the current understanding of cognitive psychology) in his book Cognitive Psychology, published in 1967. Neisser's definition of "cognition" illustrates the, then, progressive concept of cognitive processes well:
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.
The main focus of cognitive psychologists is on the mental processes that affect behavior. Those processes include, but are not limited to, the following:
The psychological definition of attention is "A state of focused awareness on a subset of the available perceptual information". The key function of attention is to discriminate between irrelevant data and filter it out, enabling the desired data to be distributed to the other mental processes. The human brain may, at times, simultaneously receive inputs in the form of auditory, visual, olfactory, taste, and tactile information. Without the ability to filter out some or most of that simultaneous information and focus on one or typically two at most, the brain would become overloaded as a person attempted to process that information.
One major focal point relating to attention within the field of cognitive psychology is the concept of divided attention. A number of early studies dealt with the ability of a person wearing headphones to discern meaningful conversation when presented with different messages into each ear. Key findings involved an increased understanding of the mind's ability to both focus on one message, while still being somewhat aware of information being taken in from the ear not being consciously attended to. E.g., participants (wearing earphones) may be told that they will be hearing separate messages in each ear and that they are expected to attend only to information related to basketball. When the experiment starts, the message about basketball will be presented to the left ear and non-relevant information will be presented to the right ear. At some point the message related to basketball will switch to the right ear and the non-relevant information to the left ear. When this happens, the listener is usually able to repeat the entire message at the end, having attended to the left or right ear only when it was appropriate.
Modern conceptions of memory typically break it down into three main sub-classes. These three classes are somewhat hierarchical in nature, in terms of the level of conscious thought related to their use.
Perception involves both the physical senses (sight, smell, hearing, taste, touch, and proprioception) as well as the cognitive processes involved in interpreting those senses. Essentially, it is how people come to understand the world around them through interpretation of stimuli. Early psychologists like Edward B. Titchener, began to work with perception in their structuralist approach to psychology. Structuralism dealt heavily with trying to reduce human thought (or "consciousness," as Titchener would have called it) into its most basic elements by gaining understanding of how an individual perceives particular stimuli.
Current perspectives on perception within cognitive psychology tend to focus on particular ways in which the human mind interprets stimuli from the senses and how these interpretations affect behavior. An example of the way in which modern psychologists approach the study of perception would be the research being done at the Center for Ecological Study of Perception and Action at the University of Connecticut (CESPA). One study at CESPA concerns ways in which individuals perceive their physical environment and how that influences their navigation through that environment.
Psychologists have had an interest in the cognitive processes involved with language that dates back to the 1870s, when Carl Wernicke proposed a model for the mental processing of language. Current work on language within the field of cognitive psychology varies widely. Cognitive psychologists may study language acquisition, individual components of language formation (like phonemes), how language use is involved in mood, or numerous other related areas.
Significant work has been done recently with regard to understanding the timing of language acquisition and how it can be used to determine if a child has, or is at risk of, developing a learning disability. A study from 2012, showed that while this can be an effective strategy, it is important that those making evaluations include all relevant information when making their assessments. Factors such as individual variability, socioeconomic status, short term and long term memory capacity, and others must be included in order to make valid assessments.
Much of the current study regarding metacognition within the field of cognitive psychology deals with its application within the area of education. Being able to increase a student's metacognitive abilities has been shown to have a significant impact on their learning and study habits. One key aspect of this concept is the improvement of students' ability to set goals and self-regulate effectively to meet those goals. As a part of this process, it is also important to ensure that students are realistically evaluating their personal degree of knowledge and setting realistic goals (another metacognitive task).
Modern perspectives on cognitive psychology generally address cognition as a dual process theory, introduced by Jonathan Haidt in 2006, and expounded upon by Daniel Kahneman in 2011. Kahneman differentiated the two styles of processing more, calling them intuition and reasoning. Intuition (or system 1), similar to associative reasoning, was determined to be fast and automatic, usually with strong emotional bonds included in the reasoning process. Kahneman said that this kind of reasoning was based on formed habits and very difficult to change or manipulate. Reasoning (or system 2) was slower and much more volatile, being subject to conscious judgments and attitudes.
Following the cognitive revolution, and as a result of many of the principle discoveries to come out of the field of cognitive psychology, the discipline of cognitive therapy evolved. Aaron T. Beck is generally regarded as the father of cognitive therapy. His work in the areas of recognition and treatment of depression has gained worldwide notoriety. In his 1987 book titled Cognitive Therapy of Depression, Beck puts forth three salient points with regard to his reasoning for the treatment of depression by means of therapy or therapy and antidepressants versus using a pharmacological-only approach:
1. Despite the prevalent use of antidepressants, the fact remains that not all patients respond to them. Beck cites (in 1987) that only 60 to 65% of patients respond to antidepressants, and recent meta-analyses (a statistical breakdown of multiple studies) show very similar numbers.
2. Many of those who do respond to antidepressants end up not taking their medications, for various reasons. They may develop side-effects or have some form of personal objection to taking the drugs.
3. Beck posits that the use of psychotropic drugs may lead to an eventual breakdown in the individual's coping mechanisms. His theory is that the person essentially becomes reliant on the medication as a means of improving mood and fails to practice those coping techniques typically practiced by healthy individuals to alleviate the effects of depressive symptoms. By failing to do so, once the patient is weaned off of the antidepressants, they often are unable to cope with normal levels of depressed mood and feel driven to reinstate use of the antidepressants.
Many facets of modern social psychology have roots in research done within the field of cognitive psychology. Social cognition is a specific sub-set of social psychology that concentrates on processes that have been of particular focus within cognitive psychology, specifically applied to human interactions. Gordon B. Moskowitz defines social cognition as "... the study of the mental processes involved in perceiving, attending to, remembering, thinking about, and making sense of the people in our social world".
The development of multiple social information processing models (SIP) has been influential in studies involving aggressive and anti-social behavior. Kenneth Dodge's SIP model is one of, if not the most, empirically supported models relating to aggression. Among his research, Dodge posits that children who possess a greater ability to process social information more often display higher levels of socially acceptable behavior. His model asserts that there are five steps that an individual proceeds through when evaluating interactions with other individuals and that how the person interprets cues is key to their reactionary process.
Many of the prominent names in the field of developmental psychology base their understanding of development on cognitive models. One of the major paradigms of developmental psychology, the Theory of Mind (ToM), deals specifically with the ability of an individual to effectively understand and attribute cognition to those around them. This concept typically becomes fully apparent in children between the ages of 4 and 6. Essentially, before the child develops ToM, they are unable to understand that those around them can have different thoughts, ideas, or feelings than themselves. The development of ToM is a matter of metacognition, or thinking about one's thoughts. The child must be able to recognize that they have their own thoughts and in turn, that others possess thoughts of their own.
One of the foremost minds with regard to developmental psychology, Jean Piaget, focused much of his attention on cognitive development from birth through adulthood. Though there have been considerable challenges to parts of his stages of cognitive development, they remain a staple in the realm of education. Piaget's concepts and ideas predated the cognitive revolution but inspired a wealth of research in the field of cognitive psychology and many of his principles have been blended with modern theory to synthesize the predominant views of today.
Modern theories of education have applied many concepts that are focal points of cognitive psychology. Some of the most prominent concepts include:
Cognitive therapeutic approaches have received considerable attention in the treatment of personality disorders in recent years. The approach focuses on the formation of what it believes to be faulty schemata, centralized on judgmental biases and general cognitive errors.
The line between cognitive psychology and cognitive science can be blurry. The differentiation between the two is best understood in terms of cognitive psychology's relationship to applied psychology, and the understanding of psychological phenomena. Cognitive psychologists are often heavily involved in running psychological experiments involving human participants, with the goal of gathering information related to how the human mind takes in, processes, and acts upon inputs received from the outside world. The information gained in this area is then often used in the applied field of clinical psychology. One of the paradigms of cognitive psychology derived in this manner, is that every individual develops schemata which motivate the person to think or act in a particular way in the face of a particular circumstance. E.g., most people have a schema for waiting in line. When approaching some type of service counter where people are waiting their turn, most people don't just walk to the front of the line and butt in. Their schema for that situation tells them to get in the back of the line. This then applies to the field of abnormal psychology as a result of individuals sometimes developing faulty schemata which lead them to consistently react in a dysfunctional manner. If a person has a schema that says "I am no good at making friends", they may become so reluctant to pursue interpersonal relationships that they become prone to seclusion.
Cognitive science is better understood as predominantly concerned with gathering data through research. Cognitive science envelopes a much broader scope, which has links to philosophy, linguistics, anthropology, neuroscience, and particularly with artificial intelligence. It could be said that cognitive science provides the database of information that fuels the theory from which cognitive psychologists operate. Cognitive scientists' research mostly involves non-human subjects, allowing them to delve into areas which would come under ethical scrutiny if performed on human participants. I.e., they may do research implanting devices in the brains of rats to track the firing of neurons while the rat performs a particular task. Cognitive science is highly involved in the area of artificial intelligence and its application to the understanding of mental processes.
In its early years, critics held that the empiricism of cognitive psychology was incompatible with its acceptance of internal mental states. However, the sibling field of cognitive neuroscience has provided evidence of physiological brain states that directly correlate with mental states - thus providing support for the central assumption of cognitive psychology.
As cognitive psychology gained momentum as a movement, through the 1970s, the complexity of the processes involved in human thought, in the opinion of many, fractured studies of cognition so greatly that the field lost cohesion. John C. Malone poses the assertion, in his book: Psychology: Pythagoras to Present, that "Examinations of late twentieth-century textbooks dealing with 'cognitive psychology', 'human cognition', 'cognitive science', and the like quickly reveals that there are many, many varieties of cognitive psychology and very little agreement about exactly what may be its domain".
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