The word ‘cognition is derived from the Latin word cognoscere, meaning “to know” or “to come to
know”. Thus, cognition includes the activities and processes concerned with the acquisition, storage,
retrieval, and processing of knowledge. In other words, it might include the processes that help us to
perceive, attend, remember, think, categorize, reason, decide, and so on.
Cognitive psychology, as the name suggests, is a branch of psychology that deals with cognitive
mental processes. Sternberg (1999) defined Cognitive psychology as that which deals with how people
perceive, learn, remember, and think about information.” In 2005, Solso gave another definition of
Cognitive psychology is the study of processes underlying mental events. In general, Cognitive
psychology can thus be defined as that branch of psychology that is concerned with how people acquire,
store, transform, use and communicate language.
Cognitive psychologists study the various cognitive processes that make up this branch. These
processes include attention, the process through which we focus on some stimulus; perception, the
the process through which we interpret sensory information; pattern recognition, the process through
which we classify stimuli into known categories; and memory, the process through which information is
stored for later retrieval, and so on. Thus, the work of cognitive psychologists is extended to a number
of areas, which can be depicted as follows –
A Brief History of Cognitive Psychology
The roots of cognitive psychology can be traced back much further and is intimately intertwined with
the history of experimental psychology. This leads back to the time period when the empiricist,
rationalist, and structuralist schools of thought included the philosophical works of Plato, Aristotle
that dealt with the philosophy of mind, and also to the later works of Wundt, and Titchner involving
introspection. However, for some period, the behaviorist school of thought dominated all the others, and
the focus was shifted from thought to behavior.
Around the time between the 1950s and 1970s, the tide began to shift against behavioral psychology to
focus on topics such as attention, memory, and problem-solving. The formal discipline of “Cognitive
Psychology” started in the mid-1900s during the cognitive revolution, and the term ‘cognitive
psychology’ did not emerge until 1967. Dissatisfaction with behaviorism, World War II, and the growing
technological advances in other fields such as computer sciences were a few major reasons behind the
Cognitive revolution. The mental processes regained their focus in psychology, and their measurement
began in an objective, quantifiable methods.
In recent times, a number of different disciplines have started to come together and collaborate such as
the fields of psychology, artificial intelligence, linguistics, philosophy, anthropology, and neuroscience, in
order to gain a better insight into the field of cognitive psychology.
Approaches to Cognitive psychology
A number of different approaches have been proposed in order to better understand the field of
cognitive psychology. Each of these approaches emphasizes a different aspect and highlights distinct
features underlying the cognitive processes. These methods provide us with an insight into how the
human mind functions by giving us a general idea about the workings of the basic cognitive processes
that we engage in. Broadly, there are four major approaches that try to explain the various cognitive
processes by highlighting the different important features. These approaches are Experimental
Cognitive Psychology, Computational Cognitive Science, Cognitive Neuropsychology, and Cognitive
- Experimental Cognitive Psychology –
This approach involves conducting tightly controlled experiments under laboratory conditions on
healthy individuals. It generally includes experiments designed in such a way that they might
disrupt the cognitive processes and reveal their workings. The findings obtained through such
experiments then lead to the formulation of the theories, which in turn lead to testable claims.
For example, a researcher wants to examine the effect of arousal on reaction time. He uses the
experimental approach, and the reaction time is assessed through a machine where the buttons
light up and the time to respond is measured. The arousal is also assessed through heart rate
measurement, under the following conditions; after rest, after cognitive overload, after exercise,
after caffeine, and after both exercise and caffeine. The results obtained through such
experimental methods can thus lead to the formulation of some theories, which later can be tested.
Computational Cognitive Science –
This approach involves computational modeling through the recreation of some of the aspects of
human cognition in the form of some computer program, or formula in order to predict behavior
in novel situations. In other words, this approach basically involves creating computer-based
models of human cognitive functions, as well as some work on artificial intelligence.
Usually, there are a number of ways in which a particular cognitive phenomenon can be modeled.
However, there is a lack of a definite method for relating a computational model’s behavior to
human behavior, and thus, It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to take every cognitive
factor into account when creating a model (e.g. Do models of language processing take into
account the emotional connotations of particular sentences for particular individuals?).
This approach to cognition investigates the various cognitive processes by studying the people
who have suffered brain damage, and to find out whether damage to a particular brain region
would result in a specific cognitive impartment. For example, damage to region X disrupts the ability
Y and the people who have lost ability Y also have problems with ability. Thus, such studies
involving people with brain damages help us to make assertions regarding healthy brain
However, such studies are difficult and cannot be manipulated according to the wishes of the
researcher as it would be unethical to cause damage to a particular brain region of a person so
that its role in a specific cognitive function can be observed. Also, if a person has suffered
damage to several brain areas, then the interpretation of the resultant findings is difficult.
Cognitive Neuroscience –
This approach has gained popularity over the past decade or so, and involves brain-imaging
devices to study cognitive functions. This can help to discover where these processes occur in the
brain, and when. In other words, this approach involves using brain imaging and brain anatomy
to study ‘live’ cognitive functioning in healthy individuals. As technology improves, these
studies are becoming more influential and potentially useful. Some of the methods used in the
cognitive neuroscientific approach include:
- Single Unit Recording
- Event Related Potentials (ERPs)
- Positron Emission Tomography (PET)
- (Functional) Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI, MRI)
- Magneto-encephalography (MEG)
- Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS)
However, these techniques might be of questionable use with high-order functioning which might not be
organized in a concise way. Also, if data from several individuals are averaged the interpretations become
accordingly blunt. Sometimes, when using these methods, the tendency for research to be conducted is just
for the sake of research. Papers can often be lacking any theoretical basis, and result in ad hoc
hypotheses. Furthermore, threshold levels need to be set to disregard noise, and these levels are a
Information processing Theory
Since the 1960s and 1970s, the information processing approach has dominated the field of cognitive
psychology. Basically, this approach draws an analogy between cognitive processing in humans and
the processing of information by a digital computer. This theory aims to explain the sequence of
transformations that input information undergoes in order for a computer/mind to generate an output
response. The researchers who follow this approach assume that the information is processed in stages
and that it is then stored in specific places while being processed. The figure given below is a typical
example of an information processing model
Some basic assumptions underline the information processing model. One assumption holds that the
cognitive abilities of a person can be thought of as ‘systems’ of interrelated capacities and finding out
the relationship between these capacities can explain how individuals go about performing the specific
cognitive tasks. This theory also assumes that like computers, people can also perform numerously
cognitive feats by applying only a few mental operations to symbols.
Bottom-up Processing – In bottom-up processing, the stimulus reaches an inactive,
unprepared organism, and the processing is directly affected by the stimulus input. In other
words, the processing is essentially driven by what information an individual acquires from his or
her environment. So here, the processing starts from the input level which is invariably the lower
level of processing and then goes on to its interpretation.
Serial Processing – As the name suggests, in serial processing, the processing of information
happens ‘serially’. The processing happens one by one, and one process is completed before the
next one can start.
Parallel Distributed Processing theory
The parallel-distributed processing model states that information is processed simultaneously by several
different parts of the cognitive system, rather than sequentially. In this type of processing model, the
information that is received from the environment is processed in a number of different locations
simultaneously and then stored.
In 1986, the parallel distributed processing model was further extended. Rumelhart and McClelland
extended it, and proposed the Connectionistic approach to processing. According to this, that
information is stored in multiple locations throughout the brain in the form of networks of connections,
called ‘Nodes’. In this model, cognition is basically thought of as a network of connections among a
number of simple processing units. Each unit is connected to other units in a large network and has
some level of activation at a given moment of time. This level of activation is dependent on the input
that the unit receives, both from the environment as well as from the other units to which it is
connected. Thus, according to the Connectionistic framework, the various cognitive processes are a
result of the different levels of activation, and a central processor is not required to direct the flow of
information from one process or storage area to another.
Research methods in Cognitive Psychology
A number of methods are employed in cognitive psychology in order to get an insight into the workings
of higher mental processes.
- Experiments –
In an experiment, a researcher manipulates a variable in order to see its effect on another
variable. For example, suppose a person wants to know whether background noise affects
performances on quantitative problems. One way of studying this would be to take a group
of people and randomly assign them to two different groups, a no-noise group, and a
white-noise group. The first group is asked to solve the problems in a quiet environment
and the second group tries to solve the problems whilst being exposed to white noise. In
this case, the presence/absence of white noise is referred to as the independent variable.
Our outcome measure is referred to as the dependent variable.
The random assignment of participants and the ability to include variables of interest while
excluding many unwanted factors mean that the true experiment is a particularly powerful
kind of design. However, not all experiments involve the comparison of different groups.
For instance, in the earlier example, one could have used a single group of people but
asked them all to take part in the two conditions of the study. The two types of design are
referred to as between-subjects and within-subjects, respectively.
- Psychobiological research –
Some researchers investigate the relationship between cognition and the brain’s structures
and activities. This is psychobiological research. One way of looking at such relationships is
to conduct post mortem studies, to compare the brains of normal individuals with those
who were known to have some kind of cognitive deficit. Also, one can also observe the
performance of brain-damaged individuals and their cognitive deficits. Researchers can also
monitor an individual doing a cognitive task, with the help of various measures such as
PET, MRI, or fMRI.
- Case Studies –
Case studies are intensive investigations of individuals, usual people of exceptional ability or
people with some sort of deficit. These studies may examine archival records, interviews, direct
observation, or participant observations.
- Naturalistic Observation –
Another methodology open to researchers is to observe people in real-life settings, such as at
home or at work. Observations may be done with the knowledge and consent of those being
watched, or they may be covert, in which case people are not aware that they are being watched.
The latter type of observation obviously requires the researcher to give particular thought to
- Computer Simulations –
Computer simulations aim to imitate aspects of human functioning. A particular cognitive theory
may be implemented in a computer program. If the program runs successfully and produces
outputs that resemble human responses, then one might conclude that the theory is coherent and
Application of Cognitive Psychology
Cognitive psychology is that branch of psychology that deals with the study of higher-level mental
processes. Some of the areas in which this branch finds its application in the real world are listed as
follows –Human Error
- Driving behavior
- Product design
- Visual behavior
- Object / face recognition
- Human-machine interaction
Cognitive Psychology-Introduction, History, Approaches, and