What Is Cognitive Psychology?

A relatively young branch of psychology, cognitive psychology studies mental processes like the acquisition of language, memory, attention, perception and metacognition. It seeks to understand how people acquire and handle information and how these mental processes affect behavior. Cognitive psychology lends itself to many practical applications that help improve an individual’s day to day activities and experiences at home, in school and at work.

Cognitive psychology came to prominence sometime in the 1950s as experts realized that the behaviorist approach which was the leading school of thought at that time was not enough to explain behavior. Behaviorism emphasized external behavior rather than the internal mental processes at work in studying how people act and behave. The “Cognitive Revolution” at that time, however, acknowledged that a person’s internal mental processes affect his actions. It also assumed that the use of the scientific method can identify these mental processes.

The idea of cognition and the use of the term “cognitive psychology” were further distilled by Ulric Neisser, an American psychologist, in 1967 in his book Cognitive Psychology. He wrote that cognition relates 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…” As such, Neisser concluded that “cognition is involved in everything a human being might possibly do; that every psychological phenomenon is a cognitive phenomenon.”

Perception, learning, attention, memory, concept formation, judgment and decision-making, language processing and problem solving are just some of the sub-domains of cognitive psychology. Perception has to do with how the human mind is able to understand the world through the interpretation of stimuli and the effects that these will have on how a person acts. Cognitive psychology is also interested in how people acquire new information through learning which also makes them better able to cope with their environment. Attention refers to how the brain is able to decide which types of information to retain and which ones to be filtered out, preventing the brain from suffering an overload. Cognitive psychology studies the ways by which attention improves performance and the reasons behind this phenomenon. The study of memory, meanwhile, seeks to understand the ways by which memory is acquired, stored and remembered later on. Cognitive psychology also studies how the human brain is able to organize and classify experiences in the field of concept formation. It also scrutinizes how humans make choices and render judgment. The field is also interested in how people solve problems to arrive at set goals. The mechanics behind language processing is also one of the popular sub-domains of cognitive psychology. It seeks to study how people acquire and understand language.

Cognitive psychology lends itself to many practical applications. It has found to be of great use in the area of education and learning. Because of the understanding of how the human brain works and the things that can be undertaken to improve memory, students are able to improve their academic performance. It has allowed teachers and other authorities of the educational system to come up with more effective teaching methods. It has also contributed a lot to the field of technology since discoveries made in cognitive psychology have paved the way for the development of more user-friendly computer interfaces and even robots that can do work that was once previously thought to be done only by human beings.

Career Spotlight: Cognitive Psychologist

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