Since many of you are, I expect, more interested in writing than in cognitive psychology, I thought I’d try and say a little something here to explain what the discipline entails. I’ve been thinking about how best to represent it, and it is quite tricky to pin down. This difficulty adds a little frisson, I find, and turns a straightforward task into an irresistible challenge! I’m sure that the account which follows will have all kinds of holes in it, so as ever this is your chance to step up to the plate and fill in the gaps.
In a nutshell, cognitive psychology is the scientific study of the normal mind engaged in everyday experience. Cognitive psychologists are interested in universal phenomena like visual perception, object recognition, attention, expertise, decision making, how we experience time, language, and – germane to our evolving essay – memory. Certain professional sub-groups, though, (for example cognitive neuropsychologists) are more usually concerned with examining abnormalities in these processes.
What exactly do I mean when I say that cognitive psychologists make a scientific study of the mind? The descriptor scientific denotes a particular approach, one facet of which is the preference for selecting one process for study in isolation from the others. So although attention, memory, perception etc are simultaneously operating in all of us, the cognitive psychologist will focus on their preferred system to the exclusion of the others. The scientific nature of the discipline also manifests in the investigative tools of the trade, namely controlled experimentation (on non-human animals as well as people), imaging studies, physiological measurement, and using computers to simulate cognition. These computer models can then be tested against ‘real-world’ cognition.
Speaking generally, scientists aim to make observations which can then be used to predict the behaviour of systems and their components. They also often aim to use these rules to influence systems. This last point has a slightly sinister ring to it, which is the reason for the existence of ethical codes, especially in psychology. But that’s a whole other topic.
My first brush with cognitive psychology was unnerving but compelling in a scab-picking sort of way. I never imagined there was so much stuff happening in me and, more outrageously, without my conscious knowledge! I had previously enjoyed thinking of myself as a fairly self-aware person, but it seemed that this concept could no longer stand. The portion of cognition I was aware of appeared to be the tip of a huge, sinister iceberg. Things weren’t as they seemed. After a while, I stopped panicking and started getting curious. I began to wonder what it is that makes us like this. By and large, I’m still wondering. And since much of cognition is safely buried away from conscious access, there’s an awful lot to wonder about.