Sunday, 11 February 2007

Cognitive psychology

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.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

Good luck with the essay. I will be watching how it changes as people try to help. Trying to understand how we make decisions on our own thoughts is hard enough but linking them this with other peoples contributions will be very interesting. As a mature student myself I will enjoy seeing how someone else writes an essay and how it evolves.

Lynn said...

Thank you. Yes, it'll be fun trying to exploit 'the wisdom of crowds' as well as exposing my writing process. Hope you enjoy it.

Rachel B said...

I like the metaphor of your attention as a hovering helicopter, with the research terrain below, open to exploration. It shows how much we can miss, choose to focus attention on, and also be able to see the research picture at some distance as an interlinked geography. The overview can be lost if the helicopter comes down! Different students might pick out different features of the landscape as interesting/relevant and some may get stuck in the woods. How does the terrain look to you at the moment?

Lynn said...

Hi Rachel. At present I'm circling over an undifferentiated forest which seems to be labelled on my chart as 'memory'. I have some fantasies about what it might be like down there and I'm planning to share these later tonight. When I glimpse a likely landing spot, I'll be down there!

Anonymous said...

hey good luck with your project. I graduated 6 months ago for my psychology degree and i have always found working memory very fascinating also whether memory is located in a specific area of the brain or is composed by different networks interconnected. You are very brave as i dont like writing and i paniching every time i have to write an assignment..

Lynn said...

Thanks very much. I'm going to bear your idea about the physical location of memory in mind. It will soon crop up on the Wiki.

cybercarter said...

"Things weren’t as they seemed. After a while, I stopped panicking and started getting curious." This is exactly what happened to me with my MA in Learning & Teaching in HE!

This my first comment on your evolving essay project, but I've had a wiki wander and am finally catching up with your blog - cup of coffee in hand! - and it's such a great adventure. It strikes a particular chord with me at the moment as I'm at the 'blank page' stage of my dissertation - as you're that critical step or two ahead of me, you're prividing an extra source of inspiration and encouragement for my efforts!

Lynn said...

Glad to hear it! The great thing about being terrified and anxious and curious and all the rest is that it means we're awake, not plodding along through a project which makes us go zzzzzz.

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