Cognitive Psychology | Research Article | Science

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Cognitive Psychology: Overview

In general, cognitive psychology (CS) studies the human brain scientifically to gain insight into the latent processes behind the manifest behavior. When we say scientifically, it implies using modern methods and tools to make empirical judgement of the mental processes. Precisely, Groome (2013) defines CS as the “way in which the brain processes information” (p. 3) along a well-built information processing system/mechanism that consists of a few stages, namely, the input, perception, learning, the stage of memory, its retrieval, and finally, thinking (Benjamin, 2013). This is just a broad classification of how the human brain processes information; the real processes are still far more intricate for us to understand yet.

When we assume that CS is about how the human brain (or even the brain of an animal) processes information, our attention is logically directed toward the activities of the brain: decision-making, use of language, representation of knowledge, thinking, memory, motivation, love, etc. CS is generally a reductionist area of research because of focusing on the underlying mental processes that result in some form of behavior. Since it is a lab-based field of study (observing someone strictly in the lab setting, e.g. a test taker), it adds to its being termed as reductionist and away from real-life contexts. Criticism apart, CS has made its mark because of its meaningful contribution that was not known before. For instance, Skinner’s behaviorism is primarily concerned with the manifest human behavior because then we were unable to see what was happening in the brain (the Black Box in behaviorist term), but not now.

Major Contributors to Cognitive Psychology

The first period for the evolution of CS goes as far back as the ancient times (Aristotle). However, we are concerned with the modern development, which, as Sperry (1993) puts, was in the 1950s and the ‘60s when CS was silently taking shape in response to behaviorism. However, some experts believe that CS is a modern science that dates back to the initial time of modern psychology and has focused to address the same old questions that have bewildered psychologists for a long time with different tools. For instance, Wilhelm Wundt, often regarded as the father of modern psychology, Hermann Ebbinghaus, known for his contribution on memory – forgetting curve and spacing effect, were experimenting around the modern questions in the 17th century (Benjamin, 2013).

Other important figures from our time can also be remembered here. For instance, William James in his seminal work, The Principles of Psychology, discussed several studies on human cognition. Similarly, Frederic Charles Bartlett, a British psychologist, did important experiments on the functioning of memory and its systematic errors. It is logical to argue that the behavior-based approach to studying human psychology created a renewed interest among researchers to study latent mental processes and gave birth to CS (Benjamins, Laird & Lacasse, 2014).

In the 1950s, important figures in this field of research had a profound influence on CS: Donald Broadbent, Herb Simon, George Miller, and Ulric Neisser are some important names to remember. Experts like Benjamin and Eysenck argue that the new thinking in CS was partly caused by a general dissatisfaction with behaviorism because it almost outright disregarded what took place inside the brain. Anyone interested in learning how languages are processed in the brain was left only with outward language learning functions such as habit formation through drills, reinforcement, and practice under the stimulus-response approach.

Modern tools proved that CS was here to stay. For instance, behaviorist approach (arguing the mysterious innate brain functioning) propagated that when a stimulus is for an individual to memorize a list, say of office supplies, the response to this stimulus (list) would cause the recall. However, it was CS that found out that in between the memorizing and recalling a lot was happening. For instance, the strategies students (observed in early lab research) used to memorize something really matter: e.g., grouping, reorganization, use of meta-cognition, etc. create a difference from person to person about how to memorize, and it affects the later retrieval processes. These lab studies soon created more profound interest among researchers in CS.

Major Figures and Contextual Influences

CS has developed under the influence of many people. I would be precise here. It was Donald Broadbent’s (a Cambridge academic) whose 1958 book, Perception and Communication, is to this day regarded as probably the most influential work in the development of CS. Before this book, most attempts were made to understand brain functioning in isolation (memory, perception, attention, etc.); however, Broadbent, for the first time, in modern history, developed a system of information that defined how major brain processes take place, and the role of short- and long-term memory (Eysenck, 2014).

Broadbent focused on two fundamental questions about cognitive processes: (1) the volume of information the human mind may process; and (2) if the brain can attend to only part of some incoming information. Broadbent came up with a flow diagram to propose a brain model for information processing in his book, which garnered wide scale attention. While his brain model was catching attention in England and elsewhere, two notable events happened around this time in US: the 1956 conference at Dartmouth University on artificial intelligence and the MIT organized Second Symposium on Information Theory. In these conferences, Alan Newell and Herb Simon presented their Logic Theorist computer program to address the problem of logic. This chain of events caused enough ripples in the puddle of research and attracted experts’ and researchers’ attention from diverse areas such as anthropology, psychology, computer science, and linguistics. This time is often regarded as a beginning of a movement that would overtake behaviorism in the near future (Goldstein, 2014).

The other great figure to influence the evolution of CS in its early years is George Miller, the American psychologist to help CS become a school of thought. Cown (2015) notes that Miller’s 1956 article, The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information officially marked CS as an independent area of research. Miller presented a model of memory, which provided a substitute to the behaviorist mechanical approach. His model explained the critical role of the short-term memory, a bottleneck like variable that processes most of human thinking.

However, the area formally came to be known as cognitive psychology after a German psychologist, Ulric Neisser, published his book, Cognitive Psychology (1967), an important resource for academic knowledge as the book contained then current research on major brain areas (memory, attention, perception, problem-solving, pattern recognition, and remembering). Neisser introduced two concepts, information and constructive processes and built a strong case for the applicability of CS; his book was a major success as it now offered an organized theoretical basis for CS.

Other than CS nourishment in academia, three major events: World War II, advances in artificial intelligence, and progress in linguistics (Anderson, 2005) had their share. There was a widescale need for soldiers’ training so that modern war equipment can be deployed successfully without the soldier taking the brunt (stress under war conditions). Behaviorism was not helping. Thus, psychologists trying to address these challenges continued to work in academic labs even after the war was over. This gave birth to Donald Broadbent’s influential work on information theory.

Artificial intelligence probably had an indirect impact on the growth of CS, but it is considered massive because CS has borrowed many concepts from computer science, and Anderson (2005), terms it a liberating factor because it set us free from the barriers of examining our own intelligence.

As for the advances in linguistics, renowned linguist, Noam Chomsky (at MIT) questioned popular behaviorist assumptions about language learning processes and developed a model of language learning, generative linguistics, explaining that language learning is a far more complex process than behaviorism tried to explain. He came up with the language acquisition device (LAD) model, an internal complex system. Thus, Neisser’s book and George Miller’s expansion of Chomsky’s ideas set the scene for CS, among other factors, and in 1969, the first journal, Cognitive Psychology, came into being.

Cognitive Psychology and Contemporary Psychology

Cognitive science was formally established in the 1970s in the area of mainstream psychology mainly due to technological advances, which also gave birth to cognitive neuroscience. Cognitive science is a multidisciplinary area of inquiry to probe behavior. Similarly, cognitive neuroscience uses latest equipment to scan the brain (e.g. fMRI, transcranial magnetic simulation, near-infrared spectroscopy, etc.). As such, the insight we are gaining from cognitive psychology are fast being integrated in other branches of psychology because of empirical evidence and its relevance. Theoretical neuroscience (sister of neuroscience) is also greatly benefitting from neuroscience. So now we have more sophisticated theoretical and statistical models of computation, representation, and application to under the brain (Thagard, 2011).

Two other important areas in CS have continued to exert contextual influence for the growth of psychology: increasing significance of the concept of embodiment (of emotion and imagining of the brain activity to advance traditional ways of representation). Embodiment has helped scientists uncover several mysteries within the brain, for instance, how the brain processes different social interactions and sensory perceptions to do many routine things for a person.

The second area is to study the brain in association with the role of human cognition in the social world. Evidence from psychology, anthropology, linguistics, and other areas has demonstrated that the social world (interaction, setting, culture, and other conditions) has an impact on human thought processes. CS has continued to show that both internal biological processes and changes have an impact the way an individual interacts with the world (for instance deficiency of dopamine causes the person to have withdrawal symptoms internally). CS evidence, however, has also documented that external social factors also modify biological aspects of the brain. Thus, social-biological interaction has received significant attention over the years, and many complex questions are being investigated.

As a result, CS continues to influence modern psychology enormously by offering fresh insight into human cognition along with cognitive neuropsychology and cognitive neuroscience. Starting from Wundt, today, we have far more advanced technology enabling us to see inside the brain – something not possible even a few decades back (Demacheva et al., 2012). With its controlled experimentational approach, CS has produced several replicable findings that are reliable and are being incorporated into the practices of developmental psychology, cognitive therapy, abnormal psychology, and social psychology. Research offers promising scientific insight (Choi, Van Merriënboer & Paas, 2014).

Limitation of Cognitive Psychology

Despite its influence, CS is not without limitations. It lacks ecological validity, i.e. difficult to ascertain how close the lab-based experiments are to real-life scenarios. Computer models replicating human brain are also criticized to be simplistic and free of boredom or tiredness. The working memory model of the computer is naively straightforward. Similarly, the evidence CS has gathered has come from measures such as task performance through speed and accuracy. These offer indirect evidence, and we are yet to know the actual brain functioning.

When a person’s brain is under investigation, we only see the brain regions that are activated without knowing what is exactly happening in these regions (mental and cognitive processes), and if these activated areas are the only ones that are functional. Finally, individual differences are usually not considered, and the focus is mostly on broad understanding of human cognition. However, it is quite common knowledge that idiosyncratic differences play an important role in human behavior.


Although CS is confined to the lab and may lack specific focus on individual cognition, its relevance and application continue to influence modern thinking. A search over the internet returns several recent publications showing that the theory and practice continue to expand to probably every field of inquiry from language learning to criminal justice, from sports psychology to understanding mental disorders. Thus, it would most likely be accurate to assert that with developing technology and more sophisticated imagining techniques, it is possible that we study the human brain accurately one day and solve one of the greatest puzzles of the universe.


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Choi, H. H., Van Merriënboer, J. J., & Paas, F. (2014). Effects of the physical environment on cognitive load and learning: towards a new model of cognitive load. Educational Psychology Review26(2), 225-244.

Demacheva, I., Ladouceur, M., Steinberg, E., Pogossova, G., & Raz, A. (2012). The applied cognitive psychology of attention: a step closer to understanding magic tricks. Applied Cognitive Psychology26(4), 541-549.

Eysenck, M. (2014). Fundamentals of psychology. New York: Psychology Press.

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Thagard, P. (2011). What’s new in cognitive science? Four major trends in current cognitive science. Retrieved from

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