Paris in the Spring: An introduction to Cognitive Psychology.




So there are many facets of the world of psychology, one of these is Cognitive psychology. Now I imagine while reading those two words you are saying one of three things to yourself:

a)    I know exactly what both of those words mean

b)   Well… I know what psychology is

c)    Huh?

Yesterday morning I fell into one of these categories; but I only realized this when I was asked to explain the meaning of “cognitive” to a friend who doesn’t study psychology. So let’s define, shall we?

Cognition: the mental processes involved in gaining knowledge. (root dialect is Latin; cognito = knowledge)

Psychology: the scientific study of the human mind and its various functions (root dialect is Greek: psyche = soul/mind; logos = the study of)

So, the study of cognition therefore, is a study of how the brain interprets and uses “things” or “stuff”. Another way to think about this is; your knowledge is essentially the collected information of all the things you have learned and experienced over time. This is the ‘stuff’ that is looked at in cognitive psychology as well as how your brain interprets and uses them; for example you know not to touch a hot stove because you know it will burn you**. You know this because you have either experienced it yourself, or seen your brother touch a searing hot pan with his hand and scream out in agony as the a fibers wire up his arm and initiate a burn sensation in the brain just as the skin starts to blister. These experiences are what make up your knowledge bank; they are what you go to when you decide what to do in a certain situation, or how you think in your day to day life and even how you might feel about something. This is what cognitive psychologists study; the how and why of why you do what you do.

One  factor that cognitive psychology is concerned with is top down and bottom up processing. These are two ways of  interpreting information that we attain from the world; as humans, we do both. read the sentence below:

Screen shot 2013-08-01 at 10.28.53 AM

Now, look again:

Screen shot 2013-08-01 at 10.28.53 AM

Did you skip over the extra “the” or did you read the line for what it is?

If you skipped over the extra “the” (and let’s be honest, we all did) then you were using Top Down processing (realizing a similarity to a past event, creating an expectation and putting it on the stimulus, I do this *a lot* while editing). Now relax; this in no way means you are illerate or dumb; it purely means you were using the information you have acquired about a very famous sentence and used expectations (created by past knowledge) to achieve an assumed result. (If however you are a smart arse and did read the sentence properly, *claps*; good for you. That is bottom up processing [reading from the page to your brain, aka not linking to a past experience but interpreting the stimulus solely for what it is] and you were acknowledging the stimulus and not creating expectations of the sentence). This is a prime example of what cognitive psychologists study; the way the mind processes information, controls mental capacity and creates representations from the real world that enable us to function and make judgments from these experiences.

But how then do cognitive psychologists observe these processes? There isn’t any direct way of observing this, so, they go to other means; they use something called inferences. Inferences are when we make assumptions or “educated guesses” (haha; “educated”) about the way something is or the way a certain person acts in a given situation. Now, there aren’t very many ways of observing this, per say, however, there are a few. One example of the way we can observe cognitive activity is through the use of functional imaging techniques such as fMRI’s which detect changes in cerebral blood.

So as you can see, cognitive psychology is not purely concerned with the scientific or statistical study of knowledge (as it was when it first launched) it is also about how that information is acquired, retained and used. In ways such as; how we get distracted by cookies when studying or how we decide between ice cream and gelato (a very difficult decision I might add).

(***I do not recommend this, obviously.)

S xo


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