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Cognitive Psychology Defined

What is Cognitive Psychology?
Cognitive psychology is the study of mental processes. This includes thought, emotion, memory storage and recall, decision-making skills, logic, and problem solving. The basis for cognitive psychology started in Ancient Greece with the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, and development of this genre continues today. Over the years, many have tried to discredit cognitive psychology as a true science, but it has proven to be a valid perspective in the field of human study (Willingham, 2007).

Philosophical Beginnings
The question of how the mind works was first studied by Ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. Although their scientific methods were crude and did not necessarily prove anything, the questions they raised were valid and psychologists and scientists have attempted to answer them ever since. Ancient philosophers did raise some valid points about human development, one of which being the systematic function of the world and human life, allowing for some prediction of life events. Another important point is that life events center on what is happening in the world around a person and his or her place in it, and do not depend on mystical events or spiritual intervention, per se (Willingham, 2007).

With the progress of science during the Renaissance period, the development of nondeterministic views unleashed the concepts of free will and the soul, leading to the diminishment of study of the human mind for a time. Later, during the 17th century, Rene Descartes and others would raise the questions once again of where thoughts come from, and introduce science back to psychology with the concepts of memory and perception (Willingham, 2007).

The Foundation of Psychology and the Development of Behaviorism
In the 19th century, William Wundt was credited for the foundation of modern psychology. Wundt began the first psychological journals and studies of psychology in universities. He convinced the scholarly world that psychology was a valid science because of his structuralist views on it. Meanwhile, William James would focus on the purpose of mental processes known as functionalism (Willingham, 2007).

John Watson questioned James’ and Wundt’s theories. Watson would permanently link psychology to science by introducing the behaviorist perspective to psychology. Watson defined behaviorism as the ability to predict and control behavior by determining that the only observable form of human thought rests in their behavior, which can be broken down into the simplest building blocks to relate all people’s basic actions (Willingham, 2007).

The Impact of Behaviorism on Cognitive Psychology
In the early 20th century, behaviorism became the main focus of all psychology. Concepts of soul and mind went out the window because the only observable form of psychology was behavior. People can see how others behave, but they cannot see the thoughts that make them react, so the simplicity of behaviorism was readily accepted by all. The most famous example of this was Ivan Pavlov’s dog experiment, in which the association of behavior and stimulus was recorded (Willingham, 2007).

In the latter 20th century, people’s faith in behaviorism began to decline. Most of the experiments conducted about it were done using animals, which surely must be a lesser being than humans. Additionally, the question of where behavior actually comes from dawned to give rise to the quest to know what mental processes take place to produce it (Willingham, 2007).

One of the actions behaviorism left unexplained was language. B.F. Skinner would be the first to pose the question, how can we study language in animals that cannot speak? Though Skinner would fail to explain this adequately in his book Verbal Behavior (1957), he would pose many questions that led to the disintegration of behaviorism and the birth of cognitive psychology (Willingham, 2007). Were it not for the failure of behaviorism, so widely accepted, cognitive psychology may never have existed. Also, behaviorism asked an important question: Why do people act the way they do? Cognitive psychology simply took this one step further and asked: What mental processes take place to produce thoughts and behavior? To answer this question, behavior must be observed closely when treating clients from a cognitive perspective. If one changes the mental processes that control their behavior, then the observer must ensure that the correct process has been changed in order to produce the desired effect.

Technology Proves Psychology
Some of the most important psychological discoveries of the 20th and 21st centuries have occurred because of neuroscience. Neuroscience has laid the explanatory groundwork for localization of many functions within the brain, permitting the further study of each specific area based on the knowledge of the senses or jobs it controls. Later technology would develop a three-dimensional x-ray of the brain called a computed tomography (CT scan) that would permit doctors to see specific areas that might be damaged. With magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), an even better picture can be obtained. With an electroencephalogram (EEG), electrical activity can be measured to gauge how and when neurons fire in the brain. Even better than all these are the positron emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans. These produce three-dimensional, colored images of the brain and show neural activity in the same picture (Willingham, 2007).

Aside from neuroscience, the technological development of the computer has helped all people to have a better concept of the brain and mind. Computers in the 21st century are smaller and better than ever. They multitask with ease at the fastest speed ever. The comparison of the computer to the mind makes sense to most people (Willingham, 2007). The brain that controls the human mind and behavior is analogous to a supercomputer whose complete power is not completely understood yet by man.

Cognitive psychology is the study of mental processes. It has its roots in introspective philosophy as well as behavioral science. Cognitive psychology also attempts to explain behavior with the mind/body connection, a concept once swept under the rug as incredible. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is successful in many examples and case studies in the last fifty years and is still widely used in psychology today.


Willingham, D. (2007). Cognition: The thinking animal (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Allyn & Bacon.