“It's like riding a bike.”
This commonly used phrase indicating that something is easy and natural hides cognitive processes that lie deep within our memories. Why is it that people will pick up a bike after 10 years and ride as if they never stopped? How did they even come to a decision that they wanted to ride a bike in the first place? What enables you to read and comprehend this sentence?
Cognitive psychologists seek to answer these and other questions about thinking, making decisions, forming language, and observing and encoding information to memory. To observe these complex processes, cognitive psychologists research and perform experiments that test and measure factors such as reaction time, memory performance, word choice and selection. Using this information, they gain a deeper understanding of how the brain stores information, and what events trigger the retrieval and use of that information.
Cognitive Psychology and Memory
One of the core areas that cognitive psychologists focus on is memory. Memory plays a factor in nearly all cognitive processes, affecting how people learn, create, use language, read, write, and interact with others.
According to the book “Cognitive Psychology” by Robert J. Sternberg, memory is split into three stages of processing.
In the first stage, the brain receives sensory information and encodes it into representations. During the second stage, the brain stores that information into either short or long-term memory. The final stage, retrieval, occurs when a person needs to gain access to that memory, and uses it to, for example, remember a certain date.
Cognitive psychologists generally examine two major types of cognitive processes: implicit processes and explicit processes. Implicit processes take place automatically and without much cognitive effort. For example, remembering how to ride a bike or use a pencil.
Explicit processes require more effort, and include remembering specific dates from the past, or knowing the word “salt” and remembering what it tastes like.
For more information on the basic memory and information processing system, see Cognitive Psychology.
But before information is bound to memory and introduced into cognitive processes, the brain must separate the important information from the information that acts as “noise.”
Questions Cognitive Psychologists Look to Answer
- How does memory work?
- How do we use and understand language?
- How do we designate attention to certain objects in the environment?
- How do we solve problems and make decisions?
Source: “Foundations of Cognitive Psychology” by Nick Braisby and Angus Gellatly
Attending to Selective Information
Today, it's hard to walk down the street without becoming distracted.
Billboards, advertisements, blaring music, people talking on phones, and store owners selling their wares all contribute to the wall of noise hitting the brain's cognitive processes. Who hasn't entered a room only to become distracted and forget why they entered in the first place?
Observing how the brain attends to certain bits of information rather than others is a large part of how cognitive psychologists gain information about thought processes.
For example, the article “Music While You Work: The Differential Distraction of Background Music on Cognitive Test Performance of Introverts and Extraverts” looked at how background music sometimes distracts those from learning and comprehending information.
The article, published in Applied Cognitive Psychology and written by researchers Adrian Furnham and Anna Bradley, examined 10 extraverts and 10 introverts to see how their study habits were affected by playing music.
Furnham and Bradley found the introverts tended to study and work without music, while extraverts were more used to studying and working with music. The researchers gave the participants two tests: a reading comprehension test; and a picture memory test where participants memorized pictures for two minutes and attempted to list all of the pictures after a 6-minute interval.
Participants completed each test either in silence, or while exposed to pop music. The researchers found that introverts did much more poorly in general when listening to music compared to extraverts, or compared to introverts who took the tests in silence.
Both groups performed poorly on the reading comprehension test while listening to music, suggesting that the cognitive processes that factor into reading and writing become hampered by the addition of too many stimuli.
These kinds of discoveries have effects that reach beyond the field of Cognitive Psychology. In the educational field, these discoveries help teachers and tutors advise students on study habits to help them increase productivity.
And for cognitive psychologists, these findings help them to understand what the brain attends to and what it ignores.
Encoding Stimuli to Memory
When looking at a cup of fresh coffee, a person will know it's hot. This person knows it's hot because, in the past, he or she drank hot coffee in similar cups. The person also knows it's hot because of the steam rising from it. The observation of the steam, combined with long-term memory of drinking hot coffee, causes the person to carefully sip the coffee instead of quickly drinking it. The person knows hot coffee will burn his or her tongue, but they also know that when steam rises from something, it means it's hot.
This simple process of drinking coffee draws from memory systems and observations that take place over the course of milliseconds. The person unconsciously knows the coffee is hot, and is automatically cautious around it. Though the observation of steam and memories of past coffee consumption worked together to conclude the coffee was hot, these two memories actually come from two different systems: a slow-learning system; and a fast-learning system.
In “Dual-Process Models in Social and Cognitive Psychology: Conceptual Integration and Links to Underlying Memory Systems,” published in The Personality and Social Psychology Review, researchers describe how people use these memory systems to reach conclusions. In the article, researchers Eliot R. Smith and Jamie DeCoster state that the slow-learning system, also called the associative processing mode, is an automatic process that occurs after someone accumulates a large amount of experience - such as repeatedly drinking hot coffee.
Through the associative processing mode, people know from numerous experiences that coffee is hot. They might have spilled coffee on themselves at one point and gotten burned, or they remember the feeling of the warm cup in their hands. The fast-learning system, or the rule-based processing mode, is based on facts, or rules that are learned.
For example, in the past someone might have said, “Steam only occurs when something is hot,” and from that rule, someone looking at steam rising from a cup of coffee knows it's hot, even if they've never tried drinking coffee. Encoding this knowledge means that it doesn't accumulate over time from associations. This is also helpful when analyzing arguments or making decisions. For instance, a world-renowned economist might write an article in a newspaper making a bold claim. Many people, through associative processing, would assume that because this person is an expert, the information must be true.
However, rule-based processing requires someone to be more analytical. When someone examines the information thoroughly through rule-based processing, he or she might discover that the facts are actually false, despite the “expert” status.
Observing and Researching Cognition
Cognitive psychologists focus on researching and examining the human thought process. In order to fully gain insight into the brain and cognition, they must gain expert knowledge on these processes through empirically based research.
Cognitive psychology is a relatively new field of psychology, and researchers are learning more about how humans think and use thoughts in everyday life. If you're interested in a career of researching complex thought processes, request information from schools providing degree programs in cognitive psychology.
Language and Aging
One of the most impressive feats of humankind is the creation of language.
By using words as symbols to communicate, humans have learned to share ideas, thoughts, and feelings with each other. And the complex processes that guide language are deeply related to memory and the information-processing system people use each day.
And as human's age, their cognitive systems and memories begin to falter.
Where once it was easy to remember a certain date or task, older adults have difficulty recalling them. But fortunately, most older adults seem to retain the same level of language comprehension as they did when they were younger.
According to “Memory, Language, and Ageing,” published in The Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society, language is engrained in semantic memory – a memory system that concerns itself with knowledge learned over time.
In the article, researcher Deborah M. Burke states that semantic memory is largely unimpaired in old age compared to other memory systems. Burke says the most popular method of measuring language processing in semantic memory is the semantic priming paradigm.
Semantic priming refers to the amount of time it takes to identify a target word when it follows a related word. For example, if people read the word “nurse,” they are more likely to say the target word “doctor” than if the priming word was “table.”
Burke says that when it comes to semantic priming, older adults retain the same speed and ease of language comprehension as younger adults. In another example of priming, older adults were required to read a sentence and write down the property of the target word.
For example, the sentence “The oranges rolled off the uneven table” elicited the response “oranges (target word) – round (property). If participants had answered “oranges – juicy,” the response, while technically correct, makes the wrong association.
So when it comes to language comprehension, older adults perform just as capably as their younger counterparts. However, language production is a different case.
Burke notes that older adults typically have more difficulty producing words they already know. This is often known as the “tip of the tongue” state. In this state, someone will know the meaning of a word, but won't be able to place it. Burke says that while all people experience this once in a while, older adults show it with more frequency.
Cognitive psychologists are continuing to research why this effect occurs, digging deeper into memory systems to find ways to fight this occurrence.