Cognitive Psychology (I)
I could theoretically write a lot of posts about this handbook, but I’m probably not going to do that. As I’ve mentioned before I own a physical copy of this book, and blogging physical books is a pain in the neck compared to blogging e-books – this is one of the main reasons why I’m only now starting to blog the book, despite having finished it some time ago.
The book is a 600+ pages long handbook (752 pages if you include glossary, index etc.), and it has 16 chapters on various topics. Though I’m far from sure, I’d estimate that I spent something like 50 hours on the book altogether so far – 3 hours per chapter on average – and that’s just for ‘reading the pages’, so to speak; if I do decide to blog this book in any amount of detail, the amount of time spent on the material in there will go up quite a bit.
So what’s the book about – what is ‘cognitive psychology’? Here are a few remarks on these topics from the preface and the first chapter:
“the leading contemporary approach to human cognition involves studying the brain as well as behaviour. We have used the term “cognitive psychology” in the title of this book to refer to this approach, which forms the basis for our coverage of human cognition. Note, however, that the term “cognitive neuroscience” is often used to describe this approach. […] Note that the distinction between cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience is often blurred – the term ‘cognitive psychology” can be used in a broader sense to include cognitive neuroscience. Indeed, it is in that broader sense that it is used in the title of this book.”
The first chapter – about ‘approaches to human cognition’ – is a bit dense, but I decided to talk a little about it anyway because it seemed like a good way to give you some idea about what the book is about and which sort of content you’ll encounter in it. In the chapter the authors outline four different approaches to human cognition and talk about each of these in a bit of detail. Experimental cognitive psychology is an approach which basically limits itself to behavioural evidence. What they term cognitive neuroscience is an approach using evidence from both behaviour and the brain (that can be accomplished by having people do stuff while their brain activity is being monitored). Cognitive neuropsychology is an approach where you try to use data from brain-damaged individuals to help understand how normal cognition works. The last approach, computational cognitive science, I recently dealt with in the Science of Reading handbook – this approach involves constructing computational models to understand/simulate specific aspects of human cognition. All four approaches are used throughout the book to obtain a greater understanding of the topics covered.
The introductory chapter also gives the reader some information about what the brain looks like and how it’s structured, adds some comments about distinctions between various forms of processing, such as bottom-up processing and top-down processing and serial processing and parallel processing, and adds information about common techniques used to study brain activity in neuroscience (single-unit recording, event-related potentials, positron emission tomography, fMRI, efMRI, magnetoencephalography, and transcranial magnetic stimulation). I don’t want to go too much into the specifics of all those topics here, but I should note that I was unaware of the existence of TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) research methodologies and that it sounds like an interesting approach; basically what people do when they use this approach is to use magnetic pulses to try to (briefly, for a short amount of time) disrupt the functioning of some area of the brain and then evaluate performance on cognitive tasks performed while the brain area in question is disrupted – if people perform more poorly on a given task when the brain area in question is disrupted by the magnetic field, it might indicate that the brain area is involved in that task. For various reasons it’s not unproblematic to interpret the results of TMS research and there are various limitations to the application of this method, but this is experimental manipulation of a kind I’d basically assumed did not exist in this field before I started out reading the book.
It’s noted in the first chapter that: “much research in cognitive psychology suffers from a relative lack of ecological validity […] and paradigm specificity (findings do not generalise from one paradigm to others). The same limitations apply to cognitive neuroscience since cognitive neuroscientists generally use tasks previously developed by cognitive psychologists. Indeed, the problem of ecological validity may be greater in cognitive neuroscience.” In the context of cognitive neuropsychology, there are also various problems which I’m reasonably sure I’ve talked about here before – for example brain damage is rarely conveniently localized to just one brain area the researcher happens to be interested in, and the use of compensatory strategies by individuals with brain damage may cause problems with interpretation. Small sample sizes and large patient heterogeneities within these samples also do not help. As for the last approach, computational cognitive science, the problems mentioned are probably mostly the ones you’d expect; the models developed are rarely used to make new predictions because they’re often too general to really make them at all easy to evaluate one way or the other (lots of free parameters you can fit however you like), and despite their complexity they tend to ignore a lot of presumably highly relevant details.
The above was an outline of some stuff covered in the first chapter. The book as mentioned has 16 chapters. ‘Part 1’ deals with visual perception and attention – there’s a lot of stuff about that kind of thing in the book, almost 200 pages – and includes chapters about ‘basic processes in visual perception’, ‘object and face recognition’, ‘perception, motion, and action’, and ‘attention and performance’. Part 2 deals with memory, including chapters about ‘learning, memory, and forgetting’, ‘long-term memory systems’ and ‘everyday memory’. That part I found interesting and I hope I’ll manage to find the time to cover some of that stuff here later on. Part 3 deals with language and includes chapters about ‘reading and speech perception’, ‘language comprehension’, and ‘language production’. I recall wondering a long time ago on this blog if people doing research on those kinds of topics distinguished between language production and language comprehension; it’s pretty obvious that they do.. Part 5 deals with ‘thinking and reasoning’ and includes chapters about ‘problem solving and expertise’, ‘judgment and decision making’, and ‘inductive and deductive reasoning’. Interestingly the first of these chapters talks quite a bit about chess, because chess expertise is one of the research areas people have looked at when looking at the topic of expertise. I may decide to talk about these things later on, but I’m not sure I’ll cover the stuff in part 5 in much detail because Gigerenzer (whose research the authors discuss in chapter 13) covers some related topics in his book Simply Rational, which I’m currently reading, and I frankly like his coverage better (I should perhaps clarify in light of the previous remarks that Gigerenzer does not cover chess, but rather talks about other topics also covered in that section – the coverage overlap relates to Gigerenzer’s work on heuristics). The last part of the book has a chapter on cognition and emotion and a chapter about consciousness.
As you read the chapters, the authors start out by outlining some key features/distinctions of interest. They talk about what the specific theory/hypothesis/etc. is about, then they talk about the research results, and then they give their own evaluation of the research and conclude the coverage with outlining some limitations of the available research. Multiple topics are covered this way – presentation, research, evaluation, limitations – in each chapter, and when multiple competing hypotheses/approaches have been presented the evaluations will highlight strengths and weaknesses of each approach. Along the way you’ll encounter boxes at the bottom of the pages with bolded ‘key terms’ and definitions of those terms, as well as figures and tables with research results and illustrations of brain areas involved; key terms are also bolded in the text, so even if you don’t completely destroy the book by painting all over the pages with highlighters of different colours the way I do, it should be reasonably easy to navigate the content on a second reading. Usually the research on a given topic will be divided into sections if multiple approaches have been used to elucidate problems of interest; so there’ll be one section dealing with cognitive neuropsychology research, and another section about the cognitive neuroscience results. All chapters end with a brief outline of key terms/models/approaches encountered in the chapter and some of the main results discussed. The book is well structured. Coverage is in my opinion a bit superficial, which is one of the main reasons why I only gave the book three stars, and the authors are not always as skeptical as I’d have liked them to be – I did not always agree with the conclusions they drew from the research they discussed in the chapters, and occasionally I think they miss alternative explanations or misinterpret what the data is telling us. Some of the theoretical approaches they discuss in the text I frankly considered (/next to) worthless and a waste of time. It’s been a while since I finished the book and of course I don’t recall details as well as I’d like, but from what I remember and what I’ve gathered from a brief skim again while writing the post it’s far from a terrible book and on a general note it covers some interesting stuff – we’ll see how much of it I’ll manage to talk about here on the blog in the time to come. Regardless of how much more time I’ll be able to devote to the book here on the blog, this post should at least have given you some idea about which topics are covered in the book and how they’re covered.
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