I Read an Entire Textbook on Cognitive Psychology; This is What I Learned

I’ve kind of become a cognitive psychology addict, ever since I stumbled upon the work of Daniel Willingham. And then edu-blogger after edu-blogger, discussing the implications for classroom teaching, and others who are active on social media. I was boggled that nowhere in my teaching training was this really addressed, beyond the requirement of an introductory psychology course, too broad to be of any use.

And yet, I maintained a little skepticism. Science can be filtered through lenses and put to particular purposes. Did the field of cognitive psychology agree with how its work was being interpreted? How did these blog posts and tweets fit in the context of the field? Was there other information relevant to teaching and learning that I was missing?

So I bought a cognitive psychology textbook (Cognitive Psychology, by E. Bruce Goldstein, 4th ed.) off Amazon, and read it. Cover to cover.

Took notes as I went. Cornell style.

I’m a bit lazy about finishing the notes. Can understand why my students resented Cornell style.

Lifelong learning, right?

I learned a lot. I forgot even more. Here are my four main takeaways.

Knowledge and memory underpin many of our cognitive processes

There is a lot of discussion around the role of knowledge in schools, in the modern-age of the internet. And debate. Lots of debate too. (I’ll be posting a series on this soon.) However, this isn’t the only kind of knowledge I’m referring to, when I say knowledge and memory shapes how our mind works. I also mean the knowledge gained through our everyday experiences, and without which it would be much more difficult to make sense of the world.

Take perception as an example. It is kind of a miracle how our brains are able to make sense of all this sensory information. Is there a book on the table next to you? Lean back and take a good look at it. Is it a rectangle? You might perceive it as a rectangle, but the way that sensory information is falling on your retina, it is more like a rhombus. Or some other shape. Our brain learns to organize perceptual information using our experience. For example, we can more easily perceive horizontals and verticals, because there are more horizontals and verticals in our environment than oblique angles. In one experiment, kittens were raised in environments with only vertical black and white stripes, and would only respond to vertical objects. Questions of animal testing aside, it is a good illustration of how our experiences shape our perception. Basically, I just assume this is why babies look confused all the time. They don’t have much experience, and don’t have much in their memory yet; the world must look like a constantly-changing cubist painting.

I mean, it is a pretty good accomplishment that AI can distinguish between food and dogs; that is a huge testament to our amazing brain, which has been able to distinguish between fried chicken and labradoodles ever since fried chicken and labradoodles were things.

This goes beyond visual perception. Take speech. We don’t enunciate. We mumble, drop consonants, and blend our words together. But, generally, we can all talk with each other just fine. When we don’t understand a language (my daily life), it just sounds like an unbroken stream of sounds. But when we do, we can pick out the individual words. When we know just one word (me again), then we hear just that one word, before it becomes sound again. Our knowledge changes how we perceive speech.

One more example. Memory helps cognitive processes, but it can also create errors in judgement. Take the availability heuristic; we judge an event to be more likely when we can more easily remember examples of it. For example, people think that tornadoes cause more deaths than asthma, while the opposite is the case.

Our experiences shape our minds, much more than we might think.

There are lots of debates and disagreements in the field

More than I was expecting. But it helped to see the scientific process at work, and to see how these theories and models came about and their limitations, by reading about what cognitive psychologists disagree on.

I’m going to talk about two major debates. One that is kind of resolved and one that is not.

Picture, in your mind, a table with a beer can, coffee mug and a TV remote. Which is currently my living room table (but not my beer can). The mug is north of the remote, and the beer can is east of the remote. How is the mug positioned relative to the beer can?

If you managed to figure that out without drawing, you just used mental imagery. The main question for cognitive psychologists is whether mental imagery uses the same mechanisms as perception. The debate basically goes like this.

Stephen Kosslyn didn’t write the book on imagery; he wrote three. He thinks it shares the same spatial mechanisms as perception. Zenon Pylyshyn disagrees, and think it uses propositional mechanisms which are related to language. Most research and researchers agree with Kosslyn, and neuroscience has found overlap between the two in the brain, but the overlap is not complete, and there are still a few differences in how they operate. Which is to say, one side is mostly right, but it is a bit more complicated than that.

The second example is the debate on how concepts are stored in the brain: where cognitive psychology meets neuroscience. The semantic category approach asserts that there are specific areas in the brain for specific categories. The multiple factor approach looks at how concepts can cross different categories. The embodied approach looks at how sensory and motor processes are linked to our knowledge of concepts. Ultimately, this area of research is still a work in progress.

Isn’t science cool? There is a lot this field has figured out, and a lot more to discover.

Scientific studies can be used for different purposes

Because of my prior readings into the field, primarily courtesy of Willingham, I was already familiar with a few of the studies described in the book. However, the way the studies were used, the points they were supporting, was not always the same.

Just to be clear, I am not claiming anyone has misinterpreted or misused these studies. I’m just saying they can be seen through different lenses.

Take Ebbinghaus’s forgetting curve. Prior to reading the textbook, I had mostly seen it discussed in the context of spaced repetition, and how regular reviews can help students beat the curve. Goldstein used it in his discussion of the history of cognitive psychology, to explain how the field studies the mind by inferring from behaviour.

A second example is the Duncker radiation problem. Willingham describes studies that use the problem in his article on flexible and inflexible knowledge. His point was that we initially store knowledge in concrete, inflexible terms, and that makes applying it in new contexts a lot harder. Goldstein used the problem to discuss analogical problem solving, and how the surface and structural features can be adjusted to make transfer more likely. Neither is wrong in their use of the study, just a bit different.

This was an eye-opener to me. My understanding of these studies was inflexible and superficial and seeing them used in new contexts helped me better grasp their significance.

I have a lot more to learn

Just like my university course was an introduction to psychology, and superficially covered a range of topics, this book was just an introduction to cognitive psychology, and couldn’t really provide a lot of depth.

I’m still confused about working memory, particularly the episodic buffer. I want to delve into the research on creativity. This was only a starting point, and I am looking forward to learning more.

Next up: memory. Keep an eye out for more posts on that topic.


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