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In psychology, cognitivism is a theoretical approach to understanding the mind, which argues that mental function can be understood by quantitative, positivist and scientific methods, and that such functions can be described as information processing models.

History of Cognitive Science

Research and thought about the mind and how it functions can be found in serious ways as early as the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. Under their influence the nature of human knowledge was studied as philosophy, whereas the Western World’s emphasis on experimental science enabled the mind to be studied under the field of psychology in the nineteenth century. Wilhelm Wundt, in particular, set up a lab at the University of Leipzig in 1879 where mental operations were systematically studied. Within decades experimental psychology moved from studying the mind directly to studying behavior. Under the influence of J. B. Watson and B. F. Skinner, behaviorism essentially denied the research that focused on the mind. Consciousness and mental representations were dismissed as categories outside of verifiable scientific experimentation.

In 1956, George Miller developed studies and experiments that showed human thought to be limited. Memory experiments demonstrated that short-term memory was limited to around seven items. This limitation could be overcome, according to Miller’s research, by recoding information and “chunking” it. Along with this cognitive research the use of primitive artificial intelligences bolstered new cognitive experiments, models of human thought, and institutional support. In opposition to Behavorism, the edges began to peel back once Skinner began writing about language. This work sparked a public outcry from the young Noam Chomsky who rejected behaviorist assumptions about language. Language was not a learned habit, but rather language comprehension could be explained through mental grammars consisting of rules

Theoretical approach

Cognitivism has two major components, one methodological, the other theoretical. Methodologically, cognitivism adopts a positivist approach and the belief that psychology can be (in principle) fully explained by the use of experiment, measurement and the scientific method. This is also largely a reductionist goal, with the belief that individual components of mental function (the 'cognitive architecture') can be identified and meaningfully understood. The second is the belief that cognition consists of discrete, internal mental states (representations or symbols) whose manipulation can be described in terms of rules or algorithms.

Cognitivism became the dominant force in psychology in the late-20th century, replacing behaviorism as the most popular paradigm for understanding mental function. Cognitive psychology is not a wholesale refutation of behaviorism, but rather an expansion that accepts that mental states exist. This was due to the increasing criticism towards the end of the 1950s of behaviorist models. For example Chomsky argued that language could not be acquired purely through conditioning, and must be at least partly explained by the existence of internal mental states.

Criticisms of psychological cognitivism

Cognitivism has been criticised in a number of ways.

Phenomenologists and hermeneutic philosophers have criticised the positivist approach of cognitivism for reducing individual meaning to what they perceive as measurements stripped of all significance. They argue that by representing experiences and mental functions as measurements, cognitivism is ignoring the context (cf contextualism) and, therefore, the meaning of these measurements. They believe that it is this personal meaning of experience gained from the phenomenon as it is experienced by a person (what Heidegger called being in the world) which is the fundamental aspect of our psychology that needs to be understood: therefore they argue that a context free psychology is a contradiction in terms. They also argue in favour of holism: that positivist methods cannot be meaningfully used on something which is inherently irreducible to component parts. Hubert Dreyfus has been the most notable critic of cognitivism from this point of view. Humanistic psychology draws heavily on this philosophy, and practitioners have been among the most critical of cognitivism.

In the 1990s, various new theories emerged that challenged cognitivism and the idea that thought was best described as computation. Some of these new approaches, often influenced by phenomenological and post-modernist philosophy, include situated cognition, distributed cognition, dynamicism, embodied cognition. Some thinkers working in the field of artificial life (for example Rodney Brooks) have also produced non-cognitivist models of cognition.

The idea that mental functions can be described as information processing models has been criticised by philosopher John Searle and mathematician Roger Penrose who both argue that computation has some inherent shortcomings which cannot capture the fundamentals of mental processes.

  • Penrose uses Gödel's incompleteness theorem (which states that there are mathematical truths which can never be proven in a sufficiently strong mathematical system; any sufficiently strong system of axioms will also be incomplete) and Turing's halting problem (which states that there are some things which are inherently non-computable) as evidence for his position.
  • Searle has developed two arguments, the first (well known through his Chinese Room thought experiment) is the 'syntax is not semantics' argument - that a program is just syntax, understanding requires semantics, therefore programs (hence cognitivism) cannot explain understanding. The second, which he now prefers but is less well known, is his 'syntax is not physics' argument - nothing in the world is intrinsically a computer program except as applied, described or interpreted by an observer, so either everything can be described as a computer and trivially a brain can but then this does not explain any specific mental processes, or there is nothing intrinsic in a brain that makes it a computer (program) - both points, he claims, refute cognitivism.

Another argument against cognitivism is the problems of Ryle's Regress or the homunculus fallacy. Cognitivists have offered a number of arguments to refute these attacks.

The focused issues that interest cognitive psychologists consist of the inner mechanism of human thought and the processes of knowing. Cognitive psychologists have attempted to dig out the response to mental structures, such as what is saved and how it is recorded of course in our brain, once more to mental processes concerning how the integration and retrieval of information is operated. The theoretical assumptions in cognitive psychology lend instructional systems a hand in the design of efficient processing strategies for the learners to acquire knowledge, e.g. mnemonic devices to reduce the workload of the short-term memory, rehearsal strategies to maintain information, and the use of metaphors and analogies to relate meaning of the new information to prior knowledge.

Practical applications of Cognitivism in education fall into the practice of teaching and learning. Because cognitive psychology is the studying of mental processes such as perceiving, remembering, and reasoning, four strategies have been found to be most effective in education: retrieval practice, feedback, spaced practice, and interleaving. (

Retrieval practice - Students are asked to take a quiz after a lecture in order to solidify what they have just learned.

Feedback - Students are assessed and given feedback. This helps them reflect on their own learning processes.

Spaced Practice - Students write reflection papers about articles they have read.

Interleaving - Students learning a new language do math problems using that language.

Other real-world applications of Cognitivism include the use of checklists, protocols, and process maps. A powerful example of successful checklist implementation includes the famous Michigan project by Peter Pronovost. He introduced an intensive care checklist protocol that alleviated cognitive overload and encouraged compliance for five specific safety steps. These steps were intended to help prevent hospital acquired infections. During an 18-month period, this checklist saved 1500 lives and $100 million. (  

See also

Further reading


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