Previously, I’ve looked at various approaches that have been taken to psychology over its history, but now I’m going to talk about one that is still rather popular today. The cognitive approach first became popular around the mid-20th century, coinciding with the invention of the computer. At this time, Alan Turing developed his idea for ‘the Turing machine’, on which modern computers are based. From this premise British spies were able to send, receive and unscramble codes during the Second World War. Some psychologists then became interested in the potential psychological applications of this new idea.
If you could program a computer to act in the same way as humans, this might give us insight into how our actions are internally programmed. Computers work by turning on or off millions of switches, and based on which switches are on, the computer works out what to do. This is all programmed in a binary language, made of just 1s and 0s, where 1 means on, and 0 means off. If we can understand the language by which the brain is controlled, we may be able to understand all brain functions.
The cognitive approach has been particularly useful for showing that human memory can be less reliable and valid than we often think, for example in Loftus and Palmer’s study, which showed that eyewitness testimony should not be trusted in criminal trials. Most modern studies of memory take the cognitive approach, since we can learn about memory by understanding how memory data is stored and structured inside the ‘machine’ that is our brain. One concept used to understand memory storage is ‘schemas’, which can be seen as little packets of information in our mind. Each schema relates to a particular topic or event, for example, we may have a Halloween schema. This would probably contain pumpkins, skeletons and trick or treat-ers. Schemas help us to make sense of our memories, but can also be our downfall, since when we try to recall a memory, unrelated information from the schema may also be picked up. For example, when remembering a Halloween party last year, our mind may automatically assume that there were pumpkins, skeletons and trick or treat-ers at the party, when in fact there were not, but we are so used to the link between Halloween and these objects that we remember incorrectly. This is one way in which past experiences can tamper with our memories, but our memories can also be altered by things that happen after they are made, for example Loftus and Palmer showed that dependant on what questions were asked, people would or would not remember seeing broken glass at the scene of a car crash.
Some argue for a problem with this approach, which is that, we, as living computers, control our own functioning, whereas computers require another entity to program their operations. Where does this control exist in our own brains? Also, though we are able through this approach to suggest possible structures of brain processing, we cannot test or prove these to be right. Just because a computer can do the same function as a human, it does not necessarily mean it does it in the same way.
The cognitive approach is still going strong, but as brain imaging techniques are improving, Neuroscience is becoming a more and more popular way to study the brain. Hopefully as this happens, both cognitive psychologists and neuro-biologists will work together to have a better overall understanding of how the machine that is the mind works.