Cognitive Psychology is one of the most significant and fundamental subfields of the larger field of psychology. The subfield of cognitive psychology is concerned with the basic processes and functions of the mind, including how we perceive the world around us, how we process sensory input, how we understand and use language, and how we utilize our perceptions of the world to make decisions (Eysenck and Keane, 2010). In a sense, most –or even all- other subfields of psychology are built on the foundation laid by cognitive psychologists. In order to explore other specific subfields and aspects of psychology, it is first necessary to understand how the mind perceives and processes information about the world; as such, cognitive psychology is among the most important of all the subfields of psychology.
Cognitive psychologists seek answers to a number of questions, all of which are related in one way or another to the basic question of how the mind works. Research in this subfield examines how the information received from the senses is processed into our perceptions of the world around us (Gellatly and Braisby, 2012). Further questions ask how the mind sifts through the available information in order to utilize some of it while ignoring the rest; in other words, how and why we pay attention to some things and not others (Gellatly and Braisby). Beyond the immediate use of information cognitive psychologists also ask how information is stored as memories and recalled for later use (Gellatly and Braisby). Among the most important uses of perception and memory involves the human capacity for language (Eysenck and Keane), and cognitive psychologists attempt to answer questions about how we utilize language and, on a more general level, how we think.
Cognitive psychology uses a number of techniques to better understand how the mind works. Among these techniques is the use of experimental procedures that examine behavior. Such experiments can take many forms, from experiments that study subjects’ abilities to form memories to experiments that examine how subjects respond to visual or aural stimuli (Gellatly and Braisby). This behavioral approach to cognitive psychology is also supported by research into how the brain acts or functions while subjects are engaged in specific activities; by utilizing these complimentary approaches, researchers can attempt to uncover the connections between mental processes related to perception and thinking and the physiological functions of the brain that are associated with these mental processes.
One of the primary criticisms of cognitive psychology, especially when the subfield was younger, was that its reliance on behavioral studies did not offer enough insight or understanding of internal processes related to behavior (Eysenck and Keane). As the field has advanced, and more research has been done that connects mental processes with physiological processes, evidence has supported the connection between the physiological functions of the brain and the mental processes of the mind (Gellatly and Braisby). The nature of the subfield of cognitive psychology means that it is a research-intensive realm of inquiry; as such, jobs in cognitive psychology are likely to be related to working in laboratories and other experimental settings, as opposed to the clinical settings in which practitioners of some other subfields of psychology might work.
If cognitive psychology emphasizes the behavioral aspect of how the mind works, then the biological neuroscience can be seen as a complimentary approach to the same area of inquiry, though one that emphasizes the physiological aspects of psychological processes. Biological neuroscience examines how the mind works as a function of brain physiology, nerve and neurotransmitter activity, genetic makeup, and other physiological activity and structure (Klein, 2006). In the simplest sense, this area of inquiry examines the biological basis for and connection with psychology.
Biological neuroscience asks many of the same questions that are explored in the subfield of cognitive psychology. This subfield is interested in understanding the nature of perception, thought, the formation and use of memory, and the use of language. While cognitive psychologists often emphasize a behavioral approach to understanding the nature of perception and other mental processes, psychologists working in the realm of neuroscience to explore how the brain and other anatomical structures are involved in these same processes.
Neuroscience uses a number of techniques and methods to examine the structure of the brain and the nervous system. Research is often conducted on laboratory animals such as monkeys and rats, based on the underlying assumption that the similarities between these animals and humans can shed light on how the human brain works (Weiner and Nelson, 2012). One way to study the brains of animals is to purposely create lesions in the brain to examine how the damage from the lesion affects the subjects’ behavior (Weiner and Nelson). For human subjects, Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG) techniques are used to examine how the brain functions and observe connections between behavior and physiology (Klein). Other areas of inquiry include the study of genetics and their relationship to physiology, behavior and heredity in the context of psychology. One of the primary criticisms of the techniques use in this subfield, and of the subfield in general, is that they offer insight into what happens in the brain without answering the question of why it happens (Weiner and Nelson). Despite such criticisms, the subfield of biological psychology has made significant advances in terms of understanding how the brain works and showing what areas of the brain and other physiological functions are connected with behavior and mental processes.
Similarly to the field of cognitive psychology, biological/neuroscience psychology is a research-intensive area of inquiry. Jobs in this subfield include everything from the technicians who operate equipment in the laboratory to those who design and carry out research experiments. Both subfields of psychology have grow significantly in the past few decades, and each has complimented the other by offering greater insight into the connection between the brain and the mind.
Eysenck, M. W., & Keane, M. T. (2010). Cognitive Psychology. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis Group.
Gellatly, A., Braisby, N., & Oxford University Press (2012). Cognitive psychology. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Klein, S. B. (2006). Biological psychology. Upper Saddler River, N.J: Prentice Hall.
Weiner, I. B., Nelson, R. J., & Mizumori, S. J. (2012). Handbook of psychology: behavioral neuroscience. Hoboken, N.J: Wiley.