1.6 Cognitive Revolution in Psychology

Jan 12, 2020 | ch1 Introduction, Cognitive Psychology, Courses

Psychology was once dominated by behavioral scientists and theories. Then came the cognitive revolution, an explosion of research and findings in the fields of cognitive science and cognitive psychology. In this lesson, you’ll learn about the pioneers of the cognitive revolution.

Before Cognitive Psychology

Before we talk about cognitive psychology, let’s touch on its predecessor: behavioral psychology. Ivan Pavlov conditioned dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell. B.F. Skinner trained rats and pigeons to pull a lever when they wanted food. These two examples highlight two of the most famous behavioral psychologists and two of the most well-known experiments in the history of behavioral psychology. Before the 1950s, behavioral psychology monopolized the field of psychology. That is, until cognitive psychology came into the picture.

Cognitive Psychology

Cognitive psychology is a division of psychology that studies the mental processes of memory, attention, problem solving, emotion, intelligence, learning ability, and perception. To give you an example, the knowledge we have of what a baby can and can’t perceive and understand is within the scope of the field of cognitive psychology. A baby may look at himself in the mirror at 18 months, but not associate his reflection with himself. Just 3 months later, at 21 months, he can recognize his own reflection as an image of himself. How amazing!

The cognitive revolution expanded beyond just cognitive psychology; it encompassed the fields of education, experimental psychology (studying the human mind in a lab or in an experiment), linguistics (study of language), computer science, artificial intelligence, and neuroscience.

The Cognitive Revolution

Traditional behavioral psychologists might not have been ready for cognitive psychology until its birth in the 1950s. After all, behavioral psychology was what made psychology a respectable science because it experimented with objective behaviors that could be translated into meaningful scientific data. Cognition, by contrast, is subjective, therefore making it more difficult to experiment with.

Cognitive psychology became the dominant form of psychology in the 1950s and 1960s in an intellectual era we call the cognitive revolution. The cognitive revolution was pioneered by a number of scholars from Harvard University, including George Miller, Noam Chomsky, Jerome Bruner, and Ulric Neisser.

Cognitive Revolution Pioneers

George Miller

George Miller took computer science concepts of information processing and working memory and applied it to humans. He conducted a famous experiment that concluded that humans could remember an average of seven items at a time, plus or minus two. He published an article entitled ‘The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information’ in 1956. This revolutionary article and its findings had major implications for the way that humans learn.

Jerome Bruner

Also in 1956 came Jerome Bruner‘s A Study of Thinking, which was considered a pioneering work in the field of cognitive psychology and much credited for the commencement of the cognitive revolution. Bruner, a professor at New York University, is known for his contributions to the concept of perception. His studies proved that perception is an active, rather than passive, process in the brain, which was always busy selecting, organizing and interpreting sensory information. These findings, in turn, have major implications in how we learn new concepts.

Bruner published The Process of Education in 1960, which is considered a benchmark book in the field of education. The Harvard Center for Cognitive Studies was established in 1960 by Jerome Bruner and George Miller.

Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky is considered the father of linguistics, so some may wonder why he was a pioneer in the cognitive revolution. It is because of his theory linking acquisition of language to the function of the brain.

Chomsky posited that a child’s capacity for language acquisition is highest between the ages of 3 and 10. He began teaching at MIT in 1955, and in 1957, he published his first book on linguistics, Syntactic Structures, in which he laid out his theories around the brain processes that are involved in language acquisition.

Ulric Neisser

Ulric Neisser may not have been one of the first cognitive psychologists, but he is famous for his groundbreaking research and findings on human memory and intelligence. His 1967 publication of the book Cognitive Psychology gave him the title of the official ‘father of cognitive psychology.’

Lesson Summary

Behavioral psychology was at the forefront of the field of psychology before the 1950s, but then a number of scientists, psychologists and researchers from Harvard University transformed the field of psychology with their groundbreaking findings in cognitive science. This transformation in psychology during the 1950s and ’60s is known as the cognitive revolution.

Cognitive psychology is a division of psychology that studies the mental processes of memory, attention, problem solving, emotion, intelligence, learning ability, and perception. The burning question before the cognitive revolution was, how do we study brain processes as intangible as intelligence and memory? The cognitive revolution pioneers George Miller, Noam Chomsky, Jerome Bruner, and Ulric Neisser each contributed major findings that established cognitive psychology as a credible and influential field in the scientific realm:

  • George Miller took computer science concepts of information processing and working memory and applied it to humans
  • Jerome Bruner proved that perception is an active, rather than passive, process in the brain and is recognized for his contributions to the field of education
  • Noam Chomsky developed a theory linking acquisition of language to the function of the brain
  • Ulric Neisser is known as the father of cognitive psychology for his ground-breaking research on human memory and intelligence
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