What, Where, and Why

What Cognitive Psychology Can Contribute to Clinical Assessment
  • Marcie Wallace Ritter
  • Lisa Morrow
Part of the Critical Issues in Neuropsychology book series (CINP)


Cognitive psychology is the science of discovering the mechanisms by which the brain processes the outside world. By examining behavior, cognitive psychologists attempt to infer the existence of systems in the brain that work together to analyze conditions external and internal to the animal (usually humans) and to decide what actions should be produced. Cognitive psychology evolved as a reaction to behaviorism, which was popular in the mid-1900s. Behaviorism said that the mind was an impenetrable black box and science could only study the inputs and the resulting outputs and should not make assumptions about the operations that connect the two. In contrast, cognitive psychology’s main goal is to understand the transformations that occur between the input the organism receives and the output or behavior the organism produces. The types of behaviors (and underlying systems) that cognitive psychologists study include: learning, memory, attention, visual perception, reasoning, and language perception (reading and hearing) and production (writing and speaking). Cognitive psychology seeks to understand how the brain translates the pattern of photons hitting the retina (in seeing) or the pattern of sound waves hitting the eardrum (in hearing) into meaningful units. These meaningful units must be interpreted so the organism knows how to respond to its environment immediately and how it might be stored for later reference. To accomplish these goals, the brain comprises a conglomeration of multiple subsystems that have specialized duties. Cognitive psychology studies what goes in and what comes out in order to try and understand the organization of these subsystems and how they work together in order to produce a unified cognitive experience. The related field of cognitive neuropsychology has similar goals and accomplishes them by the study of how these subsystems work and how they fail when brain damage occurs. By studying the types and co-occurrences of failure, its goal is to learn how the various systems work together or independently of one another. Posner and Rafal (1987) explain a cognitive system as being

...similar to what is known in physiology as an organ system—a set of component functions performed in pursuit of a common goal by several specialized organs.... Similarly, a cognitive system is a set of mental operations performed in pursuit of common processing goals that are carried out by a common neural system. (pp. 186–187)

The goal of cognitive psychology and cognitive neuropsychology is to discover those component functions that define the various systems.


Occipital Lobe Visual Neglect Visual Agnosia Unilateral Neglect Contralesional Side 
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1997

Authors and Affiliations

  • Marcie Wallace Ritter
    • 1
  • Lisa Morrow
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyCarnegie-Mellon UniversityPittsburghUSA
  2. 2.Western Psychiatric Institute and ClinicPittsburghUSA

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