Want to keep learning?

This content is taken from the University of York's online course, Introduction to Cognitive Psychology: An Experimental Science. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 7 secondsUntil now we have been predominantly concerned with thinking and reasoning and all of the examples we have considered concern language. Psychologists and linguists study what are known as natural languages - languages that are used by humans to communicate with one another. English and French are examples of natural languages and children that are born into the corresponding cultures naturally acquire them. An important contrast is with other kinds of languages such as computer programming languages like JAVA and PYTHON. These do share certain properties with natural languages but they are very different. Natural languages are special. For instance one thing that is critical is something that is known as productivity.

Skip to 0 minutes and 57 secondsIn being a natural language user you can express an indefinitely large number of sentences – Yes you can say something that no-one else has ever said before! You can also understand an indefinitely large number of sentences that you have never experienced before. See. This essentially limitless ability in communicative power is unique to natural language. Moreover what is true of natural language is also true of thinking – you can come up with and understand an indefinitely large number of thoughts – some of which have never occurred to anyone before. Indeed this line of argument serves us well if we are to explain human creativity in both the arts and the sciences!

Skip to 1 minute and 45 secondsWhat is key here is an appreciation of the flexibility of human thinking. With innovative thinking being reflected in our ability to take basic concepts and combine these in ways that give rise to novel insights. There is productivity in thought in the same way there is productivity in natural language. Some psychologists have gone further and argued that such similarities are not random but do reflect some fundamental facts about how the mind works. They have argued that there is a language of thought. This accords well with our mind as software analogy. Another useful distinction borrowed from computer science is between the program and that data that it operates on.

Skip to 2 minutes and 32 secondsSo there are two sets of questions Questions about the nature of the programming language and Questions about the data operated on. In the same way cognitive psychologists have questions about the nature of mental processes - the language of thought there are also questions about the data that the processes operate on. The critical distinction is between mental processes and mental representation. Cognitive psychologist ask question about how facts about the world are stored in memory. What kinds of things are stored in memory and how are they stored. How facts about the world are represented in the mind. What these questions actually mean is something we will focus on as the material unfolds.

Welcome to Week 3: Thinking visually

We begin with considering some really basic questions about how the mind works and how its workings are revealed by considering the nature of language.

So far we have been, primarily, concerned with problem solving via language-use. But there is far more going on than is revealed by this work.

Rob provides some introductory remarks about basic facts about language and thinking. Being able to think novel thoughts reflects our ability to take simple ideas and combine these in new ways. This amazing ability appears to set us apart from all other animals. To a large degree this reflects being able to call upon stored knowledge that is key to our understanding of the world. We explore the nature of such knowledge as the material unfolds this week.

What sorts of things are at stake here? Well the details will be picked over shortly, but let’s begin by considering how we differ intellectually from the other species. For instance, why is it so easy for us to follow a pointing finger whereas other animals struggle?

Share this video:

This video is from the free online course:

Introduction to Cognitive Psychology: An Experimental Science

University of York

Get a taste of this course

Find out what this course is like by previewing some of the course steps before you join: