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Measuring the mind

In this video Rob discusses the scientific method and why it can be used to study how the mind works.
We have characterised cognitive psychology as an experimental science. This is true because cognitive psychology adopts the scientific method. So what is the scientific method? In simple terms it is the process of coming up with a scientific question and then generating an adequate test of that question. A scientific question is a question that can be answered by using observation and if possible a test. One such question a cognitive psychologist might ask is “Is it easier to mentally add 5 and 15 than it is to divide 5 by 15?” This is a scientific question because we can set up a simple test of the question and observe how long it takes people to solve such mathematical puzzles.
The easier the puzzle the more quickly and accurately people will be in solving it. In the world of science, the word ‘test’ is typically understood in terms of running an experiment. Hence the scientific method boils down to generating predictions and testing these in experiments. In a typical experiment an aim is to keep everything the same except the one thing you are interested in. Keep everything constant except for the thing you are varying and see what happens. The basic assumption is that if something happens then must be linked to changes in the thing you are varying. But to be sure, repeat the experiment and check that the results are the same.
Part of engaging in science is to generate testable predictions that support reproducible findings. If the original findings are robust then they should be the same as before when you run the test again. In other cases we cannot manipulate anything in a meaningful way. For instance, our knowledge of the milky way has come about through our understanding of how things come about on earth and by simply observing how the stars behave over time. In this case we change nothing but merely record repeated observations. So we have two forms of scientific methods available to us – First, change one thing and only one thing and observe what happens - this form of test we call an experiment.
The second form is where we simply observe – this is more generally known as an observational study We will explore examples of both as the material unfolds. It may come as something of a surprise but anything can be studied scientifically a long as testable predictions can be made about that thing. And this is true even if the thing cannot be observed or measured directly. So yes we can carry out a scientific study of extraterrestrials as long as we can generate testable predictions about them and make observations or take measurements. Now whereas no-one has ever been able to do this convincingly with space aliens, cognitive psychologists have made considerable advances in understanding the workings of the mind.
You will come to appreciate this as we progress through the course.

The mind as a black box?

The challenge for cognitive psychologists is to try to work out what is going on inside the black box. However, not all psychologists are entirely happy with this and, historically, a very different view was more popular.

Early on in the 20th century, psychologists were determined to only consider the input to and the output from the black box. They were focused on what kind of input brings about a given output. And because of this they discussed the difference between the stimulus (the input) and the response (the output). Now with this kind of psychology both the stimulus and the response can be directly observed and measured. This kind of enterprise is exactly analogous to the hard sciences (i.e., Physics and Chemistry) that deal with directly observable things.

Psychology characterised thus was known as Behaviourism – the science of behaviour.

Let’s pause slightly and consider the kind of things that go on in the hard sciences. The ultimate objective in these sciences is to describe the laws of nature. If we can provide such a law, then we can predict with certainty what will happen if particular circumstances obtain.

If we lower the temperature of water enough it will freeze.

For those familiar with Physics, success has been achieved in the generation of the laws of thermodynamics. For Behaviourists the aspiration was to develop a science of psychology in pursuit of the laws of behaviour.

The overall aim was to be able to predict the circumstances under which a given behaviour would occur and therefore set out the laws of behaviour.

Cognitive psychologists have other aspirations. Simply concentrating on stimuli and their associated responses misses out on investigating what might be described as the internal workings of the mind. Cognitive psychologists attempt to understand what is going on inside the black box.

A really useful analogy here is with understanding the operation of a modern computer – well ok a smart phone. If we are to understand the operation of a smart phone, we need to consider a lot more than how it reacts when we speak into it and press the touch screen.

It is possible to distinguish hardware from software.

  • Hardware is simply all of the physical constituents of the phone its casing, screen, camera and all of the internal bits and pieces (the electronics, the computer chips, the sim card).

  • Software refers essentially to all of the programming code that runs on the phone, that is, the operating system and the different apps.

We need to understand the nature of both the hardware and the software if we are to understand how a smart phone works.

For cognitive psychologists, the hardware/software distinction has been used by analogy to separate out discussion of the brain (the hardware) from discussion of the mind (the software). Cognitive psychologists are trying to figure out how this kind of software works.

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Introduction to Cognitive Psychology: An Experimental Science

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