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Thinking in pictures vs. thinking in words

Here we begin to explore what the format of knowledge may be like.
We are now in a position to consider the concept of mental representation in more detail. Another computer analogy helps here. In order to log onto a college computer a student is given a username and they decide upon a password. When the student logs on, the computer must access its memory of usernames and passwords and typically these are stored in a data base. There are many different kinds of databases but lets simplify this and think of a large spreadsheet where the rows correspond to different users and the columns hold different kinds of information about them. Column A has the username, column B has the password and so on.
In this case facts about the user are stored as a table and are accessed via a row and a column index. When Harry logs on his username is retrieved from Column A row 1 and the computer checks to see whether he has typed in the correct password - as stored in Column B row 1. To understand what is going on two questions are key what information is being accessed by the computer. In this case usernames and passwords – the data And how is this data stored – in this case in a spreadsheet. Cognitive psychologists have similar concerns. Cognitive psychologists are primarily interested in what knowledge is represented and how these kinds of data are organised in memory.
As we will see many ingenious experiments have been carried out in attempting to throw light on these issues. Consider the question Where is the Eiffel Tower? In answering this question the factual response is Paris but it also highly likely that in answering the question an image of the actual tower sprang to mind. Before progressing it is well documented that individuals vary in their ability to conjure up mental images. Some even report never experiencing mental images – relatively recently this condition has even been given a name – aphantasia. Given this aphantasics may not appreciate some of what is to be discussed.
However many report that when asked to think of the Eiffel Tower, they readily conjure up an image of this famous tower before their mind’s eye. It seems that part of knowing things about the Eiffel Tower implies having some knowledge about what it looks like. A question is therefore how are we to understand such mental pictures. Lets begin with a simple example. Think of triangle. Now we could ask you to draw a triangle on a piece of paper and this would be a picture of the triangle. Alternatively we could ask you to describe the triangle in words. Both convey the notion of a triangle but in very different ways.
What cognitive psychologists have attempted to do is work out is what kind of representation is being used when we think of a triangle. Is the mental representation of the triangle captured in a form of picture or some form of description? Is the mental representation of the triangle picture-like or language-like?

How can we best understand what is going on in our mental modelling exercise?

In this regard, cognitive psychologists have been particularly concerned with trying to answer what is the format of our mental representation of visual input? Rob discusses this by drawing out the distinction between pictures and language.

As the material unfolds we will consider the implications of this in much more detail. As a consequence, we next turn towards the kinds of experiments that have been carried out in a bid to illuminate this fundamental aspect of cognition.

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Introduction to Cognitive Psychology: An Experimental Science

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