Describe the emergence of cognitive psychology and neuroscience – what prompted the development of these fields, and what is significant about the shift from behaviorism to cognitive psychology and neuroscience? What can we understand about human behavior because of neuroscience that we could not have understood before?
Cognitive psychology and neuroscience are complementary sciences which are both interested in the function of the brain and how it impacts human behavior. As early as the 1600’s, there was interest in the role of the brain. Thomas Willi was a physician who treated patients and performed autopsies after their death; he was able to correlate brain injuries with abnormal behavior and sought to understand the connection (Gazzaniga et al., 2019).
Psychologists in the early 20th century tried to explain behavior, personality and mental illness, and the association between rewards and learning became a dominant theory and was thought of as the primary mechanism for behavior. This theory was championed by behaviorists such as B.F. Skinner and Watson, who used experiments to show the association between conditioning and behavior (Gazzaniga et al., 2019). However, scientific exploration of the brain through imaging, autopsy, and the study of epilepsy led to a better understanding of brain function (Gazzaniga et al., 2019). Dutch opthamologist Franciscus Donders created a method for using reaction time to infer cognitive processing, and this helped link together the idea of brain function and behaviors (Gazzaniga et al., 2019).
As psychologists began to look beyond behaviorism for answers to questions about language development, for example, or personality traits, it became necessary to look outside of the limitations of behaviorism and cognitive psychology began to emerge. Scientists in the mid 20th century began to make advances in brain imaging, which could then be used to study things such as blood flow and brain activity in conjunction with thoughts, perception, response time and behavior (Gazzaniga et al., 2019). This cross-section of science and psychology encompasses what cognitive neuroscience is – an interdisciplinary science interested in the two way effect of mental processes and brain/neural function.
Thanks to neuroscientists who studied the relationship between brain function and behavior, such as Dr. Patrcia Goldman-Rakic, mental illnesses like schizophrenia are understood in terms of abnormal dopamine uptake rather than a function of poor parenting or personality defects (Gazzaniga et al., 2019). Likewise, while issues like anxiety and depression can be studied from a purely psychological perspective of mental processes, cognitive neuroscience offers a comprehensive perspective of brain function and how it impacts (and is impacted by) mental processes.