Monday, October 29, 2012

The Brain, Cognitive Function, and Phineas Gage

The Brain, Cognitive Function and Phineas Gage

“For well over a century, scientists have recognized that all the wonders of the mind are the province of the brain” (Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition, n.d., paragraph 1). Researchers have been studying what role the brain plays in cognitive function. The connection is more evident when the brain is dysfunctional (Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition, n.d.). The Phineas Gage accident provides insight into the ways cognitive function is affected, even over a century later. Modern research provides a glimpse into the brain and functioning from injuries such as Gage’s.

The Brain and Cognitive Functions
Each part of the brain has a special role in cognitive functions (Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition, n.d.). Some aspects of cognition that take place in the brain include perception, attention, emotion, planning learning, memory, thinking, and language. In order to study the role of the brain in these functions, researchers study normal brains and damaged brains. In normal brains the performance of cognitive tasks are compared to the deficits of performance in damaged brains (Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition, n.d.). The results of these studies aid researchers in developing theories on how cognitive functions are organized within the brain. The Phineas Gage injury is one case researchers study to learn more about the brain and cognition.

Phineas Gage Accident
On September 13, 1848 Phineas Gage suffered a traumatic brain injury. While working as a foreman for the Rutland and Burlington railroad, he suffered the penetrating head injury. A four foot long iron rod went through his skull. The initial report was that both frontal lobes were damaged. However, using modern computerized tomography (CT) scanning on the skull, it has been reported that the left frontal lobe was the primarily affected area (Grieve, 2010). There are several functions of the frontal lobes. One function is the choosing between good and bad actions. Other functions include suppressing inappropriate social responses, understanding future consequences resulting from current actions and retaining long term memories. The Phineas Gage injury offered researchers much insight into the brain as related to cognitive function.

What was Learned about the Brain and Cognitive Function
   Traumatic brain injuries (TBI’s) cause several changes in a person. These changes include behavioral, social, and emotional (Spitz, Rudzki,  & Maller, 2012). Before the accident, Gage was hard – working and cautious. After the accident, he became irresponsible, drank heavily, and drifted from one wild scheme to another (McGraw - Hill, 2011). Researchers believe this is due to injury to the association areas. The association areas are a major region of the cerebral cortex and the site of higher mental processes. The association areas control functions such as executive, planning, goal setting, judgment, and impulse control. There are personality changes after a type of injury like Gage’s. These changes include careless attitudes, taking risks, changes in sociability, unusual sexual habits as well as others (Grieve, 2010). People with these types of injuries have difficulties with functions like memory, information – processing speed and executive functions. These personality changes affect a person’s ability to make moral judgments. However, the person can still be able to reason logically.

Phineas Gage suffered from a traumatic brain injury that even in these days would be considered a sure fatality (Grieve, 2010). Phineas survived the injury but not without cognitive damage. Over the last century, researchers have learned more about Gage’s injury. Technology such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and computerized axial tomography (CAT) scans has revealed more about the injury and parts of the brain affected. Because of Gage’s injury, researchers have learned more about the brain and how it affects cognitive function.

Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition. (n.d.). Research in the CNBC. Retrieved from

Grieve, A. (2010). Phineas P Gage - 'The Man with the Iron Bar'. Trauma, 12(3), 171-174.

McGraw - Hill (2011). Psychsmart. New York, NY: Author.

Spitz, G., Rudzki, J. L., & Maller, J. J. (2012). Association between cognitive performance and functional outcome following traumatic brain injury: A longitudinal multilevel examination. Neuropsychology, 26(5), 604-612. doi:10:1037/a0029239

Using someone else's work without giving proper credit, is plagiarism. If you use my work, please reference it.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Defining Cognitive Psychology

In the beginning, psychology was defined as the study of the mind. With behaviorism, psychology was known as the study of behavior. Cognitive psychology once again brought the definition around as the study of the mind. Cognitive psychology focused on several different disciplines. Among these disciplines were psychology, linguistics, computer science, philosophy, anthropology, and neuroscience (Watrin & Darwich, 2012). Each discipline offered a different perspective on the subject of cognition. While behaviorism and cognitive psychology both aimed to explain mental processes, there were some differences that set the two apart.

Defining Cognitive Psychology
Cognitive psychology is the field of psychology that emphasizes the study of mental processes (McGraw Hill, 2010). These processes include thinking, language, problem solving, knowing, reasoning, judging and decision making. Cognitive psychology concluded that humans were not pushed or pulled by environmental factors. Instead, humans sought out experiences, altered and shaped experiences and used mental processes to transform information (Wood, Wood,  & Boyd, 2011). Cognitive psychology also studied how people view and understand the world. Subjects wanted to describe the patterns and irregularities during the operation of his or her mind. There were several key milestones in the development of cognitive psychology.

Key Milestones in the Development of Cognitive Psychology
Criticisms of Behaviorism
In the 1950’s, there were problems brought forth in relation to behaviorism. Behaviorists focused more on observable behaviors and not on the importance of genetics. Behaviorism’s main emphasis was that behavior was primarily determined by environment (Wood, Wood,  & Boyd, 2011). Cognitive psychologists studied fixed – action patterns whereas behaviorists had no answers about them. Fixed – action patterns are complex behaviors engaged in with little to no practice or reward (Willingham, 2007). According to behaviorism, such behaviors should require more practice or reward. Chomsky raised the issue of language (Willingham, 2007). He stated that the behaviorists could not account for language. It was his belief that language was generative (Willingham, 2007). Behaviorism explained repeating a behavior after practice or reward. However, behaviorism could not explain displaying behaviors without practice or reward. The main criticism of behaviorism was that it could not explain language or strategies.

Information Processing
In the 19th century the brain was compared to a telephone switchboard. Cognitive psychologists compared it to a computer. Thus, it was believed that humans used representations and processes similar to computers. In using this metaphor, the term information was processing was created when explaining the mind. Information processing is the way people take in, use and store information (McGraw Hill, 2010). Cognitive psychologists concluded that humans take in information (through sight and hearing), transform information (by interpreting it in memory) and then put out information (by speech). When using the computer metaphor, behaviorists only study the screen, which is observable. Cognitive psychologists study the software, which describes the brain (Willingham, 2007).

Artificial Intelligence
Artificial Intelligence can be defined as “the pursuit of intelligent behavior by a computer” (Willingham, 2007, p 29). It can also be defined as “the programming of computer systems to simulate human thinking in making judgments and decisions” (Wood, Wood,  & Boyd, 2011, p 229). There are different types of artificial intelligence programs. One type is the Artificial Neural Network (ANNs). This program mimics human brain functioning. A second type carries out highly specific functions within a limited domain. Research has shown that it would be impossible for a computer to completely replace a human. In fact, many cognitive tasks that humans find easy are difficult to teach a computer (Wood, Wood,  & Boyd, 2011). Many aspects of language processing are difficult for a computer to handle.

There have always been links between brain structure and function. Neuroscience examines how the brain and the nervous system determine behavior (McGraw Hill, 2010). It also studies how a person’s body influences his or her behavior. The neuroscience research that is conducted helps us understand sensory experiences, states of consciousness, motivation and emotion, development through the life span, and physical and psychological health. The research in neuroscience has also led to the creation of medications and treatments for psychological health as well as physiological health (McGraw Hill, 2010). 

Importance of Behavioral Observation in Cognitive Psychology
Behavioral observation is important in cognitive psychology just as it is in behaviorism. Behavioral observation helps researchers test cognitive theories. Whereas behaviorists only studied observable behavior, cognitive psychologists studied mental processes. When studying these processes, researchers explained “how the unobservable processes interacted with the observable world” (Willingham, 2007). Instead of just creating theories of behavior, researchers now named the expected behavior if the cognitive theory was right. There are several types of research that can be used to test theories. These are descriptive, relational, and experimental research. Descriptive research does not provide clear data in cognitive psychology but it is a springboard for other works. Descriptive research is a person’s description of a behavior. This type of research can be collected by naturalistic observation, case studies or self – report. Relational research is closer to what cognitive psychologists need rather than descriptive research (Willingham, 2007). In relational research, two or more aspects of the world are examined and any relationship is determined. This type of research is about associations in behavior. In experimental research, one factor is altered while the effect of the alteration on the other factor is studied. These types of research are important in behavioral observation and helping cognitive psychologists test his or her theories in cognition.

At first, behaviorism was the primary perspective in psychology. In the 1950’s cognitive psychology was introduced and it gained momentum in the 1960’s (Willingham, 2007). The differences in between behaviorism and cognitive psychology became a central debate in the psychological field. Behaviorism focused on the study of observable behavior, however cognitive psychology had answers to questions that behaviorism did not. By studying mental processes such as thinking, language, and reasoning cognitive psychologists expanded the field of psychology to include more than what could be observed (McGraw Hill, 2010).


McGraw Hill (2010). Psychsmart. New York, NY: Author.

Watrin, J., & Darwich, R. (2012). On behaviorism in the cognitive revolution: Myth and reactions. Review Of General Psychology, 16(3), 269-282. doi:10.1037/a0026766

Willingham, D. T. (2007). Cognition: The thinking animal (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Allyn & Bacon.

Wood, S. E., Wood, E. G., & Boyd, D. (2011). The World of Psychology (7th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson/Allyn & Bacon.

Using someone else's work without giving proper credit, is plagiarism. If you use my work, please reference it.