Science, models and the mind

By: Abstract from the book: Cognitive Psychology

If cognitive psychology is concerned with the processes and representations of the mind, and these cannot be directly observed, how can cognitive psychologists bridge the gap? How do we speculate about the nature of something we cannot observe, while remaining scientific? There are broadly three kinds of answer.

First, as we have already discussed, scientific theories commonly invoke unobservable theoretical entities to account for observational data (e.g. force fields, electron energy levels, genes or cognitive operations).

The second answer builds on the first. When a theory hypothesizes an unobservable, theoretical construct, a model needs to be specified of the relationship between the construct and the behaviour to be explained. It would have been insufficient for Newton to have tried to explain why things fall to Earth by simply invoking the notion of gravitation. He went further and derived equations to model the effects of gravity, which can be used to generate predictions about how gravity ought to work for things whose motion has not yet been systematically observed. So physicists could then perform studies in order to confirm the predictions (that is, until Einstein’s theories of relativity, but that is another story).

Cognitive psychology proceeds in a similar way. Consider again the example of language. Cognitive psychologists have made numerous detailed observations of the production (and comprehension) of language (you can find discussions of these in Chapters 6 and 7). Explaining these observations, however, seems to require positing things internal to the mind that are involved in producing the observed behaviour. These are the unobservable, theoretical constructs of mental processes and structures. Positing these, of course, is just the starting point. The challenge for cognitive psychologists has been to say more. They have to develop models of these mental structures and processes, show how they give rise to the observed behaviour, and, importantly, show how successfully they predict behaviour that has not yet been systematically studied in experiments.

Developing a model is not easy; Newton apparently needed the inspiration provided by an apple falling to Earth (or so the story goes). And much of the challenge facing cognitive psychologists is to harness their creativity and imagination in order to suggest plausible models. Throughout your reading of this book, you might wish to consider how you would have responded to some of the problems described. You might want to consider what would constrain your choice of model, what kinds of model you would have developed, and how you would have set about doing this. Without doubt, these are difficult questions – so don’t lose too much sleep over them! – but they at least serve to show how creative cognitive psychology is. Creative too is the matter of devising studies in order to evaluate a model. By working out the predictions a model might make, psychologists can evaluate it by devising studies to test its predictions, and by then making the relevant behavioural observations.

Read more from the book: Cognitive Psychology