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Major subdisciplines in psychology

Some of the major subdisciplines that have become well established within psychology are explored in this section.

Cognitive Psychology

Cognitive psychology is the science of how we think, remember, and learn. It is concerned with internal mental processes, such as receiving, collecting, and retrieving information. This subdiscipline developed in the 1950's as a criticism of behaviourism which was the dominant perspective in psychology. This shift towards understanding the internal processes involved in behaviour became known as the 'cognitive revolution'.

Some of the key concepts, issues and debates within cognitive psychology include:

Methodologies and Applications

Much of what is known about internal mental processes in cognitive psychology is a result of observing brain activity using technologies, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and experiments conducted under controlled conditions. You can browse and try out resources for cognitive psychology experiments on the PsyToolkit website.

Cognitive psychology is very versatile due to the large number of professions that benefit from knowing how the brain processes information. Practical applications of cognitive psychology involve understanding and treating issues related to human, mental processes, including Alzheimer's disease, speech issues, memory loss and sensory or perception difficulties (APA, 2022). Perhaps the most rapidly growing application of cognitive psychology is in Artificial Intelligence (AI). Cognitive psychology views the mind as a computer, which processes input and produces output. But to what extent can a computer function like a human brain? There is a long-standing debate about this because if AI can perform tasks more efficiently than humans, ultimately, they could replace many, or indeed most human workforces. However, the brain–computer metaphor could be limited by the extent to which AI can make human-like judgements, such as unpredictable decisions and moral reasoning (Dillion et al., 2023).

Activity: Cognitive psychology experiments

In this activity, you can take part in two short, fun experiments used by cognitive psychologists to understand attention and problem solving.

This activity should take no longer than 10 minutes; you do not need any feedback.

Experiment 1: This video demonstrates a fun experiment in selective attention that you can take part in by counting the number of times people in white t-shirts pass the ball.

You can read more about this experiment on "The invisible gorilla" website.

selective attention test

View selective attention test video transcript

Suggested wider reading

Evidence suggests that this phenomenon is not limited to visual perception, but may also affect auditory processing. You can read about the auditory gorilla" in this research article by Dalton and Fraenkel (2012) that is available through your online reading list:

Dalton, & Fraenkel, N. (2012). Gorillas we have missed: Sustained inattentional deafness for dynamic events. Cognition, 124(3), 367–372.

Experiment 2: 'The Tower of Hanoi' puzzle is used by cognitive psychologists to study problem solving. You can try a simple version of the puzzle, which is available through the PsyToolkit website.

If you solved the puzzle, consider the mental processes that occurred in how you solved the puzzle – did you have a moment of 'insight'?

This activity should take no longer than 10 minutes; you do not need to submit any work.

Suggested wider reading

If you would like to learn more about this subject, you may wish to investigate the following text, which is available through your online reading list:

You may also wish to investigate the Trends in Cognitive Sciences journal.