37 8.0 Introduction

Cognition is defined as the processes of acquiring and using knowledge. The cognitive approach became the most important school of psychology during the 1960s, and the field of psychology has been enormously influenced by this approach. Cognitive psychologists are interested not just in the content of our thoughts, but in the processes of thinking: reasoning, problem-solving, interpreting, imagining, and so on. The study of these mental processes, and how they relate to our feelings and behaviour, is the focus of cognitive psychology.

The cognitive school was greatly influenced by the development of the computer, and although the differences between computers and the human mind are vast, cognitive psychologists have used the computer as a model for understanding the workings of the mind.

Consider the differences between brains and computers:

  • In computers, information can be accessed only if one knows the exact location of the memory. In the brain, information can be accessed through spreading activation from closely related concepts.
  • The brain operates primarily in parallel, meaning that it is multitasking on many different actions at the same time. Although this is changing as new computers are developed, most computers are primarily serial, meaning they finish one task before they start another.
  • In computers, short-term, random-access memory is a subset of long-term, read-only memory. In the brain, the processes of short-term memory and long-term memory are distinct.
  • In the brain, there is no difference between hardware, such as the mechanical aspects of the computer, and software, such as the programs that run on the hardware.
  • In the brain, synapses, which operate using an electrochemical process, are much slower but also vastly more complex and useful than the transistors used by computers.
  • Computers differentiate memory in the hard drive from processing in the central processing unit, but in brains, there is no such distinction. In the brain, but not in computers, existing memory is used to interpret and store incoming information, and retrieving information from memory changes the memory itself.
  • The brain is self-organizing and self-repairing, but computers are not. If a person suffers a stroke, neural plasticity will help them recover. If we drop our laptop and it breaks, it cannot fix itself.
  • The brain is significantly bigger than any current computer. The brain is estimated to have 25,000,000,000,000,000 (25 million billion) interactions among axons, dendrites, neurons, and neurotransmitters, and that doesn’t include the approximately 1 trillion glial cells that may also be important for information processing and memory.

Although cognitive psychology began in earnest at about the same time that the electronic computer was first being developed, and although cognitive psychologists have frequently used the computer as a model for understanding how the brain operates, research in cognitive neuroscience has revealed many important differences between brains and computers. For more on this, neuroscientist Chris Chatham (2007) wrote 10 Important Differences Between Brains and Computers,” which you might want to check out along with the responses to it.

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