Departments

Cognitive psychology 2/5

Before I attempt a reasoned argument I want to sketch some broad points of discomfort with cognitive psychology.

1​. It is impossible to pay sustained attention to cognitive psychology without suspecting that the point of many experiments is not the paper, but the press release. When we hear “science writer,” we imagine journalists trawling scientific publications for stories with headline appeal. But this is not how it works. Institutions (with what degree of involvement from researchers I do not know) push press releases to sites like EurekAlert!; journalists may check up on them to add human interest; but the transition between experiment and news item happens inside the institution. As a regime of incentives, this strikes me as perverse.

2​. Cognitive psychology is based on the model of the brain as a computer; but this is a trivial statement, nearly a tautology. It implies that a computer is a kind of machine, another something like a clock or car; a sophisticated machine, certainly, but just a machine; just a machine, and the brain just another example.

Cognitive psychology began when the psychologists of the 1960s saw the first electronic computers and found in them an analogy for the mind. Unfortunately this is still true: cognitive psychology still understands the mind as a computer of the 1960s, complete with fMRI blinkenlights.

But this is not what a computer is. The history of computers is not a history of invention; it is a history of discovery. We did not invent computers; we discovered computation. Computation is an aspect of nature, something like heat or gravity, a property of all sufficiently complex systems. If something is not a computer, it is less than a computer. Of course the brain is a computer; and—?

3​. Cognitive psychology and ethics in psychological research are roughly coeval. The obvious suspicion is to wonder: did we discover cognitive psychology because it was the only psychology we could discover ethically? In ages when the human form was held sacred, even after death, anatomy without dissection went badly wrong. Medieval anatomy reflected not the body, but medieval ethics. Does psychology reflect the mind, or does it reflect the ethics that direct our examination of the mind?