Cognitive basically means “thinking” – perceiving, memory, language, problem solving, and so on. The cognitive perspective is often seen as a contrast to the radical behavioural view. Early theories suggested that the mind doesn’t exist, or at least, it’s a waste of time talking about it, because the mind is invisible, and behavioural responses tell us more than enough anyway.
In strict historical terms, the “true” Cognitive Movement didn’t start until the late 1950’s. However ideas about the importance of mental processes and consciousness existed long before – in structuralism and functionalism, and especially the Gestalt School. For this reason I’m going to include Gestaltism in “cognitive psychology” even though they’re often considered separately.
Although Psychology began in Germany, it developed in the USA through structuralism, functionalism and behaviouralism. But it was back in Germany that behaviouralism’s major rivals developed, at the same time, in Gestaltism – led by Wertheimer, Koffka and Kohlerr. (Although fate eventually also took them to the USA to escape the Nazi’s in the 1930’s.) They particularly attacked the Wundtian approach of “elementism” A book cover is a good example of the differences between the two schools – Wundtian would see a rectangle, a few symbols and associated details, Gestalist’s would just see the cover, believing that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. There’s no accurate translation of Gestalt (hence the original German word) but, loosely, Gestalt could be considered to mean “form”, “shape”, “pattern” with the emphasis being on the whole.
Gestalt psychologists believe that the mind is active and constantly looking for meanings. They especially studied this in relation to visual perception e.g. recognizing a human face. They suggested that in a strange place, we may look for a familiar face and may even briefly mistake a stranger for someone we know. The roots of Gestaltism – especially the emphasis on the wholeness of perception – can be traced back to Kant. The underlying theme here is that when we perceive, we encounter sensory elements that are meaningfully organized in a “priori” fashion, thus, the mind creates a unitary experience.
Max Wertheimer founded Gestalt Psychology when he published Experimental studies of the perception of movement (1912). This article focussed on the illusion that there is an apparent movement when a series of still images are seen rapidly. That is, of course, the basis of “films” or “movies” – at the rate of 28 frames per second, The exact experiment was switching a light on then off very quickly (60 millisecond intervals) creating an illusion of only one light moving backward and forward, the “Phi Phenomenon” This simple demonstration was important for two reasons – it contradicted Wundt i.e. the simple explanation was that apparent movement existed as it was perceived – it cannot be reduced further. And, it was an appropriate demonstration that the whole is greater than the sum
Wertheimer used two PH.D researchers Kurt Koffka and Wolfgang Kohler. The former published fundamental concepts of Gestalt Psychology in Perception: An Introduction to Gestalt. It is worth noting at this juncture that Gestaltism is much broader – it also includes learning and thinking in general. Koffkas’s Principles of Gestalt Psychology is more definitive. Wolfgang Kohler was the main spokesman. He worked with Max Planck (founder of quantum physics), which strongly influenced his scientific approach. Kohler’s most famous work was studying Chimpanzees on Tenerife in the Canary Islands from 1913 – he continued this work through World War I. Kohler should be thanked for these experiments as he provided us with a fourth major learning theory (alongside Pavlov, Skinners Operant and Bandura’s Social Learning Theories)
Insight Learning Theory (or “Cognitive Learning”) involved Kohler setting simple problem solving tasks involving chimps. For instance he left hollow bamboo sticks of different lengths and thickness outside the cage and pieces of fruit out of reach. After some time the chimp managed to push the narrower stick into the end of the wider stick which he used to drag in the banana.
There are various applications of Gestalt therapy, whereby the therapist will look at the “whole person” – not just the particular signs and symptoms of a problem. A person’s life style may be unsatisfactory: employment, domestic life, eating habits, exercise and activities / interests etc.
A follow up to Gestalism was the cognitive movement. Cognitive psychology, as it’s understood today, didn’t really get going until Bruner and Miller established the “Centre for Cognitive Studies” in 1960 at Harvard Neisser published Cognitive Psychology (1967). The long background to this included not just Gestalt psychologists but the other key individuals e.g. Guthrie and Tolman (and other dissident behaviourists”