The brain is the body’s ultimate control center. It is the most important and the most complex organ in the body. Among other things, the brain is responsible for storing and processing information. A cognitive psychologist specializes in studying the brain and how the human brain learns, processes and recognizes information.
The term “cognitive psychology” was coined by Ulric Neisser in 1967. “Cognition” is defined as “all processes by which the sensory input is transformed, reduced, elaborated, stored, recovered, and used. It is concerned with these processes even when they operate in the absence of relevant stimulation, as in images and hallucinations … cognition is involved in everything a human being might possibly do” (1). Some of the most notable cognitive psychologists include Aaron Beck, Eric Lenneberg and Charles Sanders Peirce.
The most common areas in which cognitive psychologists practice are abnormal psychology (such as the study of depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses), social psychology (studying the way in which humans interact), developmental psychology, educational psychology and personality psychology.
Most cognitive psychologists have a specialty, such as attention, memory, problem-solving, language processing or information processing. They can work with patients with any variety of mental illness, those who may have suffered trauma, or any number of brain disorders. They also can work with patients on a long-term basis, such as those dealing with dementia, or on a short-term basis, such as helping a child with a learning disability learn how to cope with their schoolwork and process the information they receive in school.
Cognitive psychologists work in schools and universities, research facilities, prisons, treatment or rehabilitation centers, government agencies, hospitals or in a private practice setting.
Treating patients is not the cognitive psychologist’s only job. Most cognitive psychologists also teach at the graduate and undergraduate level. They may be professors or academic advisors or they may work with groups of students who are doing research projects.
In addition to teaching, many cognitive psychologists also focus on research. Research is important in the field of cognitive psychology. Many cognitive psychologists are required to participate in research projects and publish their findings in peer-reviewed journals. It is important for cognitive psychologists to pursue their own research in areas that interest them, as well as to research specific projects dictated by employers and universities.
Becoming a cognitive psychologist takes time, dedication and a desire to explore the human brain in all its glory. The education begins with getting a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in psychology. Although a Master of Arts (MA) in psychology can lead to work, many cognitive psychologists are required to have a Ph.D (a doctor of philosophy) in psychology or a Psy.D (a doctor of psychology). They must also be trained in the areas of neuroscience, cognitive learning and conducting.
Following a Ph.D or Psy.D program, cognitive psychologists generally work at internships and at entry-level jobs in order to gain experience and get the hours needed to qualify for the examination for professional practice in psychology that will provide them with their license. Any psychologist wishing to practice in a private setting must pass this test after completing 3,000 hours (approximately two years) of supervised practice. Once certified to practice in a clinical setting, cognitive psychologists are required to take continuing education credits to maintain their license.
If you are interested in a career in cognitive psychology, please be sure to check out the resources for more information.