Q&A with Christian Schunn, Ph.D., Cognitive Psychologist
Q: Can you describe cognitive psychology?
Cognitive psychology is really trying to understand the thinking processes that happen between information coming in to the brain and action being taken. It's not so much about feelings or social relationships. The core of cognitive psychology is about how you see things, recognize things, process language, make decisions and come to conclusions, etc.
Q: How did you become interested in cognitive psychology?
Most people come to cognitive psychology relatively late. You don't really get exposed to cognitive psychology in high school or even until maybe your third psychology class. I knew I was interested in this area even before I knew what it was called, even in high school. I was sitting in class, and I was more interested in how other people were thinking about and learning what was being taught than what was being taught itself.
Q: What kind of preparation/qualities do students need for this field?
People come from all sorts of different areas-biology, philosophy, computer science. The key is that they have relevant research experience in the area. In addition, some quantitative skills are helpful.
Curiosity is a good trait. Are you the kind of person that needs to know why? Do you break things into little pieces?
Q: What kind of cognitive research are you involved in and what kind of research can students expect?
One element I work on is creative cognition-how is it that people are able to invent new things? What are the cognitive processes that make that happen? One of the ideas that we explore is how connections from one setting give you ideas in another setting. Another kind of study looks at how learning changes in different situations. How important is feedback? If you're the kind of person who is really active in trying to make sense of the material, is feedback as important?
Q: What kinds of opportunities are there for students in cognitive psychology outside of research?
Understanding how people process information and think is a basic foundation, which allows you to go into a lot of applied areas. For example, you could work in human factors and help design things that we interact with like cockpits or cell phones. Figuring out the interface for computers and cell phones, builds on cognitive psychology. Another angle is education psychology and the learning sciences-finding out how people learn and applying that to teaching in the classroom. There's also cognitive neuropsychology, which has applications in medical testing, training and rehabilitation.
Q: What can students expect as they pursue a career in cognitive psychology? What are some of the challenges?
Cognitive psychology is one of the basic research areas. Psychology typically gets broken down into: developmental, cognitive, and social psychology. The other areas are layers that are applied on top of these categories. As you're starting in the field, you're often asking yourself do I want to stay basic the whole way or do I want to do more applied work?
The mind is crazy complicated. Generally speaking, most physicists think that cognitive psychology is harder than physics. For ethical reasons, we're not really allowed to break anything the way that physicists are allowed to break atoms. There are so many layers of the human mind that as you try to study one, you can't quite get an answer-there are a lot of influences to consider. It takes a while to make progress. If you're expecting an easy answer, cognitive psychology is not for you.
Q: How has cognitive psychology changed recently?
There have been two big trends. One has been a much larger emphasis on cognitive neuroscience. In all areas, we now know a lot more about how the brain does things. Also, the technology is getting better, and our ability to do fast analysis on billions of bits of data is improving. The second trend is more emphasis on applications. How does [cognitive knowledge] affect real students learning science? Cognitive psychology used to be more abstract lab tests; now it's more about the real-world applications. For instance, there has been a lot of debate about whether you should let people discover answers on their own or whether you should just tell people the answer. It turns out that discovering things completely on your own is incredibly inefficient, and it doesn't give you a leg up over people who were told the answer. Understanding is still important, but we now know that there isn't anything magical about discovery.
Q: What do you see as the future of the discipline?
There will be even more emphasis on cognitive neuroscience. The neuroscience and application sides of cognitive psychology used to move away from each other. Now those two sides are coming together. Neuroscience is starting to have educational connections. We now understand enough about the brain to make informed decisions about how education or computer interaction design, for instance, should change.
Q: Why should someone choose cognitive psychology?
I would say, out of the basic areas, cognitive psychology has the most jobs available. There are a number of larger companies and government labs that have cognitive psychologists on the team. For instance, at NASA, it's important to them that astronauts are keeping their wits about them while they're in space. A cognitive psychologist on the team worries about that.