On August 17th, 1990, the evening before his death, B. F. Skinner put the finishing touches on his last journal article (Skinner, 1990; also see Skinner, 1987). This paper represented Skinner’s final critique of what had become the dominant theoretical approach in experimental psychology: the cognitive approach. Skinner criticized the cognitive approach by arguing that its main concepts and general principles are derived from prescientific beliefs about the mind and human nature — “folk” beliefs that are common in the Western world (such as religious beliefs about the soul). According to Skinner, we explain behavior in everyday life by using:
a language that came into existence long before there were philosophers or scientists of any kind. It is properly called a vernacular [the language or dialect spoken by ordinary people]…. We all speak it. It is the language of newspapers, magazines, books, radio, and television. When speaking of the behavior of the individual, it [also] is the language of the behavioral scientists…. The attempt [by psychologists] to use the apparent references to an initiating mind and to convert the vernacular into the language of science [is], however, a mistake. … There is no place in a scientific analysis of behavior for a mind or self…. (p. 1209; emphasis added)
As you already know, Skinner argued that mental factors do not cause behavior: behavior is caused by “histories of selection,” by which he meant, in part, past experiences that underlie the learning of new ways of responding to environmental stimuli. In fact, Skinner argued that mental events also are behavior and therefore, that they are learned in the same way that any other kind of behavior is learned: what you are thinking right now is the result, at least in large part, of what you have experienced in the past and your current situation. Thus, thinking had no special place in Skinner’s approach.
In his 1990 paper, Skinner expressed what he must have thought was a damning allusion: “Cognitive science is the creation science of psychology” (p. 1209). Here, Skinner was saying that cognitive scientists were not really scientists at all. This paper, however, was the “last gasp” of the Skinnerian approach, as well as of other behavioristic approaches. The reality was that, beginning around 1960, experimental psychologists increasingly began to see the fundamental importance of cognitive factors for understanding behavior and, because they no longer were in the thrall of behaviorism, they focused their research more and more on understanding how cognitive processes produce both adaptive and maladaptive responses to the environment. Many cognitively-oriented experimental psychologists even began to refer to their field as cognitive psychology.
Since the 1960s, cognitive psychologists have used the (so-called) computer model of the mind in their work (Gardner, 1985). A model is a speculative description of a complex process or entity. An everyday example of a model would be an organizational chart, which describes important links among different individuals or departments in an organization — for instance, which individuals or departments “come under” other individuals or departments. A model is meant to serve as a simplified approximation of the “thing” it describes. In science, models are used to guide research, especially in its early stages.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, computer scientists developed information-processing models to describe how information flows through computer systems. In these models, information first is entered into the computer (the input), the computer then processes this information according to a program, and finally the results of this information processing are produced (the output). In the computer model of the mind, sensory information represents the input, a set of mental processes represents the program that processes this sensory information, and the output is a behavior, a perception, a decision, a judgment, etc. (see Figure 1).
Because of its focus on the processing of information, the cognitive approach sometimes is referred to as the information-processing approach. By thinking of the functioning of the mind as being analogous to the processing of information by a computer, cognitive psychologists were able to apply the insights of computer science to their research. The primary goal of cognitive psychology thus became the description of the mental processes that allow us to make sense of and respond adaptively to the world around us.
The Cognitive Approach to the Study of Memory
Oliver Sacks (1985) described a patient whom he called “Jimmie G.” Jimmie, when first interviewed by Sacks in 1975, was a 49-year-old man who, although talkative, also seemed confused and disoriented at times. He could recall many details about his boyhood town and the people whom he had known there, as well as about his service in the United States Navy during World War II as a radio operator on a submarine. As Sacks described it, Jimmie spoke with fondness and emotion as he recalled these intimate memories in great detail:
With recalling, reliving, Jimmie was full of animation; he did not seem to be speaking of the past but of the present, and I was very struck by the change of tense in his recollections as he passed from his school days to his days in the navy. He had been using the past tense, but now used the present — and (it seemed to me) not just in the formal or fictitious present tense of recall, but the actual present tense of immediate experience. (p. 24)
When Sacks asked Jimmie what year it was and how old he was, Jimmie answered, “1945” and stated that he was only 19 years old:
Looking at the grey-haired man before me, I had an impulse for which I have never forgiven myself. … ‘Here,’ I said, and thrust a mirror toward him. ‘Look in the mirror and tell me what you see. Is that a nineteen-year-old looking out from the mirror?’
[Jimmie] suddenly turned ashen and gripped the sides of the chair. ‘Jesus Christ,’ he whispered. ‘Christ, what’s going on? What happened to me? Is this a nightmare? Am I crazy? Is this a joke?’ — and he became frantic, panicked. (p. 25)
Distressed by Jimmie’s reaction, Sacks distracted him by having him look at the view outside the hospital window and quickly left the room. Two minutes later, Sacks returned. Jimmie greeted him as if he were meeting Sacks for the first time in his life:
‘Hiya, Doc!’ he said. ‘Nice morning! You want to talk to me — do I take this chair here?’ There was no sign of recognition on his frank, open face.
‘Haven’t we met before, Mr. G.?’ I asked casually.
‘No, I can’t say we have. Quite a beard you got there. I wouldn’t forget you, Doc!’ (p. 25)
For Jimmie, the present was some time just after the end of World War II and he remembered almost nothing after that time. In short, he was suffering from extreme amnesia — a loss of memory caused by disturbances in the mental processes underlying memory formation, memory storage, and/or memory recall.
Amnesia is indicated when a person shows forgetting that is much greater than that seen in normal, everyday forgetting. For example, although you probably have forgotten what you had for dinner seven nights ago, this is true for most people and, hence, involves only normal, everyday forgetting. If, on the other hand, you have forgotten what you ate 30 minutes ago, which is an unusual amount of forgetting for such a short time period, it is much more likely that you are suffering from amnesia. Jimmie forgot almost everything from about 1945 to 1975 and, although virtually everyone forgets most life events over the course of 30 years, they typically remember the passing of the years and can recall many events that occurred during that time. The fact that Jimmie could not do so indicated that he had severe amnesia.
Jimmie exhibited two major types of amnesia: anterograde and retrograde amnesia (see Section 3-5). Anterograde amnesia is an inability to store new long-term memories during a period of time beginning with and after the occurrence of a trauma or the onset of a brain disease. For example, when people hit their heads hard, such as in a car accident, they sometimes suffer from anterograde amnesia: they have trouble remembering an event for longer than about 20 seconds; and this problem may continue up to several hours after the accident. The fact that Jimmie could not remember events for more than about 20 seconds after they happened shows that he suffered from anterograde amnesia. Retrograde amnesia is an inability to retrieve long-term memories during a period of time before and up to the occurrence of a trauma or the onset of a brain disease. The fact that Jimmie could remember virtually nothing going back in time to 1945 (again, the year was 1975), although he had been able to remember these events until his problems had first developed about 20 years later, shows that he suffered from retrograde amnesia.
Jimmie’s memory problems were due to a disorder called Korsakoff’s Syndrome (see Victor & Yakovlev, 1955, for a translation of Korsakoff, 1889), which is a medical disorder involving damage to the mammilary bodies, two small structures in the limbic system (one in the right hemisphere and one in the left hemisphere) that are connected to the hippocampi. As you learned in Section 3-5, the hippocampus is important for memory formation: when the hippocampus in each hemisphere is damaged, people typically suffer from severe anterograde amnesia. Thus, it seems likely that the mammillary bodies interact with the hippocampi in forming new memories. In Korsakoff’s Syndrome, the damage to the mammillary bodies is caused by a severe deficiency of thiamine (Vitamin B1), which generally is associated with long-term abuse of alcohol. Chronic alcoholics often do not eat properly and also may have difficulty absorbing vitamins during digestion. Jimmie’s retrograde amnesia was caused by damage to other areas of his brain, especially the cerebral cortex, which is thought to be important for most long-term memories. (You can learn more about “organic amnesias” such as Jimmie’s in Shimamura, 1992).
Study Questions for Section 5-3
- What was B. F. Skinner’s major criticism of cognitive psychology?
- What is the major goal of the cognitive approach in psychology?
- What are “scientific models” and how are they used in research?
- What is the computer model of the mind?
- What was the main influence on the development of the computer model of the mind?
- What is the information-processing approach and how is it related to the computer model?
- How would you define amnesia in your own words?
- How did the case of Jimmie illustrate the concept of amnesia?
- How is anterograde amnesia similar to and different from retrograde amnesia?
- What are the causes and symptoms of Korsakoff’s Syndrome?
- Does Korsakoff’s Syndrome produce anterograde amnesia, retrograde amnesia, or both?
Gardner, H. (1985). The mind’s new science: A history of the cognitive revolution. New York: Basic Books.
Korsakoff, S. S. (1889). Psychic disorder in conjunction with multiple neuritis. Ezhened. Klin. Gaz., 9, 85, 115, 136 [see Victor & Yakovlev, 1955]
Sacks, O. (1985). The man who mistook his wife for a hat and other clinical tales. New York: Harper & Row.
Skinner, B. F. (1987). Whatever happened to psychology as the science of behavior? American Psychologist, 42, 780-786. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.42.8.780
Retrieved October 29, 2011, from http://www.csom.umn.edu/assets/95164.pdf
Skinner, B. F. (1990). Can psychology be a science of mind? American Psychologist, 45, 1206-1210. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.45.11.1206
Retrieved October 29, 2011, from http://business.nmsu.edu/~mhyman/M670_Articles/Skinner_AP_1990.pdf
Shimamura, A. P. (1992), Organic amnesia. In L. R. Squire (Ed.), Encyclopedia of learning and memory (pp. 30-35). New York: Macmillan. Retrieved October 29, 2011, from http://ist-socrates.berkeley.edu/~shimlab/1992_Amnesia_Shimamura.pdf
Victor, M., & Yakovlev, P. I. (1955). S. S. Korsakoff’s psychic disorder in conjunction with peripheral neuritis: A translation of Korsakoff’s original article with brief comments on the author and his contribution to clinical medicine. Neurology, 5, 394-406.