Cognitive Psychology:
Learning, Emotion, and Cognition

By: Dr. Susan Siegfried, Clinical Psychology

Cognitive Learning

When this writers talks about cognition it is inevitable that someone will ask, “How does learning work?”  The truth is that learning is a part of cognition but cognitive neuroscience breaks it down in a way that is unfamiliar to us so we often do not make the connection. Cognitive learning goes back to Wilhelm Wundt (the father of psychology) and then it was picked up with Edward Tolman in the 1930’s. Today cognitive learning is very helpful in explaining both animal and human behavior. It is necessary for our understanding of neuroscience which is the modern version of cognitive learning. Cognitive learning involves the mental processes of attention and memory. It says that learning can occur through observation and imitation. It may or may not involve external rewards or be directly involved with a behavior.

B.F.Skinner (1950s and 1960s) believed the study of cognition was to be the downfall of psychology. He believed that psychology should only study observable behaviors not the cognitive process. However, researchers soon showed that cognitive processes played a big role in both human and animal activities and that these activities could not be understood or explained from must observing them. Today a major goal of psychology is studying cognitive processes.

Edward Tolman was exploring the hidden mental process at about the same time that Skinner was looking at behaviors. He developed the concept of the cognitive map. The cognitive map is a mental representation of an environmental layout or a process.  Albert Bandura (1986) picked up the idea of cognitive mapping which he applied to social learning. He says we observe and form a map in the brain that can be reused in the same or similar situations.  This was the early explanation of learning – forming a cognitive concept (map) storing it for future retrieval or problem solving.

The process of learning involves some biological factors. The first is innate tendencies or predispositions that facilitate learning.  For humans, an example is play.  Children just seem to know how to play and do it whenever or where ever they are. There are also sensitive periods in which it is easier to learn something because of the brain’s predispositions. Learning language is an example. There is a center in the newborns brain for learning language. By their fourth birthday that center is taken over to be used by other synaptic connections. That is why it is easy to learn a language when you are young but more difficult when you are older. Using PET scans we are able to see locations of different types of learning in the brain. That is considered neural science. Cognition is about the process of how all this learned information is stored and retrieved for problem solving.

Emotions and Cognition

The cognitive appraisal theory says understanding or appraisal of a situation, object, or an event can contribute to, or cause the experience of different emotional states. If you were to see a dangerous snake on a nature walk you would immediately experience fear. That fear is there to protect you. Affective neuroscience studies the underlying neural bases of mood and emotion. It looks at the brain’s neural circuits that are involved in evaluating stimuli and that produce or contribute or experiencing and expressing different emotional states. We are faster at detecting targets with emotional content, positive or negative. However we are fastest at detection emotional stimuli that are threatening. It is believed this is a survival technique built into the brain’s basic circuitry.

The amygdala is located in the top of the temporal lobe. It receives input from all of the senses. The amygdala uses this data to monitor and evaluate stimuli. The amygdala is also responsible for storing the memories that have emotional content. It remembers what happy looks like, what anger looks like and it becomes quite sophisticated in detecting emotional lying. If you do not trust someone but you are not sure why it is likely because your amygdala notices something and is trying to protect you. People in the criminal justice actually train their amygdala to detect these tiny ambiguities in facial expressing and body language.

The neural process of emotions is (1) information is taken in by your senses which codes it and sends it to your (2) thalamus. The thalamus sends the information to the brat of the brain that breaks down they type of code.  So, for example if you see something it will go to the visual cortex to break the code and give it meaning. The information is then sent to the (3) amygdala to interpret the meaning. There is some evidence that is the case of serious danger the amygdala will get the code directly and act directly for the immediate safety. This action is not understood verbally. Once you are safe the visual cortex will give understandable meaning to the code. (4) From there the information goes to the prefrontal cortex where your complex cognitive functions lay. Immature neural connections can cause faulty functioning of the system resulting in impulsivity, aggression, violence and phobias.

It should be noted that all cognitive functioning passes through the amygdala as some point or another. There is no memory that is free of emotion. Emotions are stored with the memory and when the memory is recalled the emotion is also re-experienced.


B.F.Skinner (1950s and 1960s)

Edward Tolman

Albert Bandura (1986)