Cognitive Neuropsychology

Cognitive neuropsychology is concerned with the patterns of cognitive performance in brain-damaged patients. Those aspects of cognition that are intact or impaired are identified, with this information being of value for two main reasons. First, the cognitive performance of brain-damaged patients can often be explained by theories within cognitive psychology. Such theories specify the processes or mechanisms involved in normal cognitive functioning, and it should be possible in principle to account for many of the cognitive impairments of brain-damaged patients in terms of selective damage to some of those mechanisms.

Second, it may be possible to use information from brain-damaged patients to reject theories proposed by cognitive psychologists, and to propose new theories of normal cognitive functioning. According to Ellis and Young (1988, p. 4), a major aim of cognitive neuropsychology:

is to draw conclusions about normal, intact cognitive processes from the patterns of impaired and intact capabilities seen in brain-injured patients...the cognitive neuropsychologist wishes to be in a position to assert that observed patterns of symptoms could not occur if the normal, intact cognitive system were not organised in a certain way.

The intention is that there should be bi-directional influences of cognitive psychology on cognitive neuropsychology, and of cognitive neuropsychology on cognitive psychology. Historically, the former influence was the greater one, but the latter has become more important.

Before discussing the cognitive neuropsychological approach in more detail, we will discuss a concrete example of cognitive neuropsychology in operation. Atkinson and Shiffrin (1968) argued that there is an important distinction between a short-term memory store and a long-term memory store, and that information enters into the long-term store through rehearsal and other processing activities in the short-term store (see Chapter 6). Relevant evidence was obtained by Shallice and Warrington (1970). They studied a brain-damaged patient, KF, who seemed to have severely impaired short-term memory, but essentially intact long-term memory.

The study of this patient served two important purposes. First, it provided evidence to support the theoretical distinction between two memory systems. Second, it pointed to a real deficiency in the theoretical model of Atkinson and Shiffrin (1968). If, as this model suggests, long-term learning and memory depend on the short-term memory system, then it is surprising that someone with a grossly deficient short-term memory system also has normal long-term memory.

The case of KF shows very clearly the potential power of cognitive neuropsychology. The study of this one patient provided strong evidence that the dominant theory of memory at the end of the 1960s was seriously deficient. This is no mean achievement for a study on one patient!

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