Cognitive Development and Change

The term cognition is derived from the Latin word for "knowing." The association between human awareness or consciousness and cognition was perhaps expressed most succinctly by René Descartes in his famous assertion, "Cogito ergo sum" (I know, therefore I am). However, epistemology, the branch of philosophy concerned with the acquisition and elaboration of knowledge, goes back at least to Plato's time. Both Plato and Descartes were believers in "innate ideas," the notion that the contents of the mind are, at least to some extent, inborn. The ensuing philosophical debate over nativism versus empiricism attracted many of the most famous philosophers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Nativists emphasized the inborn nature of human knowledge and mental activity, whereas empiricists maintained that the mind is a tabula rasa —a blank state—at birth, a slate on which experience writes the contents of the mind. Both positions helped shape scientific psychology, but the empiricistic camp had the greatest influence on behaviorism and, through it, on American psychology in the twentieth century.

A great deal of the psychological research during this century has been concerned with human and animal learning. Much of this research was conducted by American psychologists of a behavioristic persuasion and based primarily on an objective, empiricistic tradition. In recent decades, however, there has been a revival of interest in consciousness, thinking, creativity, and other mentalistic concepts. Advances in the measurement and understanding of brain functions and in the treatment of psychological disorders have contributed to this interest.

Among the thousands of research studies on cognition conducted during this century, hundreds have been concerned with individual differences in intelligence, memory, problem solving, and creative thinking. The construction of intelligence tests and other psychological assessment instruments has provided methods for measuring these differences and speculating about their meanings and origins. Behavioral, physiological, and subjective report data obtained from correlational and experimental investigations have been evaluated by various statistical procedures. Among the many correlational studies are those dealing with demographic differences in learning, memory, intelligence, problem solving, and creativity.

While not neglecting other factors that affect or are related to cognitive variables, this chapter focuses on the demographic variable of chronological age. The general question posed by the research studies reviewed here concerns the extent to which the various cognitive measures vary with age during adulthood.

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