The Role of Introspection

This post is based on an important book by Scott D. Slotnick titled “Cognitive Neuroscience of Memory.” The initial research approach taken in the early days of psychology was introspection. As all humans can access their own minds, it seemed like an obvious approach, to simply record how humans are using their own minds. Reams of research were collected using this approach. But no theories or hypothesis emerged, nor were there techniques for testing hypotheses, which is central to all science. The result was a radical rejection of this subjective approach and the beginning of behaviorism, in which only observed behaviors were an appropriate source of data for psychologists.

Only recently has introspection been accepted back into rigorous psychological research. Introspection has been found useful in identifying which kind(s) of memory operated during a particular task.

The renowned psychologist Endel Tulving hypothesized that there was a distinction between “remembering” and “knowing.” Tulving recognized this distinction from his own introspections. But he did not stop there. There was research on a patient with a brain lesion who had no detailed memory of the past (he could not remember) but still could define words. Tulving designed and ran experiments to test the hypothesis that “remember” responses and “know” responses were distinct. During one experiment, words were presented during the study phase, and then during the test phase old words and new words were presented and participants made “old” and “new” recognition judgments. For old items correctly classified as “old,” participants also made a “remember” – “know” judgment and a confidence-rating judgment (ranging from 1 to 3 corresponding to low confidence, intermediate confidence, and high confidence). The probability of “remember” responses increased with increasing confidence, while the probability of “know” responses was maximal at the intermediate confidence rating.

These distinct response profiles provide behavioral evidence in support of Tulving’s hypotheses that “remembering” and “knowing” are distinct types of memory. This research is strictly cognitive psychology. However, a large body of research in cognitive neuroscience has subsequently accumulated showing that “remembering” and “knowing” are also associated with distinct regions of the brain.

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