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Discovering Psychology: Updated Edition

Cognitive Neuroscience

Cognitive Neuroscience is the twenty-fifth program in the Discovering Psychology series. This program looks at scientists' attempts to understand how the brain functions in a variety of mental processes. It also examines empirical analysis of brain functioning when a person thinks, reasons, sees, encodes information, and solves problems. Several brain-imaging tools reveal how we measure the brain's response to different stimuli.

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Essay: Understanding Cognitive Neuroscience

The experiments in this program help illustrate not only the brain’s flexibility and responsiveness, but also how we measure these responses and changes. Through a variety of instruments, doctors are able to take pictures of the brain, but only as recently as the 1990s did functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) make it possible to track the specific part of the brain active during a given activity, and how the brain changes as it acquires information and remembers.

Through fMRI technology, researchers have discovered the relationship between different areas of the human brain. For example, we know that the right parietal cortex, the area of the brain involved in visual spatial thinking, is active when a person is presented with a simple, familiar word spelled backwards. This area of the brain receives information and then, based on that information, instructs the left hemisphere, where language skills and systems are stored.

As we learn to do the mental flipping of letters necessary to decode the word, the activity in the right hemisphere actually decreases. Why? Because as we practice the exercise, the right hemisphere of the parietal cortex is working less and the left hemisphere is working more. Ultimately, decoding the words becomes easier because the brain responds to information by building a system to decipher it. Professor John Gabrieli used this experiment to illustrate how we learn to read, slowly at first with the right hemisphere until we do it with ease, relying on the knowledge stored in the left hemisphere.


Amygdala: A portion of the limbic system considered to be the center for certain memories, as well as for emotional reaction, such as aggression.

Computer Assisted Tomography (CAT scan): An instrument for measuring and analyzing the brain’s structure.

Dyslexia: A condition in which the high-speed language processing area of the brain fails to activate, causing difficulty in reading and deciphering particular sounds.

Event-Related Potentials (ERP): An instrument used to measure and record brainwaves during specific cognitive events.

Implicit Attitudes Test (IAT): A method of measuring biological and psychological reaction time when a pair of values are presented.

Parietal Cortex: The part of the brain that determines where objects are in space, and consequently how one needs to react to them.

Position Emission Tomography (PET scan): An instrument used to image the brain during cognitive activity.

Retinotopic Mapping: The process of recording images photographically in the visual cortex for visual processing.