Biography of Ulric Neisser: The Father of Cognitive Psychology

Get to know a little of the life story of Ulric Neisser, the father of Cognitive Psychology .

Born in Kiel, Germany, Ulric Neisser went to the United States, together with his parents, at the age of three. He started university studies at Harvard, majoring in physics. He was impressed by a young psychology professor, named George Miller, who spoke about the psychology of communication and information theory . He also says it was influenced by the book Koffka, Principles of Gestalt Psycology ( Principles of Gestalt Psychology ). After obtaining a bachelor’s degree from Harvard in 1950, Ulric Neisser received a master’s degree from Swarthmore College, studying under the guidance of Gestalt psychologist Wolfgang Köhler. He returned to Harvard to obtain a Ph.D, which he completed in 1956.

Abraham Maslow and Ulric Neisser: Humanistic Psychology and Cognitive Psychology

Despite the growing interest in the cognitive approach to psychology , Ulric Neisser saw no way out of behaviorism , as he wanted to pursue an academic career. “There was no other option. We were in an era when the phenomena of psychology would be considered real only if demonstrated in a laboratory rat ”(apud Baars, 1986, p. 275).

  • Differences between Cognitive Psychology and Behaviorism

However, Ulric Neisser was lucky, as his first academic position was at Brandeis University, where the director of the psychology department was Abraham Maslow (yes, the one in the needs pyramid ). At that time, Maslow was moving away from his behaviorist background to develop the humanist approach to the field.

Maslow failed to convince Ulric Neisser to become a humanist psychologist, or to make humanist psychology the third strength of the discipline , but it did provide Ulric Neisser with the opportunity to pursue his interest in cognitive issues. (Ulric Neisser later claimed that cognitive psychology and not humanism was the third force in psychology.)

The father of Cognitive Psychology

In 1967, Ulric Neisser, published the work Cognitive psychology ( Cognitive Psychology ) and claimed that this was a personal book, an attempt to define himself and the type of psychologist he wanted to be.

The work was also a milestone in the history of psychology , an attempt to define a new treatment for discipline. The work became extremely well known, and Neisser was embarrassed to be identified as the “father” of cognitive psychology .

Although he did not wish to found any school of thought, his work helped to move psychology away from behaviorism, pushing it towards cognitivism . Even so, Ulric emphasized that the study of cognitive issues should build only part of psychology and not characterize the whole discipline.

What is cognition?

Ulric Neisser defined cognition as the processes by which “the sensory information received is transformed, reduced, elaborated, stored, recovered and used (…) cognition is involved in everything that the human being is capable of performing” (Neisser, 1967, p. .4). Thus, cognitive psychology is related to sensation, perception, image formation, memory, problem solving, thinking and other related mental activities.

Some important contributions by Ulric Neisser to Psychology

Neisser postulated that memory is largely reconstructed and not an instantaneous record of the moment. Neisser illustrated this during one of his highly publicized studies of people’s memories of the Challenger explosion.

  • Also read about false memories .

Subsequently, he summarized existing research on human intelligence to date and edited the first major academic monograph on the Flynn effect .

Neisser as a critic of Cognitive Psychology

Just nine years later, Ulric Neisser published Cognition and reality (1976), expressing dissatisfaction with the restriction of cognitive position and the reliance on data collection in the laboratory and not in the real world . He insisted that the results of psychological research should be ecologically valid. With that, I meant that the results should be generalized to situations beyond the limits of the laboratory.

In addition, he claimed that cognitive psychology should allow the application of findings to practical problems, helping people to deal with everyday private and professional issues .

Thus, Ulric Neisser was disappointed, concluding that the cognitive psychology movement had little to build with psychology, in the sense of understanding how people deal with situations.

In this way, the main figure in the foundation of cognitive psychology had become its bold critic , challenging the movement, as he had previously done with behaviorism.

Final considerations

After 17 years at Cornell University, where his office was close to where Titchener’s conserved brain was kept, Ulric Neisser moved to Emory University in Atlanta, returning to Cornell in 1996. Neisser died in 2012 of Parkinson’s disease.

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