Both psychology and neuroscience pay considerable attention to learning and memory as phenomena. Different approaches and methods have evolved, allowing the researchers to study multiple aspects of memory and learning from different perspectives. In particular, the cognitive approach in psychology and functional magnetic resonance imagery in neuroscience complement each other well, as they both focus on studying the brain completing learning and memory tasks as an information processor.
Historically speaking, there have been two most notable approaches to studying memory and learning as human brain activities. The first of these is the behaviorist approach, which, as the name suggests, focused on observable human behaviors as a basis for its studies and conclusions. This approach concentrated on studying subjective behavioral responses and largely deemed mental processes that were not accessible to an outside observer as being beyond empirical science (Tyng et al., 2017). Technical constraints limited the opportunities to study brain functioning regarding learning and memory directly, and behaviorism was a natural response to these conditions.
The second of the most prominent psychological approaches to analyzing learning and memory is the cognitive approach. Unlike behaviorism, which deliberately limited itself to analyzing easily observable external responses, the cognitive approach shifted to study mental processes as they occur in the human brain. Instead of interpreting behaviors and labeling the processes that bring them to life as empirically incomprehensible, cognitive psychology aims at a “fundamental understanding of the brain’s inherent… operating systems” (Tyng et al., 2017, para. 3). This approach is much easier for an empirical scientist to identify with, as it attempts to analyze the causes of why learning and memory work how they do rather than the mere effects that manifest as behaviors.
The emergence of cognitive psychology as a new approach owed much to technological advancements that allowed measuring brain activity and analyzing memory and learning as the process of establishing and activating neural connections. The most prominent neurological methods used for this purpose include electroencephalography (EEG), electrocorticography (ECoG), and functional magnetic resonance imagery (fMRI). EEG reacts to the brain’s electric activity directly ad can track neural activity with great temporal precision but the poor spatial resolution (“Brain Activity,” n.d.). ECoG also measures the electric activity of the brain and even offers a better opportunity for identifying activity source but requires inserting an electrode under the scalp, which limits its applicability (“Brain Activity,” n.d.). Measuring the blood flow as a proxy of brain activity is a solution used in fMRI, which is the most applicable and likely the most intriguing way to analyze memory and learning in humans. For example, Popova et al. (2018) used fMRI to establish statistical differences in male and female brain activity when solving memory and learning tasks. This result would have been impossible without fMRI’s unrivaled ability to map activity in different regions of the brain simultaneously.
As one can see, there are different psychological approaches and neurological methods that aid the study of memory and learning. From a psychological standpoint, the cognitive approach seems to be more promising, as it focuses on the mental processes directly rather than their behavioral extensions. In terms of neuroscience, different methods, such as EEG, ECoG, and fMRI, are available to measure brain activity. While each of these has its own benefits and downsides, EEG’s poor spatial resolution and ECoG’s limited application make fMRI the best way of studying memory and learning by mapping activity across the entire brain.
Popova, F., Kovacheva, A., Garov, P., Kandilarova, S., Silakov, N., & Velkova, K. G. (2018). Adult brain activation during visual learning and memory tasks: An experimental approach to translational neuroscience. Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice, 24(2). Web.
Queensland Brain Institute (n.d.). How to measure brain activity in people. The University of Queensland, Australia. Web.
Tyng, C. M., Amin, H. U., Saad, M. N. M., & Malik. A. S. (2017). The influences of emotion on learning and memory. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 1454. Web.