Cognitive neuropsychology is a sub-specialty of cognitive psychology. The latter is the study of internal mental processes, in particular how people think, speak, perceive, remember and solve problems. Cognitive neuropsychology, on the other hand, puts particular emphasis upon studying how brain injuries and neurological illnesses affect these same mental processes.
The general idea behind cognitive neuropsychological research is to discover more about how the brain works by determining which mental functions suffer when a particular part of the brain is damaged. Parts of the brain are compartmentalized and modular, making it possible to isolate a section of the brain that has been damaged and study it separately. Parts of the brain aren’t modular, however, which sometimes muddies the situation and makes it hard to precisely narrow down the exact correlations between parts of the brain and the mental functions they control.
In their research, cognitive neuropsychologists use many of the same techniques and equipment used by similar scientific fields like cognitive neuroscience. These techniques include tests such as neuroimaging and electrophysiology that measure brain function; the equipment includes positron-emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Cognitive neuropsychologists also use some of their own neuropsychological tests in their research.
The fMRI is particularly interesting because it doesn’t emit radiation. It provides imaging that enables patients to complete tasks while the neuropsychologist observes images of their brains. As the patient does a task, the fMRI lights up the area or areas of the brain activated by the task performed.
When researching patients, cognitive neuropsychologists sometimes work with clinical neuropsychologists, who are the psychologists who treat patients who suffer from neurological ailments. Cognitive neuropsychologists also often work with cognitive psychologists, because both types of psychologists are striving for the same objectives, though they approach those objectives from different angles.
The brain is an incredibly complex organ, and the more we can discover about it, the better the chances of developing cures for neurological injuries and illnesses.
Types of Degrees
Most students of cognitive neuropsychology start off by getting a Bachelor of Science degree in either general psychology or experimental psychology, preferably with a concentration or minor in cognitive psychology. Because the primary job of cognitive neuropsychology is to perform research, students need to take a variety of lab classes. Typical coursework may include:
- Biology and biology lab
- Experimental psychology
- Physiological psychology
- Cognition and learning
- Cognitive processes
- Sensation and perception
- Cognitive psychology lab
- Language processing lab
- Psycholinguistics lab
- Psychology of judgment and decision
- Cognitive neuroscience of vision
- Concepts of intelligence
- Cognitive development in infancy
- Neurobiology learning and memory
- Language and conceptual development
- Logic of perception
Nearly all jobs in cognitive neuropsychology require at least a master’s degree, and most require a doctorate. The usual course for students is to get a master’s degree in cognitive psychology, because it’s a much more common degree than cognitive neuropsychology. Degrees in cognitive neuropsychology are more common in Doctorate programs or in programs that combine the master’s and doctoral degrees into one program.
For cognitive neuropsychologists, the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree is preferred over the Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) degree, because it places a heavier emphasis on research. For those interested in teaching, a Doctor of Education (EdD) degree is good, though there really isn’t much difference between it and a PhD.
Coursework in a PhD program may include: cognitive psychology and neuropsychology, generative linguistics. computational methods of cognition, computational analysis, empirical neuroscience, brain imaging, linguistic analysis and empirical psychology.
Cognitive neuropsychologists often work in university hospitals that have major research facilities, allowing them to choose from a large pool of patients for research subjects while also being able to use cutting-edge research equipment. Those who work in university hospitals are often asked to teach part-time.
Other options are to work for private research centers or hospitals, or to work as supervisors or consultants.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for cognitive neuropsychologists (listed under “psychologists, other”) in 2012 was $88,400, while the mean hourly wage was $42.50.