TMA03: Using examples of case studies, critically evaluate the contribution cognitive neuropsychology has made to the understanding of normal cognitive function

TMA03: Using examples of case studies, critically evaluate the contribution cognitive neuropsychology has made to the understanding of normal cognitive function

Cognitive neuropsychology is an area in cognitive psychology whose objective is to understand how the functioning and structure of the brain is related to different psychological processes. Cognition is responsible with how mental processes have the ability to produce and store new memories, recognize people and objects, understand language, and have the ability to solve problems among others (Ellis & Young, 2013). Cognitive neuropsychology is rooted on studying how the cognition process is affected by some occurrences like neurological illness or brain damage. Through this is possible to explain why people remember some things while at the same time forget others. It can also explain how individuals perceive the environment, infer different patterns, how they understand language among other things. It takes the premise that while studying a system that has been damaged can serve in explaining how the system would work if it was intact (Kaye, 2010). This means that examining altered cognitive abilities creates a favourable platform for understanding different aspects of normal cognition. The aspect has been likened with the analogy of the car. Many people do not understand the processes behind the functioning of the engine. However, it is easier to understand how different parts work together once the car has developed a fault. The same case applies to damaged brains (Temple, 2014).

Cognitive neural psychology gained its recognition during the mid of the 19th century. This was when some researchers such as Wernicke, Bastian and Lichtheim began to make various inferences with regards to cognition (Caramazza & Coltheart, 2006). From this period, different changes have taken place in this field. This ranges from the techniques that psychologists use to study the brain to the objectives that they have while doing so. It is like a transitional process from an old age to a modernized technical field. Early works in cognitive neuropsychology were based on phrenologists such as Spurzheim and Gall (Kaye, 2010). They were of the opinion that mental abilities were usually located in different parts of the brain. This is a notion that has been held even in the current environment where there are sophisticated techniques such as fMRI and PET being used in the study of the brain.

Cognitive neuropsychology has played an important role to help people understand the normal cognitive function. This aspect can be viewed by examining various psychological case studies that have been devoted for this area of study. To begin with, it has helped use understand that different cognition functions take place in different parts of the brain. This is to say that the aspect of thinking, perception, remembering and reasoning all take place in different parts of the brain. One of them might be impaired, but the others still perform at their optimal levels. There are several case studies that can be used to verify this phenomenon. In 1848, Phineas Gage, a worker at a Canadian railroad construction was involved in an accident whereby tamping iron shoot through his lower check and out through the top of his head. He was lifted 20 feet in the air before landing on the ground. Gage survived the accident, and was able to walk from the scene comfortably and could also talk with ease as he did before the accident. To everyone the accident seemed to have caused no effects on him. However, this was not the case. With time his reliability prospects dwindled significantly. He became very unreliable and most of the judgments he made from that time were very bad. Gage ruined himself financially and his social skills were lost. Harlow, a neurologist postulated that the damage on Gage’s brain had disrupted his abilities of maintaining socially accepted behaviours and ability to plan. Harlow could not investigate the ideas developed at that time, but many years from that time different brain imaging techniques have verified the evaluation (Kaye, 2010). This case study provides significant information that different cognition functions take place in different parts of the brain. This is because with Gage, he could still walk and talk effectively. The part of the brain involved with these activities was not damaged at all. If all the activities are processed in the same section, these activities would have been impaired too. This is also to show that these parts are independent of each other. If they were dependent, impairment of one part would render the others futile.

Another case study that proves this notion is found in the works of Paul Broca, a French neurologist. In 1861, Broca treated Tan who had a stroke. Tan had difficulties in making utterances whereby he could only produce few syllables at a time that did not sound like authentic connected language. Regardless of this occurrence, he was able to comprehend what other people said. Broca suggested that the part of the brain damaged was the one responsible for coordinating muscle movements necessary for speech. Despite the vocal apparatus in the mouth and throat being intact, the damage to the brain affected his speech (Kaye, 2010). What this case study showcases is that the cognition of language takes place in different parts of the brain.

Cognitive neuropsychology has also made a significant contribution in helping people to understand that a certain cognition function such as perception can occur on the same part of the brain, but in different sections within this part. This is to say that like how language is perceived in the front part of the brain, different aspects regarding language will be distributed within this part. Some of the functions will be on the front side, others at the back, others on the sides while some will be at the centre. This is like a development of a system within a system. A good case study to explain this phenomenon is the one of Karl Wernicke. Wernicke had a patient suffering from stroke just like the one in Broca’s case. However, there appeared to be a different response from Wernicke’s patient. The patient had the ability to produce whole words entailed in a continuous speech, which sounded like full sentences. Despite this, the patient had difficulties in understanding what others were saying. Wernicke postulated that the patient had suffered damage to the part of the brain that is responsible in storing sound patterns of different words (Kaye, 2010). This was the reason behind the difficulties that the patient had in comprehending speech. Post-mortem examination of the patient showed that the temporal lobe had been damaged. This was a similar case with Broca’s patient. However, the damages had occurred on different sections within this part of the brain. The damage on Wernicke’s patient was at the back of the temporal lobe while that of Broca’s patient was at the frontal side. This explains why the stroke affected the two patients differently. If a blood vessel bursts in the temporal lobe, the damage caused to the brain will be dependent on which section of the temporal lobe was affected. Damage to the front section will impair an individual’s ability to give a speech while damage on the back section will impair the ability to comprehend a speech. This is to mean that damage to a certain part of the brain would result to different occurs depending on which section of that part has been altered (Temple, 2014). It is an indication of how independent different parts of the brain can be.

Another case study that can help in gaining a clear understanding of this issue is the neuropsychological condition known as prosopagnosia. This is a cognitive disorder where the affected individual does not have the ability to recognize faces. An individual’s other visual and intellectual processing aspects remain intact while the ability to recognize faces is impaired (McKone et al., 2007). It becomes even difficult for someone with this disorder to recognize even spouses, family members and friends. McKone et al. (2007) give an example of RM who was a car sales man, and had some substantial expertise in this field. After some time RM suffered from aneurysm, which impaired some of the abilities that he possessed previously. RM was now very poor with face recognition, but was still very good in recognizing different makes of cars. He recognized the finer details regarding cars as he used to before suffering from aneurysm.   What this means is that recognition of both faces and objects occurs in a similar part of the brain. However, the recognition process occurs in different sections within this part. For individuals suffering from prosopagnosia, the section that is affected is the one that is involved with the recognition of faces. If it was the whole part being affected, then people would not recognize the other objects too.

Cognitive neuropsychology also helps us understand that some parts of the brain tend to hinder other parts from working optimally. This is because they tend to share some components that are vital for functionality like the blood and oxygen. This means that if one of these parts stopped functioning the other one tends to improve based on the cognition function that it is expected to facilitate. In such a scenario an individual may end up developing skills that they did not seem to possess initially. Such skills are usually in-born in an individual, but are not expressed since the part of the brain required to enhance their performance has been hindered in one way or another. A favourable case study for explaining this is the Henry Molaison case.HM had a part of his brain; medial temporal lobes removed as treatment for the severe epilepsy he was suffering from. After the operation had been conducted,  HM appeared to suffer from severe memory problems.   He had problems remembering new information he had obtained for any length of time. The weird thing was that during this period HM had the ability to learn new motor skills like mirror drawing.  HM was able to retain the skill for a long period of time. The interesting thing was that he did not have a conscious memory of how the skill was acquired (Kaye, 2010).This aspect is an indication that there exist different forms of long-term memory. It also shows that the presence of some parts of the brain might hinder the functionality of another. This is because after the medial temporal lobe was removed through the operation, HM gained a skill that he did not posses before. It is an indication that the skill was there, but could not be expressed since the part of the brain responsible for its optimal functionality was being hindered to perform effectively by another part which had a different function.

In conclusion, cognitive neuropsychology plays an important role in helping people understand the normal cognitive function. Different case studies have been used in an attempt of trying to prove this notion. Among the things regarding cognition that can be understood through cognitive neuropsychology is that different cognition functions take place in different parts of the brain.  It has also helped in understanding that a cognitive function such as perception can occur in certain a part of the brain, but different aspects regarding perception will be processed within different sections in this part of the brain. This is to say that within that part there is a section that is responsible with perceiving objects while another is responsible for perceiving faces. One of the sections within a certain part might be damaged, but the others still perform effectively. Cognitive neuropsychology also helps in the understanding that a certain parts of the brain might hinder another part from functioning optimally. This might be because the parts have to share various resources such as blood and oxygen, and one might be getting less than it really deserves for optimal functioning. As a result, a certain part of the brain may be removed and an individual all of a sudden becomes hyper-active in an area that they were not initially. There is also an understanding that different parts of the brain are independent of each other. When one part is damaged the others continue to function optimally.




Caramazza, A., & Coltheart, M. (2006).Cognitive Neuropsychology twenty years on. Cognitive Neuropsychology, 23, 3–12.

Ellis, A., & Young, A. (2013). Human Cognitive Neuropsychology: A Textbook With Readings. London: Psychology Press.

Kaye, H. (2010). Cognitive psychology (2nd ed.). Milton Keynes: Open University.

McKone, E., Kanwisher, N., & Duchaine, B. (2007). Can generic expertise explain special processing for faces? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11(1), 8–15.

Temple, C. (2014). Developmental Cognitive Neuropsychology. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis.


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