What Is Connectionism in Cognitive Psychology?


Martha Robinson

Connectionism is a perspective in cognitive psychology that suggests that the human mind can be better understood by examining the connections between individual units of information, rather than focusing on the individual units themselves. This approach is also known as parallel distributed processing.

History of Connectionism

The roots of connectionism can be traced back to the work of Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts in the 1940s. They proposed a model of artificial neurons, which inspired later work on neural networks and deep learning. However, it was not until the 1980s that connectionism gained popularity as an alternative to traditional symbolic approaches to cognitive psychology.

Key Concepts in Connectionism

At its core, connectionism involves modeling complex cognitive processes using simple computational elements called nodes or neurons. These nodes are interconnected through weighted connections that allow them to communicate with each other.

In this way, connectionist models resemble biological neural networks, where individual neurons are connected through synapses that transmit information in the form of electrical signals.

Connectionist models can be trained using a variety of techniques, including supervised and unsupervised learning. During training, the weights between nodes are adjusted based on feedback from the environment or input data.

Advantages of Connectionism

There are several advantages to using a connectionist approach in cognitive psychology. One key advantage is that it allows for more realistic modeling of complex cognitive processes such as language comprehension, memory retrieval, and decision-making.

Connectionist models can also account for phenomena such as generalization and transfer learning – where knowledge learned in one context can be applied to new situations – which are difficult to explain using traditional symbolic approaches.

Limitations of Connectionism

Despite its advantages, there are also some limitations to connectionism. One challenge is that these models can be computationally expensive and time-consuming to train. Additionally, they may not always be interpretable, meaning it can be difficult to understand how the model arrives at its output.

Another limitation is that connectionist models may struggle with representing abstract concepts or reasoning about them. For example, it can be difficult to represent the concept of justice or fairness in a connectionist model.

Applications of Connectionism

Connectionist models have been applied in a variety of fields, including natural language processing, computer vision, and cognitive neuroscience. In natural language processing, for example, recurrent neural networks have been used to model sentence comprehension and generate novel text.

In cognitive neuroscience, connectionist models have been used to simulate brain activity and investigate neural mechanisms underlying cognitive processes such as attention and decision-making.


Connectionism is a powerful approach to modeling complex cognitive processes using neural networks. While there are some limitations to this approach, it has the potential to provide insights into the nature of human thought and consciousness. As computational power continues to increase and new techniques for training these models are developed, we can expect connectionism to play an increasingly important role in cognitive psychology research.