What is Cognitive Science?
Cognitive science is the interdisciplinary, scientific study of the mind and its processes with input from linguistics, psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, computer science/artificial intelligence, and anthropology. It examines the nature, the tasks, and the functions of cognition (in a broad sense). Cognitive scientists study intelligence and behavior, with a focus on how nervous systems represent, process, and transform information. Mental faculties of concern to cognitive scientists include language, perception, memory, attention, reasoning, and emotion; to understand these faculties, cognitive scientists borrow from fields such as linguistics, psychology, artificial intelligence, philosophy, neuroscience, and anthropology. The typical analysis of cognitive science spans many levels of organization, from learning and decision to logic and planning; from neural circuitry to modular brain organization. One of the fundamental concepts of cognitive science is that “thinking can best be understood in terms of representational structures in the mind and computational procedures that operate on those structures.”
The goal of cognitive science is to understand the principles of intelligence with the hope that this will lead to a better comprehension of the mind and of learning and to develop intelligent devices. The cognitive sciences began as an intellectual movement in the 1950s often referred to as the cognitive revolution.
The cognitive sciences began as an intellectual movement in the 1950s, called the cognitive revolution. Cognitive science has a prehistory traceable back to ancient Greek philosophical texts (see Plato’s Meno and Aristotle’s De Anima); and includes writers such as Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Benedict de Spinoza, Nicolas Malebranche, Pierre Cabanis, Leibniz and John Locke. However, although these early writers contributed greatly to the philosophical discovery of mind and this would ultimately lead to the development of psychology, they were working with an entirely different set of tools and core concepts than those of the cognitive scientist.
The modern culture of cognitive science can be traced back to the early cyberneticists in the 1930s and 1940s, such as Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts, who sought to understand the organizing principles of the mind. McCulloch and Pitts developed the first variants of what are now known as artificial neural networks, models of computation inspired by the structure of biological neural networks.
Another precursor was the early development of the theory of computation and the digital computer in the 1940s and 1950s. Kurt Gödel, Alonzo Church, Alan Turing, and John von Neumann were instrumental in these developments. The modern computer, or Von Neumann machine, would play a central role in cognitive science, both as a metaphor for the mind, and as a tool for investigation. The first instance of cognitive science experiments being done at an academic institution took place at MIT Sloan School of Management, established by J.C.R. Licklider working within the psychology department and conducting experiments using computer memory as models for human cognition.
In 1959, Noam Chomsky published a scathing review of B. F. Skinner’s book Verbal Behavior. At the time, Skinner’s behaviorist paradigm dominated the field of psychology within the United States. Most psychologists focused on functional relations between stimulus and response, without positing internal representations. Chomsky argued that in order to explain language, we needed a theory like generative grammar, which not only attributed internal representations but characterized their underlying order.
The term cognitive science was coined by Christopher Longuet-Higgins in his 1973 commentary on the Lighthill report, which concerned the then-current state of artificial intelligence research. In the same decade, the journal Cognitive Science and the Cognitive Science Society were founded. The founding meeting of the Cognitive Science Society was held at the University of California, San Diego in 1979, which resulted in cognitive science becoming an internationally visible enterprise. In 1972, Hampshire College started the first undergraduate education program in Cognitive Science, led by Neil Stillings. In 1982, with assistance from Professor Stillings, Vassar College became the first institution in the world to grant an undergraduate degree in Cognitive Science. In 1986, the first Cognitive Science Department in the world was founded at the University of California, San Diego.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, as access to computers increased, artificial intelligence research expanded. Researchers such as Marvin Minsky would write computer programs in languages such as LISP to attempt to formally characterize the steps that human beings went through, for instance, in making decisions and solving problems, in the hope of better understanding human thought, and also in the hope of creating artificial minds. This approach is known as “symbolic AI”.
- Levels of analysis
A central tenet of cognitive science is that a complete understanding of the mind/brain cannot be attained by studying only a single level. An example would be the problem of remembering a phone number and recalling it later. One approach to understanding this process would be to study behavior through direct observation, or naturalistic observation. A person could be presented with a phone number and be asked to recall it after some delay of time; then the accuracy of the response could be measured. Another approach to measure cognitive ability would be to study the firings of individual neurons while a person is trying to remember the phone number. Neither of these experiments on its own would fully explain how the process of remembering a phone number works. Even if the technology to map out every neuron in the brain in real-time were available and it were known when each neuron fired it would still be impossible to know how a particular firing of neurons translates into the observed behavior. Thus, an understanding of how these two levels relate to each other is imperative.
- Interdisciplinary nature
Cognitive science is an interdisciplinary field with contributors from various fields, including psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, philosophy of mind, computer science, anthropology and biology. Cognitive scientists work collectively in hope of understanding the mind and its interactions with the surrounding world much like other sciences do. The field regards itself as compatible with the physical sciences and uses the scientific method as well as simulation or modeling, often comparing the output of models with aspects of human cognition. Similarly to the field of psychology, there is some doubt whether there is a unified cognitive science, which have led some researchers to prefer ‘cognitive sciences’ in plural.
Many, but not all, who consider themselves cognitive scientists hold a functionalist view of the mind—the view that mental states and processes should be explained by their function – what they do. According to the multiple realizability account of functionalism, even non-human systems such as robots and computers can be ascribed as having cognition.
- Cognitive science: the term
The term “cognitive” in “cognitive science” is used for “any kind of mental operation or structure that can be studied in precise terms” (Lakoff and Johnson, 1999). This conceptualization is very broad, and should not be confused with how “cognitive” is used in some traditions of analytic philosophy, where “cognitive” has to do only with formal rules and truth conditional semantics.
Cognitive science is a large field, and covers a wide array of topics on cognition. However, it should be recognized that cognitive science has not always been equally concerned with every topic that might bear relevance to the nature and operation of minds. Below are some of the main topics that cognitive science is concerned with.
- Artificial intelligence
Artificial intelligence (AI) involves the study of cognitive phenomena in machines. One of the practical goals of AI is to implement aspects of human intelligence in computers. Computers are also widely used as a tool with which to study cognitive phenomena. Computational modeling uses simulations to study how human intelligence may be structured.
Attention is the selection of important information. The human mind is bombarded with millions of stimuli and it must have a way of deciding which of this information to process. Attention is sometimes seen as a spotlight, meaning one can only shine the light on a particular set of information. In the dichotic listening task, subjects are bombarded with two different messages, one in each ear, and told to focus on only one of the messages. At the end of the experiment, when asked about the content of the unattended message, subjects cannot report it.
- Bodily processes related to cognition
Embodied cognition approaches to cognitive science emphasize the role of body and environment in cognition. This includes both neural and extra-neural bodily processes, and factors that range from affective and emotional processes, to posture, motor control, proprioception, and kinaesthesis, to autonomic processes that involve heartbeat and respiration, to the role of the enteric gut microbiome. It also includes accounts of how the body engages with or is coupled to social and physical environments.
- Knowledge and processing of language
A well-known example of a phrase structure tree. This is one way of representing human language that shows how different components are organized hierarchically. The ability to learn and understand language is an extremely complex process. Language is acquired within the first few years of life, and all humans under normal circumstances are able to acquire language proficiently. A major driving force in the theoretical linguistic field is discovering the nature that language must have in the abstract in order to be learned in such a fashion. Some of the driving research questions in studying how the brain itself processes language include: To what extent is linguistic knowledge innate or learned? Why is it more difficult for adults to acquire a second-language than it is for infants to acquire their first-language? and how are humans able to understand novel sentences?
- Learning and development
Learning and development are the processes by which we acquire knowledge and information over time. Infants are born with little or no knowledge (depending on how knowledge is defined), yet they rapidly acquire the ability to use language, walk, and recognize people and objects. Research in learning and development aims to explain the mechanisms by which these processes might take place.
Memory allows us to store information for later retrieval. Memory is often thought of as consisting of both a long-term and short-term store. Long-term memory allows us to store information over prolonged periods (days, weeks, years). We do not yet know the practical limit of long-term memory capacity. Short-term memory allows us to store information over short time scales (seconds or minutes).
Cognitive scientists study memory just as psychologists do, but tend to focus more on how memory bears on cognitive processes, and the interrelationship between cognition and memory. One example of this could be, what mental processes does a person go through to retrieve a long-lost memory? Or, what differentiates between the cognitive process of recognition (seeing hints of something before remembering it, or memory in context) and recall (retrieving a memory, as in “fill-in-the-blank”)?
- Perception and action
An optical illusion. The square A is exactly the same shade of gray as square B. Perception is the ability to take in information via the senses, and process it in some way. Vision and hearing are two dominant senses that allow us to perceive the environment. Some questions in the study of visual perception, for example, include: (1) How are we able to recognize objects?, (2) Why do we perceive a continuous visual environment, even though we only see small bits of it at any one time? One tool for studying visual perception is by looking at how people process optical illusions. The image on the right of a Necker cube is an example of a bistable percept, that is, the cube can be interpreted as being oriented in two different directions.
Consciousness is the awareness of external objects and experiences within oneself. This helps the mind with having the ability to experience or feel a sense of self.
Many different methodologies are used to study cognitive science. As the field is highly interdisciplinary, research often cuts across multiple areas of study, drawing on research methods from psychology, neuroscience, computer science and systems theory.
- Behavioral experiments.
In order to have a description of what constitutes intelligent behavior, one must study behavior itself. This type of research is closely tied to that in cognitive psychology and psychophysics. By measuring behavioral responses to different stimuli, one can understand something about how those stimuli are processed. Behavioral observations involve the direct witnessing of the actor engaging in the behavior (e.g., watching how close a person sits next to another person). Behavioral choices are when a person selects between two or more options (e.g., voting behavior, choice of a punishment for another participant).
Reaction time. The time between the presentation of a stimulus and an appropriate response can indicate differences between two cognitive processes, and can indicate some things about their nature. For example, if in a search task the reaction times vary proportionally with the number of elements, then it is evident that this cognitive process of searching involves serial instead of parallel processing.
Psychophysical responses. Psychophysical experiments are an old psychological technique, which has been adopted by cognitive psychology. They typically involve making judgments of some physical property, e.g. the loudness of a sound. Correlation of subjective scales between individuals can show cognitive or sensory biases as compared to actual physical measurements.
Eye tracking. This methodology is used to study a variety of cognitive processes, most notably visual perception and language processing. The fixation point of the eyes is linked to an individual’s focus of attention. Thus, by monitoring eye movements, we can study what information is being processed at a given time. Eye tracking allows us to study cognitive processes on extremely short time scales. Eye movements reflect online decision making during a task, and they provide us with some insight into the ways in which those decisions may be processed.
- Brain imaging
Brain imaging involves analyzing activity within the brain while performing various tasks. This allows us to link behavior and brain function to help understand how information is processed. Different types of imaging techniques vary in their temporal (time-based) and spatial (location-based) resolution. Brain imaging is often used in cognitive neuroscience.
Electroencephalography. EEG measures the electrical fields generated by large populations of neurons in the cortex by placing a series of electrodes on the scalp of the subject. This technique has an extremely high temporal resolution, but a relatively poor spatial resolution.
Functional magnetic resonance imaging. fMRI measures the relative amount of oxygenated blood flowing to different parts of the brain. More oxygenated blood in a particular region is assumed to correlate with an increase in neural activity in that part of the brain. This allows us to localize particular functions within different brain regions. fMRI has moderate spatial and temporal resolution.
Optical imaging. This technique uses infrared transmitters and receivers to measure the amount of light reflectance by blood near different areas of the brain. Since oxygenated and deoxygenated blood reflects light by different amounts, we can study which areas are more active (i.e., those that have more oxygenated blood). Optical imaging has moderate temporal resolution, but poor spatial resolution. It also has the advantage that it is extremely safe and can be used to study infants’ brains.
Magnetoencephalography. MEG measures magnetic fields resulting from cortical activity. It is similar to EEG, except that it has improved spatial resolution since the magnetic fields it measures are not as blurred or attenuated by the scalp, meninges and so forth as the electrical activity measured in EEG is. MEG uses SQUID sensors to detect tiny magnetic fields.
- Computational modeling
Computational models require a mathematically and logically formal representation of a problem. Computer models are used in the simulation and experimental verification of different specific and general properties of intelligence. Computational modeling can help us understand the functional organization of a particular cognitive phenomenon. Approaches to cognitive modeling can be categorized as: (1) symbolic, on abstract mental functions of an intelligent mind by means of symbols; (2) subsymbolic, on the neural and associative properties of the human brain; and (3) across the symbolic–subsymbolic border, including hybrid.
Other approaches gaining in popularity include (1) dynamical systems theory, (2) mapping symbolic models onto connectionist models (Neural-symbolic integration or hybrid intelligent systems), and (3) and Bayesian models, which are often drawn from machine learning.
All the above approaches tend either to be generalized to the form of integrated computational models of a synthetic/abstract intelligence (i.e. cognitive architecture) in order to be applied to the explanation and improvement of individual and social/organizational decision-making and reasoning or to focus on single simulative programs (or microtheories/”middle-range” theories) modelling specific cognitive faculties (e.g. vision, language, categorization etc.).
- Neurobiological methods
Research methods borrowed directly from neuroscience and neuropsychology can also help us to understand aspects of intelligence. These methods allow us to understand how intelligent behavior is implemented in a physical system.
Cognitive science has given rise to models of human cognitive bias and risk perception, and has been influential in the development of behavioral finance, part of economics. It has also given rise to a new theory of the philosophy of mathematics (related to denotational mathematics), and many theories of artificial intelligence, persuasion and coercion. It has made its presence known in the philosophy of language and epistemology as well as constituting a substantial wing of modern linguistics. Fields of cognitive science have been influential in understanding the brain’s particular functional systems (and functional deficits) ranging from speech production to auditory processing and visual perception. It has made progress in understanding how damage to particular areas of the brain affect cognition, and it has helped to uncover the root causes and results of specific dysfunction, such as dyslexia, anopia, and hemispatial neglect.