Cognitive science is devoted to scientific understanding of the human mind in all its complexity and significance. The discipline is not a coherent discipline in and of itself but rather a perspective on several disciplines and their associated questions (Hunt, 1989).
Definition and Overview
Cognitive science may be defined as the scientific interdisciplinary study of the mind. It results from the efforts of researchers working in a wide array of fields. These include psychology, philosophy, linguistics, artificial intelligence, computer science, and neuroscience.
With each field bringing with it a unique set of tools and perspectives, discoveries beckon in understanding how humans perceive, remember, imagine, think, and create.
And when it comes to studying something as complex as the mind, no single perspective is adequate. Instead, intercommunication and cooperation among the practitioners of these disciplines tell us much more.
The term cognitive science refers not so much to the sum of all the integrated disciplines but to their intersection or converging work on specific problems.
In this sense, cognitive science is not a unified field of study like each of the disciplines themselves, but a collaborative effort among researchers working in various fields.
The glue that holds cognitive science together is the topic of mind and for the most part, the use of scientific methods.
Researchers who regard themselves as cognitive scientists typically have educational backgrounds in at most one or two of the contributing disciplines.
Furthermore, they approach the issues of mind and brain with research methods unique to their disciplines.
As Stillings and colleagues (1987), an interdisciplinary team of co-authors, explained in their pioneering text in cognitive science,
- Psychologists emphasize controlled laboratory experiments and detailed, systematic observations of naturally occurring behaviors.
- Linguists test hypotheses about grammatical structure by analyzing speakers’ intuitions about grammatical and ungrammatical sentences or by observing children’s errors in speech.
- Researchers in artificial intelligence (AI) test their theories by writing programs that exhibit intelligent behavior and observing where they break down.
- Philosophers probe the conceptual coherence of cognitive scientific theories and formulate general constraints that good theories must satisfy.
- Neuroscientists study the physiological basis of information processing in the brain. (p. 13).
A hallmark of cognitive science is that it represents an interdisciplinary effort to address basically the same issues that confront cognitive psychology.
- How is knowledge represented?
- How does an individual acquire new knowledge?
- How does the visual system organize sensory experiences into meaningful objects and events?
- How does memory work?
These are among the problems that cognitive science attempts to understand in terms that make sense to scholars from diverse backgrounds.
In order to really understand what cognitive science is all about we need to know what its theoretical perspective on the mind is. This perspective centers on the idea of computation, which may alternatively be called information processing.
Cognitive scientists view the mind as an information processor. Information processors must both represent and transform information.
That is, a mind, according to this perspective, must incorporate some form of mental representation and processes that act on and manipulate that information.
Cognitive science is often credited with being influenced by the rise of the computer. Computers are of course information processors.
Think for a minute about a personal computer. It performs a variety of information-processing tasks. Information gets into the computer via input devices, such as a keyboard or modem.
That information can then be stored on the computer, for example, on a hard drive or other disk. The information can then be processed using software such as a text editor. The results of this processing may next serve as output, either to a monitor or printer.
In like fashion, we may think of people performing similar tasks.
Information is “input” into our minds through perception—what we see or hear. It is stored in our memories and processed in the form of thought. Our thoughts can then serve as the basis of “outputs,” such as language or physical behavior.
Of course this analogy between the human mind and computers is at a very high level of abstraction.
The actual physical way in which data is stored on a computer bears little resemblance to human memory formation. But both systems are characterized by computation.
In fact, it is not going too far to say that cognitive scientists view the mind as a machine or mechanism whose workings they are trying to understand.
- Turing, A. M. (1950) ‘Computing machinery and intelligence’, Mind, vol.59, pp.433-60.
- Tyler, L.K. and Moss, H.E. (2001) ‘Towards a distributed account of conceptual knowledge’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, vol.5, no.6, pp.244-52.
- Von Eckardt, B. (1993) What Is Cognitive Science?, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.