An Introduction to Cognitive Science

Cognitive science is the interdisciplinary study of mind and intelligence. It incorporates insights from the study of linguistics, psychology, artificial intelligence, neuroscience, and anthropology in an attempt to understand cognition, thought.

This science tries to understand reasoning as a function of representational structures in the mind and computations worked upon these structures. Cognitive scientists tend to believe that the mind creates structures that represent reality, (and that actually exist within the mind), and then operates upon these structures using procedures that are, at the very least, analogous to the way computers work on data.

Linguist and social activist Noam Chomsky was a pioneer of cognitive science. Part of his contribution to the field is the point of view that language is a function of inborn rules and cognitive grammar that is expressed in language, and not merely a learned habit. Since virtually all humans have language, it seems to follow that language is an inherited ability. Since sentences can be parsed, it seems to follow that languages have rules.

Cognitive psychology studies cognition by studying people. It does this primarily by doing laboratory experiments on human subjects that are designed to learn how they think, how they learn and remember, or related areas of interest.

In the field of artificial intelligence, cognitive science is advanced through the development and testing of computational models. Most scientists in this field set themselves limited goals such as creating rules for action on limited problems. However, the creation of an actual AI entity remains a distant goal.

Neuroscience studies the mechanics of the brain with such tools as brain scans and other imaging techniques. It may also study people with damaged brains, in an attempt to observe or deduce the functions of particular cognitive systems.

Cognitive anthropologists may do their research by living among the people they are studying, sharing their lives and attempting to observe their behaviors intimately. This particular fieldwork however, may aim at discovering commonalities in cognition worldwide, as well as cultural variation in the expression of humanity’s cognitive nature.

Cognitive science has many critics. Some claim that the discipline neglects the emotive aspects of human behavior. Feeling, of course, often colors human thinking. Other critics claim that this science neglects the influence of the environment on thinking, or the influence of the body. Still others say that because humans are such social beings, cognitive science must pay more attention to the impact of society upon human cognition.

Analogies between the mind, the brain, and the computer have taken science far along new paths of thought. But there is no reason to think that cognitive science, or at least the current version of cognitive science, will be the ultimate tool for research about our minds.