What is Cognitive Science?

This article originally appeared in the Psychology in Action Newsletter (Issue 5, Part B).

If you’re in an introductory psychology class, you’ve probably learned about Freud, Skinner, and Piaget, who were profoundly important in the foundations of psychology. But you probably haven’t heard much about Noam Chomsky or Allen Newell, although both of these people have made important contributions to the study of the human mind. Psychology is a broad and diverse field, but psychologists are not the only researchers who study the fascinating abilities of the mind.

Over the course of the 20th century, expert thinkers began developing more complete theories of the mind than previously existed. Researchers from psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, computer science, and linguistics began to bridge the gaps between their areas of expertise. Together they formed the foundation of cognitive science––an interdisciplinary movement to connect ideas and findings from different fields into comprehensive theories.

The “cognitive revolution” refers to the dramatic reversal of behaviorism and the birth of a field of psychology that actively deals with the content and inner workings of the mind. This revolution was sparked by luminaries like Noam Chomsky from the field of linguistics and Allen Newell from mathematics.

Linguistics is the study of language’s structure and representation. In 1959, Noam Chomsky dismantled B. F. Skinner’s explanation of language by arguing that the complexities of language cannot be explained without the existence of internal mental representations of objects and ideas. This sharply rebuked the perspective of behaviorism, which denied the mind and instead characterized human behavior as simply a function of stimulus and response associations.

Mathematician Allen Newell worked with a political scientist to build the first computer simulation of human problem solving. This program, Logic Theorist, created the field of artificial intelligence. It greatly influenced our understanding of how the brain might represent information and perform the computations of human reasoning.

Chomsky and Newell, who both came from fields outside of psychology, are examples of how the various disciplines within cognitive science can advance each other symbiotically. Check out Steven Pinker’s book How the Mind Works to learn more.

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