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Trends in Cognitive Science

Instructor: Michael Quist

Michael has taught college-level mathematics and sociology; high school math, history, science, and speech/drama; and has a doctorate in education.

Cognitive scientists are trying to discover how your mind works. Breakthroughs offer some answers and many new questions. In this lesson, we'll take a look at where it all started, and discuss some of what is happening in cognitive science.

What Is Cognitive Science?

Six thousand years of recorded history, and we're still trying to figure out what we are. Are we merely animals, responding to stimuli, or is there something much deeper? Is your mind just a bio-electrical machine, or is there an invisible intelligence behind that machine? To figure this out, we've created cognitive science. Cognitive science is a study of

  • The mind (the invisible combination of thoughts and awareness that are uniquely 'you')
  • The brain (the fatty organ in your head that supports thoughts and keeps your body running)
  • The nervous system (the communication pipeline that ties your body to your brain)

Cognitive scientists research the processes that enable people to think, feel, communicate, imagine, and so on. Cognitive science includes efforts in the fields of

  • Education (how people learn)
  • Philosophy (knowledge, reality, and the nature of existence)
  • Artificial intelligence (machine intelligence)
  • Psychology (behavior and the mind)
  • Neuroscience (mechanisms of the brain and nervous system)
  • Linguistics (language)
  • Anthropology (the human creature)

Trends in Cognitive Science

Since the beginning of recorded history, many ideas have been offered regarding how the human mind works. In this lesson, we'll take a look at some of the more common theories and trends in cognitive science.

Spirit, Soul and Mind

Ancient Hebrews (along with members of many faiths today) believed that God did what many artists have longed to do. Carefully designing a beautiful creature out of clay, he then made it come alive, using his own breath. According to ancient texts, the resulting creature had a body (physical limbs, organs, etc.), a soul (individual awareness, unique and separate from anyone else), and a spirit (mystical connection to invisible powers). This was one of the first attempts to explain the inter-workings between your mind, your brain, and your body. These people believed that you are a complex living combination of spiritual and biological forces.

Puppets on Strings

Scientists in the 1800s studied behavior, watching the way that people and other creatures responded to various stimuli (things happening to them). They concluded that the human mind was merely a biological machine. These scientists (and many people today) believed that you are nothing more than a set of responses, sort of like a puppet on a complex set of strings. Your inherited characteristics and your experiences are completely responsible for who you are - you really had no choice.

A Deeper Question

Early in the 1900s, however, scientists began to realize that there may be much more to it. They began to realize that you are more than just the sum of inheritance and experience. In fact, they've nearly completed the circle. Discoveries implying neuroplasticity (your mind's ability to reshape your brain) now propose that you can redesign yourself. Your choices - what you choose to think about, say, and do - make you into what you are. It's strongest when you're a baby, and stays with you your whole life, as you create memories, strengthen pathways, and redesign your mental life to suit you.

The problem is that it flies in the face of empirical science (the study of and devotion to what you can directly observe). There seems to be an invisible essence to your awareness that isn't just simple biology. Maybe you have a spirit and a soul, after all. This question is the foundation of cognitive science. The ancient Hebrews might have been right.

Artificial Intelligence

Science fiction has provided pictures of thinking machines for a long time, but it has only been in the 20th and 21st centuries that many of those ideas have become reality. Computer scientists are creating computers that model many parts of human thinking. Memory, processing (thinking), communicating (talking), and projecting possibilities (speculating and having ideas) make today's machines seem almost human.

Advanced discoveries in machine intelligence bring into focus, however, the cognitive scientist's problem. Programming a computer to provide an emotion, such as anger or disgust, is one thing, but there is always a higher intelligence behind the machines, writing the programs. What higher intelligence writes the software for the human brain? Where is that intelligence located?

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