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What is Cognitive Science? - Definition & History

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 science is the study of the mind and what is does, including many scientific disciplines that touch on the subject. In this lesson, we will briefly explore the definition of cognitive science, and review its history.

What Is Cognitive Science?

'I don't understand what's happening with Mary - it's like she's just not thinking, any more.'

'Well, you have to use a cognitive science approach. It may not just be a psychological situation. Come at it from an inter-disciplinary direction.'

Cognitive science is the study of the mind, including its structure and everything it does. It includes a variety of research sciences, including:

  • Education, the study of how people learn
  • Philosophy, the study of knowledge, reality, and existence
  • Artificial intelligence, the study of thinking machines and systems
  • Psychology, the study of behavior and the mind
  • Neuroscience, the study of the nervous system
  • Linguistics, the study of language
  • Anthropology, the general study of the human society and culture

By taking a more general approach to the mind's intricacies, cognitive scientists are beginning to look beyond each discipline's preferences and biases, seeing the human mind for the complex structure and entity that it is.

History of Cognitive Science

Man has tried to understand his own mind since the beginning of time. The earliest writers spoke of wisdom, foolishness, and the wonder of thought. Biblical authors spoke of both the clever and the wise, including aspects of education, psychology, philosophy, linguistics, and anthropology. Early Greek thinkers, including Plato and Aristotle, tried to explain how human knowledge works, speaking of the mind and its functions.

As the science of psychology began to develop in the 1800s, particularly experimental psychology, researchers began to search for specific characteristics that were common for the human mind. In pursuit of consistency and understanding, the scientific community adopted the idea of behaviorism, a point-of-view that treated the human mind as little more than an array of programmed behaviors, occurring entirely as biological reactions to stimuli. In other words, the behaviorists didn't view you much differently than they did a dog or a single-celled creature. They saw humans as just more advanced versions of 'cause and effect,' stimulus and response.

In more recent times, beginning early in the 1900s, scientists began projecting the idea that there is much more to the human mind than merely programmed responses. As computer models were being built that simulated levels of human thought, scientists began to understand more about the reasoning process, becoming aware of the complexity of the operations that go on within the mind.

As understanding of the neural networks, the paths of nerve signals that produce and support thinking operations in the brain, developed in the 1980s and 1990s, the complexity of the physical structure of the brain grew more evident. Through various ways of taking pictures of the brain, neuroscientists were able to see the system change, adapting to experiences and becoming a different system on a daily basis. Every day, your experiences modify the person that you are by remapping your brain.

Also, scientists began to struggle with the broad range of possible human thoughts versus the narrow range of possibilities dictated by the restrictions of a purely genetic (based on the chemical building blocks that make up the design of the human body) approach to human construction. You are more than your building blocks and more than the heritage your parents gave you. Your daily choices cause your mind to continually adapt and evolve, causing you to change, constantly and dynamically.

What Does It Mean to You?

Cognitive science is the study of your mind. It is the culmination of 6000 years of modern history's attempt to explain how that three pounds of fatty tissue inside your skull works. Cognitive science represents the realization that no single scientific discipline has all of the answers.

You are more than your biochemistry (the study of the combinations of molecules that make up living creatures). Although your body is made up of all kinds of combinations of the same materials that the planet is made up of, your design and structure - which began when you were first conceived - is completely unique.

You are more than your experiences. Although your original neural networks were almost complete when you were born, their layout and design continue to update every time you have a new experience. Your choices are shaping your construction. Your brain physically changes every time you have a new experience.

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