Six disciplines of Cognitive Science

Tuesday, 25 September 2012 0 comments

Have you heard name Cognitive Science. Cognitive Science is the contemporary interdisciplinary study of cognition. Six disciplines compose cognitive science:



Many people (including at UCSD, home to the first Cognitive Science standalone department) have no idea what cognitive science is, and even if they have some idea, they usually think it is no different from psychology. I am going to elucidate the differences and describe the other components of cognitive science.

Psychology: Cognitive science is the study of cognition, and humans cognize as part of their behavior. The study of human behavior is psychology, so naturally the study of cognition falls within the realm of psychology. In particular, the overlap between psychology and cognitive science is called, unsurprisingly, cognitive psychology and includes the subfields of perception, memory, language, emotion, judgment and decision making, reasoning, and attention, among others. There is some overlap between these areas and others listed below. Most cognitive science that you read about falls within this realm. (Of note is that at UCSD there are more cognitive psychologists in the Psychology department than in the Cognitive Science department.) Psychology that does not overlap with cognitive science includes developmental psychology (besides the development of cognition), clinical psychology (except cognitive neuropsychology), and social psychology (exception social cognition). Clearly the relationship between psychology and cognitive science is a tight one.

Computer Science: Computer science is important for cognitive science in several ways, but the most important is in Artificial Intelligence, which is the study of how human cognitive can be modelled, simulated, or realized by computers. Computer vision, speech recognition software, and ergonomic user interfaces are all application of computer science with respect to cognitive science. Other areas of cognitive science that have computer science and engineering elements are human-computer interaction, brain-computer interface, and prosthetic development.

Neuroscience: Cognitive science is the study of cognition; brains cognize, and neuroscience is the study of the brain. It is natural that cognitive neuroscience is another of the primary fields that comprise cognitive science. Cognitive neuroscience is the study of how brain structure informs brain function with respect to cognition. Any time you see a brain scan while someone is performing a task, you are witnessing cognitive neuroscience in action. The purpose of cognitive neuroscience is to answer how the brain is able to do what it does; that is, what are the specific functional properties of the brain that give rise to perception, memory, language, emotion, attention, and consciousness? Right now, most cognitive neuroscience focuses on the level of brain areas or single cells because the technology available to neuroscientists has a limited scope. This is the most promising and explanatorily powerful field of cognitive science. (It’s the one I want to do most of my research in!) It overlaps with psychology in the field of behavioral neuroscience, and in the field of cognitive neuropsychology, which is the study of how brain injuries cause specific cognitive effects.

Anthropology: Anthropology is the least represented of the cognitive sciences, but its relationship to cognitive science is quite important. Anthropology is the study of humans, and, since human cognize, cognitive anthropology is a useful approach to studying both cognition and anthropology. In particular, cultural anthropology examines how culture affects cognition, and how cognition can be distributed among members of a group. Less rigorous and explanatorily weaker than the other scientific branches of cognitive science, some see anthropology as not a true branch.

Linguistics: In some departments, linguistics, the study of language, represents the majority of the cognitive sciences. This is true of some departments on the East Coast, including that of Johns Hopkins University. Cognitive linguistics is a research program in linguistics that sees language as an essential and ineliminable aspect of cognition not separate from other aspects. That is, language affects everything. Unlike some other branches of linguistics, cognitive linguistics takes the position that language knowledge comes from language use; that is, we are not born with linguistic knowledge. Other areas related to language and cognition include psycholinguistics, the study of the psychological factors affecting language, and neurolinguistics of the study of how language is instantiated in the brain.

Philosophy: The beauty and excitement of cognitive science comes in part from its interdisciplinary nature; not all of the cognitive sciences are actually sciences, and philosophy represents the analytical and theoretic nature of cognitive science that separates it from a simple amalgam of the aforementioned sciences. In particular, philosophy of mind, which is the branch of philosophy dealing with the relationship between the mind and the brain, plays a huge role in understanding evidence garnered by the sciences and guiding research toward a meaningful end. Other areas of interest to cognitive science include philosophy of the cognitive sciences, which examines theoretical questions that come up in the cognitive sciences (such as “What is a concept?”, “How does data play a role in the debate between innate grammar and empiricist learning?”, and “What does it mean for a brain state to represent something?”), and philosophy of science, which address questions of methodology, truth, and evidence in the sciences.

And there you have it. If your major isn’t cognitive science or one of the cognitive sciences, I hope you’ve thought long and hard about why this isn’t the most interesting thing you could study. If you’re thinking about studying the cognitive sciences or just want to talk about how awesome this field is, please let me know!
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