Cognitive science is a collection of studies of the mind and its processes. It was officially born in the 1950s, at the forefront of the development of computer operating systems. It is currently one of the areas that has had the most impact on the analyzes of different scientific disciplines.
We will see below what cognitive science is and, starting from a journey through the history of its development, we will explain what approaches make it up.
What is cognitive science?
Cognitive science is from a multidisciplinary perspective on the human mind, Which may apply to other information processing systems, provided that they maintain similarities with the laws governing the processing.
Beyond being a body of knowledge with particular characteristics and different from other bodies of knowledge; Cognitive science is a set of sciences or disciplines of a scientific nature. It includes, for example, philosophy of mind, linguistics, neuroscience, cognitive psychology and studies in artificial intelligence, as well as certain branches of anthropology.
In fact, Fierro (2011) tells us that it is probably more appropriate to call this science a “cognitive paradigm”; because it is an approach of the mind, made up of basic principles, problems and solutions that had an impact on scientific activity in different fields.
4 phases and perspectives of cognitive science
Valera (cited by Fierro, 2011) talks about four main stages in the consolidation of cognitive science: Cybernetics, classical cognitivism, connectionism and corporatization-enaction. Each of them corresponds to a stage of development of cognitive science, yet none of them has disappeared or been replaced by the next. These are theoretical approaches that coexist and are constantly problematized. We will see, following the same author, what it is.
Cybernetics developed from 1940 to 1955 and is recognized as the stage where the main theoretical tools of cognitive science appeared. This coincides with the advent of the first computers and computer operating systems, which in turn laid the foundation for studies in artificial intelligence. At the same time, different theories are developed on information processing, reasoning and communication.
These operating systems were the first self-organizing systems, that is, they operated on the basis of a set of pre-programmed rules. Among other things, these systems and their functioning have raised central questions for cognitive science. For example, do machines have the capacity to think and develop autonomy like humans?
The impact specifically on psychology was decisive, as the beginning of the twentieth century had seen marked by the predominance of psychoanalysis and behaviorism. The former does not focus so much on understanding “the mind” as “the psyche”; and the second focuses strictly on behavior, so that studies of the mind have been relegated but directly rejected.
For Cognitive Science at the time, the interest was neither in psychic structuring nor in observable behavior. In fact, it was also not focused on the structure and anatomical functioning of the brain (which would later be recognized as the place where mental processes are generated).
He was rather interested in find systems equivalent to mental activity that would allow it to be explained and even reproduced. The latter is embodied by the analogy of computer processing, where it is understood that the human mind works through a series of inputs (incoming messages or stimuli) and outputs (the messages or stimuli generated).
2. Classical cognitivism
This model is generated by the contributions of different experts, both in computer science and psychology, in artificial intelligence, in linguistics and even in economics. Among other things, this period, which corresponds to the mid-1960s, has just consolidated the previous ideas: all kinds of intelligence it works very similar to computer operating systems.
Thus, the mind was an encoder / decoder of fragments of information, which gave rise to “symbols”, “mental representations” and sequentially organized processes (one first and the other later) . Likewise, this model is also referred to as a symbolist, representationalist, or sequential processing model.
Beyond the study of the materials on which it is based (the material, which would become the brain), it is a question of finding the algorithm which generates them (the software, which would be the mind). From this follows the following: there is an individual who, automatically following different rules, processes, represents and explains information internally (For example using different symbols). And there is an environment which, functioning independently of this, can be faithfully represented by the human mind.
However, the latter began to be questioned, precisely because of the way in which the rules which would oblige us to process information were laid down. The proposal was that these rules they led us to manipulate in a specific way a set of symbols. Through this manipulation, we generate and present a message to the environment.
But, one problem that this model of cognitive science overlooked is that these symbols mean something; thus, its simple order works to explain syntactic activity, but not semantic activity. At the same time, one could hardly speak of an artificial intelligence endowed with the capacity to generate senses. In any case, its activity would be limited to logically ordering a set of symbols using a preprogrammed algorithm.
Moreover, if cognitive processes were a sequential system (first one thing happens, then another), there were doubts about how we perform these tasks which required the simultaneous activity of different cognitive processes. All of this will lead to the next steps in cognitive science.
This approach is also known as “parallel distributed processing” or “neural network processing”. Among others (like those mentioned in the previous section), this model of the 70s emerges after the classical theory failed to justify the viability of the functioning of the cognitive system in biological terms.
Without abandoning the model of computational architecture of earlier periods, this tradition suggests that the mind does not actually function through symbols organized sequentially; but it works by making different connections between the components of a complex network.
In this way, he approaches the neural explanatory models of human activity and information processing: the mind works by massive interconnections spread over a network. And it is the connectivity of this real thing that generates the rapid activation or deactivation of cognitive processes.
Beyond the search for syntactic rules which follow one another, here the processes act in parallel and are distributed quickly to solve a task. Among the classic examples of this approach is the mechanism of recognition of shapes, such as faces.
The difference between this and neuroscience is that the latter seeks to discover models of mathematical and computational development of the processes implemented by the brain, both human and animal, while connectionism focuses more on the study of the consequences of these models in terms of the processing of information and cognitive processes.
Faced with approaches strongly centered on the internal rationality of the individual, this last approach recovers the role of the body in the development of whole processes. She was born in the first half of the twentieth century, with the work of Merleau-Ponty in the phenomenology of perception, where it was explained how the body has direct effects on mental activity.
However, in the specific field of cognitive science, this paradigm was introduced until the second half of the twentieth century, when some theories proposed that it was possible to modify the mental activity of machines by manipulating the body of these. (and no longer by a constant input of information). In this last it was posited that intelligent behaviors occur when the machine interacts with the environment, And not precisely because of its internal symbols and representations.
From there, cognitive sciences began to study bodily movements and their role in cognitive development and in the construction of the notion of agency, as well as in the acquisition of notions related to time and space. In fact, he began to revisit child and developmental psychology, which had realized how the first mental patterns, originating in childhood, unfold after the body interacts with the environment in certain ways.
It is through the body how it is explained that we can generate concepts related to weight (heavy, light), volume or depth, spatial location (top, bottom, interior, exterior), etc. . This is ultimately articulated with enaction theories, which propose that cognition the result of an interaction between the embodied mind and the environment, Which is only possible by motor action.
Finally, they join this latest current of cognitive science the assumptions of the extended mindThis suggests that mental processes are not just in the individual, much less in the brain, but in the environment itself.
- Fierro, M. (2012). Conceptual development of cognitive science. Part II. Catalan Society of Psychiatry, 41 (1): p. 185-196.
- Fierro, M. (2011). Conceptual development of cognitive science. Part I. Catalan Society of Psychiatry, 40 (3): p. 519-533.
- Thagard, P. (2018). Cognitive sciences. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed October 4, 2018.Available at https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/cognitive-science/#His.