Cognitive Science: A History of the Cognitive Revolution


Cognitive science has been defined as an interdisciplinary study, whose attempt is to explain the cognitive processes of not only humans, but higher animals as well, in terms of the manipulation of symbols using computational rules (Gardener, 1985). The area of cognitive science draws heavily from such other disciplines as neuroscience, anthropology, philosophy, and linguistic. Consequently, the study of this area has enabled cognitive scientists a breakthrough in such areas as vision, thinking and reasoning.

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Though the concept of modern-day cognitive science dates back to the 1950s, the term began to be used in the 1970s. Cognitive science is characterized by several features, the first of which demands a level of mental representation in order to explain human behavior, action and thought. In this regard, human cognitive activity is best expressed in terms of symbols, schemas, rules and images (Gallese & Goldman, 1998).

Another important feature is that the mind can be understood as an electronic computer. However, attitudes vary among the various disciplines, as they disagree on the viability of the computer as a model of the aspects of cognition in which they are interested. All the same, much is to be gained from these interdisciplinary studies. Scientists in the field of cognitive science seek to understand as well as to explain the inner workings of the human mind, its functional intelligence, mechanisms of behavior and the neurological organization of the brain, that helps an individual to execute mental activities (Gallese & Goldman, 1998).

The desire to understand the nature of human knowledge dates back to the times of Plato and Aristotle in ancient Greece. During the seventeenth century, it was the thinker Descartes who popularized the idea of the body and mind as two separate entities. Simon Kemp in his book, “cognitive psychology in the middle age”, focuses on the developments that occurred in the Latin west following the recovery of Aristotle’s De Anima in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Through this book, Kemp is able to illustrate the medieval physiology of the brain, as well as using this as a basis to describe the various psychological processes in the brain, as located by philosophers of those days.

One of the early philosophers that Kemp feels was influential in those days was Avicenna. It is he who helped the medieval Latin philosophers as well as theologians to see how a theory in the inner senses could be reconciled with Aristotle’s view on the common sense, memory, imagination and the role of the heart in cognition. However, medieval philosophers who came after Avicenna tended to differ with his views in respect to the number of psychological processes and their precise location in the brain. The intellectual origins of cognitive science have been traced back to the mid-1950s (Chomsky,1987).

This was a period when researchers drawn from such fields as psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, anthropology and linguistics attempted to develop theories of mind, drawing upon the complex representations and computational procedures. On the other hand, it was only in the mid-1970s that the cognitive sciences society was established, followed by publishing of the cognitive journal. This forms the basis for the origin of organizational origin of the field.

Over time, this area that studies the mind has transformed o to become a mainstream discipline that not only cuts across different areas of study such as psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, linguistics, and anthropology but also acts as a link to these. According to most cognitive scientists, knowledge in the mind consists of mental representations, which include rules, concepts, images as well as analogies. Further, cognitive science holds that for people to produce thoughts and actions, there must first be mental procedures that are operating on mental representations.

As a result, different kinds of mental representations, including rules and concepts are responsible for different kinds of mental procedures (Kemp, 1996). Up until the nineteenth century, cognitive science was very much entrenched in philosophy. It was then that Wilhelm Wundt developed experimental psychology. The aim was to enable this researcher and his students a systematic study of mental operations. By 1913, behaviorists such as J.B. Watson had already dominated this field of cognitive science through the behaviorism theory.

These behaviorists were of the view that psychology should be restricted to behavioral science, thus denying the existence of the mind. This behavioral concept was to dominate the field of psychology up to the 1950s. The development of cognitive science models was brought forth by the failure of behaviorism, invention of the computer, as well as advances in various theories(Gardener, 1985).

It has been suggested that cognitive science was founded in September 1956, at the symposium on information theory at MIT (Gardener,1985).

The conference was attended by scholars drawn from diverse fields, and it would later be the cornerstone for cognitive science. The issue of memory, which is very central to cognitive psychology has received major boost following the inception on cognitive science as a field (Rumelhart et al, 1986).

Most tasks that are normally undertaken daily by humans heavily form a well-organized mind. This means that the right information is not only available at the right moment, but also that there should be no interferences from information that is not needed.

To this end, cognitive scientists have been able to analyze the knowledge needed to perform particular mental tasks that people do as well as investigate how the knowledge must be stored to simulate human memory. By 1956, studies by George Miller showed that the human mind is limited in its capacity. He was thus able to propose that this limitation could be overcome through the recording of information in mental representations, followed by mental procedures that would aid in the encoding and decoding of this information.

It was also around this time that the field of artificial intelligence came into being, courtesy of such scholars as Marvin Minsky, Allen Newell, Herbert Simon and John McCarthy. The behaviorist assumption that language is a learned habit was later to be rejected by Noam Chomsky, who instead proposed the use of rules of grammar to enable understanding of language (Kemp, 1996). The works of neuropsychologists who were studying the impact of brain damage on language as well as other cognitive abilities, can be viewed as clear antecedents to modern cognitive science.

The Darwinism theory of evolution, the creation of modern experimental psychology and psychophysics are other examples. The emergence of computational devices in the nineteenth century as well as the development of powerful systems of logic within philosophy and linguistics are other pointers to the early development of this discipline (Gardner, 1985). Behaviorists rightly pointed out that little was known on what goes inside an organism to justify any sound theories.

This view was to persist for almost 50 years in North America. Behaviorism was not as dominant in Europe as it was in America. Consequently, the elements of what was to become cognitive science proceeded in a variety of domains. Psychologists such as Wertheimer, Koffka and Kohler were firmly attached to exploring the role of organization in perception and problem solving, while Bartlett was able to explore the role of schemata in the formation of memory.

Piaget , on his part was keener to emphasize the internal model formed by children while they try to comprehend the world. Suggestions offer that the modern era in cognitive science began in the late 1930s and the early 1940s. It was Turing in 1936, who, through his paper on computability, was able to explicitly spell out the design of a machine that could carry out any set of well-defined formal operations (Chomsky, 1987). From the early 1950s onwards, there was an immense growth in cognitive science.

At this point, Chomsky was able to revolutionalize the study of the language, while Broadbent and others focused on attention (Chomsky, 1987). On the other hand, Bruner was more focused on thinking, while Newell, Shaw and Simon were able to come up with the general problem solver. In 1956, Hochberg studied the role of memory on perception. Cognitive scientists were able to make considerable strides in the 1970s and 80s, especially in the study of spontaneous mental imagery.

With the revival of biologically inspired approaches to cognitive science, the field was able to experience a paradigm shift. This approach was now more focused on the distributed representations and learning algorithms (Rumelhart et al, 1986). Unlike the preceding years where cognitive science was more concerned with those things that humans are conscious of, today’s domain is however more concerned with the phenomenon that lies behind the veil of consciousness (Rumelhart et al, 1986).

The study of cognitive science is best illustrated on the basis of four approaches, namely symbolic, confections, hybrid and dynamic systems. The symbolic approach tries to explain cognition by use of the mental symbols processes. The confections approach argues that to be able to explain cognition as a science, one needs to use artificial neural networks. The hybrid systems combine both confections and symbolic models, while the dynamic system explains cognition by means of a continuous dynamic system that interrelates all the elements.

In the areas of arts cognitive science is widely viewed as an aid to understanding creation, interpretations and appreciation of artworks in all mediums. By studying the mind cognitive scientists are thus able to analyze perception of ideas, emotions as well as imaginations, and these are central in the investigation of art as an aesthetic. With regard to perception, findings have now emerged that indeed, there exists a selected attention in humans to aspects of artwork. The perceptions of experienced viewers will also vary from those of less experienced ones.

Through art, the human power of imagination is brought to light. Further, studies have now indicated that perceptual and symbolic imaginations are not only distinct but are related as well. Thus, cognitive science can indeed offer persuasive accounts of the way people are able to interpret difficult tasks. The study of cognitive science also facilitates artists to differentiate the languages of their artistic works such as music, paintings,and films, from the ordinary language. With regard to philosophy, there are several parallels between these two interrelated disciplines.

First, the study of cognitive science helps people to be able to distinguish between a sense of agency and a sense of ownership for action. On the other hand, the narrative self is more involved with continuity, drawing relevances to matters of memory and personal identity.

Still on matters of art, Mark Johnson has argued that imagination is key to moral reasoning. By using cognitive science perspective, it is also possible to understand new technological changes with respect to inter cultural communication, on sociology.

Based on the premise that knowledge is a function of culture and social structure, the use of cognitive science hence enables people to better understand social structures. With the pace at which innovations in communications are advancing, the importance of intercultural communication comes to light and for this reason, cognitive approaches may again provide the link to meeting this future (Samuels et al, 1999).

The understanding of the different cultural variations as well as the interpretations of the different cultural values, meanings and symbols is very much a premise of the mind, and so cognitive science comes in handy. In recent years cognitive science has become a fundamental in the study of psychiatric disorders as well as their treatments. This has thus enabled the psychiatrists to be able to comprehend the way different personalities in an individual comes to play, as well as the meaning attached, and interpretations given to different individual perceptions in the mind.

Through cognitive science, the gap between neuroscience and psychotherapy is quickly closing in. thus, cognitive science has enabled neuroscientists to better understand the nervous system (Chomsky, 1987). Indeed, the area of neuroscience has become increasingly popular, especially following the invention of neuropsychology (Gallese & Goldman, 1998). Since cognitive science and education both involve themselves wit h problems of epistemology, the study of cognitive science hence has a lot of relevance in as far as goals of education are concerned.


Finally, the field of cognitive science, though relatively young, has been able to support the multi-disciplinary disciplines wit h which it is interconnected. it has gradually evolved through the years to emerge as one of the modern day scientific fields that offer solutions to the complex study of the human mind. It not only acts as a link to the different fields, but also helps to shed light on how individuals are able to develop and deploy knowledge.


Chomsky, N. (1987). On the nature, use and acquisition of language, in N. Chomsky, generative grammar, Kyoto university of foreign studies.

Gallese,V. & Goldman, A. (1998). Mirror neurons and the simulation theory of mind reading, Trends in the cognitive sciences, 12(2): 493-502.

Gardener,H. (1985).The mind’s new science: A history of the cognitive revolution: New York: Basic books.

Rumelhart, D., Hilton, G.,& William, N. (1986). Parallel distributed processing. Exploration in the micro construction of cognition. 1, 318-363.

Kemp, S. (1996). Cognitive psychology in the middle ages. Westport,CT: Greenwood press.

Samuels, S., Stich, S., & Tremoulet, P. (1999). Rethinking rationality: from bleak implications to Darwin’s modules, in E. Lepore & Pylyshyn (eds) what is cognitive science?, 74-120. Blackwell.

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