Cognitive Science is a set of studies about the mind and its processes. It formally originated in the 1950s, along with the development of computer operating systems. It currently represents one of the areas that has had the greatest impact on the analysis of different scientific disciplines.

We will now see what Cognitive Science is and, based on a review of the history of its development, we will explain what approaches it comprises.

What is Cognitive Science?

Cognitive Science is a multidisciplinary perspective on the human mind , which can be applied to other information processing systems, as long as they maintain similarities in the laws governing processing.

Beyond being a body of knowledge with particular characteristics and distinguishable 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 some branches of anthropology.

In fact, Fierro (2011) tells us that it is probably more appropriate to call this science a “cognitive paradigm”; since it is an approach to the mental, made up of basic principles, problems and solutions that has impacted the scientific activity of different areas .

4 phases and perspectives of Cognitive Science

Valera (quoted by Fierro, 2011) talks about four main stages in the consolidation of cognitive science : cybernetics, classical cognitivism, connectionism, and corporatization-action. Each of them corresponds to a stage in the development of Cognitive Science, however, none of them has disappeared or been replaced by the next one. These are theoretical approaches that coexist and are constantly being problematized. We will see, following the same author, what each one is about.

1. Cybernetics

Cybernetics developed from 1940 to 1955 and is recognized as the stage in which the main theoretical tools of Cognitive Science appeared. It coincides with the appearance of the first computers and computer operating systems, which in turn laid the foundations for studies in artificial intelligence. At the same time, different theories on information processing, reasoning and communication were developed .

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 operation generated central questions for Cognitive Science. For example, do machines have the capacity to think and develop autonomy like human beings?

The impact specifically on psychology was decisive, since the beginning of the 20th century had been marked by the predominance of psychoanalysis and behaviorism . The former does not focus so much on understanding “the mind”, but rather “the psyche”; and the latter focuses strictly on behavior, with which studies of the mental were relegated if not directly discarded.

For the Cognitive Science of 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 will later be recognized as the place where mental processes are generated).

Rather, he was interested in finding systems equivalent to mental activity that would allow it to be explained and even reproduced . The latter is made concrete with the analogy of computer processing, where it is understood that the human mind functions through a series of inputs (incoming messages or stimuli), and outpus (the messages or stimuli generated).

2. Classical Cognitivism

This model is generated by the contributions of different experts, both from computer science and psychology, artificial intelligence, linguistics and even economics. Among other things, this period, which corresponds to the mid-1960s, consolidates the previous ideas: all types of intelligence work in a very similar way to computer operating systems .

Thus, the mind was an encoder/decoder of fragments of information, resulting in “symbols”, “mental representations” and sequentially organized processes (one first and the other later). For this reason this model is also known as the symbolist, representationalist or sequential processing model.

Beyond studying the materials on which this is based (the hadware, which would be the brain), it is a matter of finding the algorithm that generates them (the software, which would be the mind). From this, the following is derived: there is an individual who, following automatically different rules, processes, represents and explains internally the information (for example using different symbols). And there is an environment that, by functioning independently of this, can be faithfully represented by the human mind.

However, the latter began to be questioned from the outset, precisely because of how the rules that would make us process the information were conceived. The proposal was that these rules led us to manipulate a set of symbols in a specific way . Through this manipulation, we generate and present a message to the environment.

But one thing that this model of Cognitive Science overlooked was that these symbols mean something; thus, their mere order works to explain syntactic activity, but not semantic activity. For the same reason, it would be difficult to speak of an artificial intelligence endowed with the capacity to generate meaning. In any case, its activity would be limited to logically ordering a set of symbols by means of a pre-programmed algorithm.

Moreover, if the cognitive processes were a sequential system (first one thing happens and then the other), there were doubts about how we performed those tasks that required the simultaneous activity of different cognitive processes. All this will lead to the next stages of Cognitive Science.

3. Connectionism

This approach is also known as “parallel distributed processing” or “neural network processing”. Among other things (such as those mentioned in the previous section), this model of the 1970s arose after the classical theory failed to justify the viability of the functioning of the cognitive system in biological terms .

Without abandoning the model of computer architecture of previous periods, what this tradition suggests is that the mind does not actually function through symbols organized in a sequential manner; rather, it acts by establishing different connections between the components of a complex network.

In this way it approaches models of neuronal explanation of human activity and information processing: the mind functions by massive interconnections distributed along a network . And it is the connectivity of this real that generates the rapid activation, or rather, the deactivation, of cognitive processes.

Beyond finding syntactic rules that follow one another, here the processes act in parallel and are quickly distributed to solve a task. Among the classic examples of this approach is the mechanism of pattern recognition, such as faces.

The difference between this and neuroscience is that the latter tries to discover mathematical and computational development models of the processes carried out by the brain, both human and animal, while connectionism focuses more on studying the consequences of these models at the level of information processing and cognitive processes.

4. Embodiment in action

In the face of approaches that are strongly centered on the internal rationality of the individual, this last approach recovers the role of the body in the development of internal processes. It arises in the first half of the 20th century, with the works of Merleau-Ponty in phenomenology of perception, where he explained how the body has direct effects on mental activity .

However, in the specific field of cognitive sciences, this paradigm was introduced until the second half of the 20th century, when some theories proposed that it was possible to modify the mental activity of machines through manipulating their bodies (no longer through a constant input of information). In the latter it was proposed that intelligent behaviors took place when the machine interacted with the environment , and not precisely because of its symbols and internal representations.

From here, cognitive science began to study body 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, child and developmental psychology began to be taken up again, which had shown how the first mental schemes, originating in childhood, take place after the body interacts with the environment in certain ways.

It is through the body that we can generate concepts related to weight (heavy, light), volume or depth, spatial location (up, down, in, out), etc. This is finally articulated with the theories of enaction, which propose that cognition is the result of an interaction between the embodied mind and the environment , which is possible only through motor action.

Finally, in addition to this last current of cognitive science , there are the hypotheses of the extended mind , which suggest that mental processes are not only in the individual, much less in the brain, but in the environment itself.

Bibliographic references:

  • Fierro, M. (2012). The conceptual development of cognitive science. Part II. Colombian Journal of Psychiatry, 41(1): pp. 185 – 196.
  • Fierro, M. (2011). The conceptual development of cognitive science. Part I. Colombian Journal of Psychiatry, 40(3): pp. 519 – 533.
  • Thagard, P. (2018). Cognitive Science. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved October 4, 2018. Available at