The Demise of "Cognitive Science"

For several years, I’ve felt that cognitive science as it was originally conceived is being progressively replaced by cognitive neuroscience.

By “cognitive science as it was originally conceived,” I mean primarily the alliance between traditional cognitive psychology and artificial intelligence (either “classicist” or “connectionist”), supplemented by contributions from linguistics, philosophy of mind, neuroscience (mostly about “implementation”), and perhaps anthropology.

By “cognitive neuroscience,” I mean primarily the study of cognition using behavioral techniques as well as neuroimaging, neurophysiological, and neural modeling techniques, possibly supplemented by contributions from other disciplines such as those listed above–except that instead of traditional artificial intelligence you get more biologically realistic modeling techniques (such as the use of integrate-and-fire neurons).

There are still people who deny the trend from cognitive science towards cognitive neuroscience, or think it’s wrongheaded, or think it has no philosophical significance (read: “psychology is still autonomous from neuroscience!!”).  But I think any unbiased observer can at least see the trend and suspect that there is something right about it (that is, the replacement of relatively more speculative boxological explanations of cognition with relatively more empirically constrained mechanistic explanations).

I’ve had a nice direct confirmation of this at the 7th International Conference on Cognitive Science (not to be confused with CogSci 2010 ), which I just attended.  Two observations.  First, virtually all of the keynote speakers and all the sessions I attended placed heavy emphasis on neuroimaging data, neurphysiology, realistic neural modeling, and other kinds of neurological evidence.  Second, two psychologists I spoke to (whose name I unfortunately forgot), one British and one American, explicitly agreed that many scientists who would have called themselves “cognitive scientists” until about ten years ago would be reluctant to use that label now.  It seems obsolete to them.  And these are the people who attend conferences on “cognitive science”!


  1. Joshua Stern

    psychology is still autonomous from neuroscience

    works for me.

    seems that all the heavy lifting is in connecting the two. or in my case, connecting psychology with a computational, mechanistic platform.

    I think the problem is that no existing concepts of identity or reduction (or anything else) really work for cognition. That’s the bad news. The good news is that we *do* this kind of thing all day long, in doing what we do with computer programs. But what, exactly, is that? Putting my PC in the MRI machine to study its operation is not going to answer the question.

  2. Cognitive Neuroscience seems to be a more restrictive term than Cognitive Science. While accepting the need to distinguish between more recent cognitive science and the “old’ Cognitive Science would not the term Mind Science be preferable to Cognitive Neuroscience? It would include the many fields other than neuroscience which have improved our understanding of the human mind.

  3. gualtiero

    Graham, I mostly agree with you but I don’t get to legislate which term catches on. These days the buzzword seems to be “cognitive neuroscience”.

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