Skip to content

Cognitive Science 1: The Prehistory of Cognitive Science


“The guiding idea of cognitive science is that mental operations involve processing information” (6). Before cognitive science was developed as a field in itself, multiple independent areas (psychology, linguistics, math) contributed to this guiding assumption. The sections of this chapter outline the different areas that came together to lead to the guiding idea.

Almost all cognitive scientists are convinced that in some fundamental sense the mind is just the brain, so that everything that happens in the mind is happening in the brain. Few, if any, cognitive scientists are dualists, who think that the mind and brain are two separate and distinct things (6).

The reaction against behaviorism in psychology

Psychology used to focus solely on behavior, and not speculate about mental processes at all. Some key studies challenged the simple stimulus-response model for behavior, and provided evidence that some concept of storing or processing information is necessary to account for certain behaviors.

An early experiment (by Tolman and Honzik (1930)that challenged behaviorism involved running rats in mazes. One group of rats was rewarded each time they correctly ran the maze. The other group was given no reward for ten days, then rewarded upon successful completion. The second group, though performing more poorly at first, learned to run the maze more rapidly than the first group. This hinted at some sort of information processing/storing going on aside from simple association.

Tolman, Ritchie, and Kalish (1946) established that rats learned more quickly to navigate mazes spatially (requiring some mental model of the maze), than by learning a list of correct directions. Lashley (1951) challenged stimulus/response behaviorists by noting that behaviors necessitate some sort of mental planning to occur. A plan to go to a mall involves multiple subconscious plans to walk to one’s car, drive the correct route to the mall, etc, and each step can be split into even smaller action plans.

Algorithms and computation

Alan Turing provided much of modern cognitive science’s theoretical basis by introducing his theory of computation.

An algorithm is “a finite set of rules that are unambiguous and that can be applied systematically to an object or set of objects to transform it or them in definite and circumscribed ways” (14).

Turing’s model of computation provided a potential answer to how minds process information.

Linguistics and the formal analysis of language

Chomsky (1957) set out to explain why languages work the way they do, and did so in algorithmic terms. For example, a simple algorithm could transform an active sentence into a passive sentence.

Information-processing models in psychology

Informations theory in applied mathematics, stemming from a paper bay Claude E. Shannon in 1948, contributed to the idea of the mind as an information processor.

George Miller (1956) used the idea of an information-theory bottleneck to describe the limitations of working memory (Seven plus or minus two). The senses could be described as information-channels with limited capacity. Donald Broadbent provided a model describing how information flows from the senses to lead to actions, with filters, short-term stores, and the effect of conditional probabilities based on the past contributing to the ultimate outcome.

Connections and points of contact

A recurring theme in the events described above is information. Tolman and Honzik showed that information could be stored. Chomsky showed that language worked based on information worked upon by algorithms of basic sentence creation. Miller and Broadbent used information theory to describe our perceptual experiences/behaviors.

Representation is another recurring concept. Mice create representations of mazes in their mental maps. How information is represented (piece by piece or by chunking) affects its storage.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: