Cognitive Science: An Introduction/A Brief History

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Folk Psychology[edit]

Everyone has ideas about how the mind works, and we use these ideas to explain and predict the behavior of ourselves and other people and animals. For example, if we see a child eating ice cream very quickly, we might explain this behavior in terms of a desire, such as "she wanted to eat ice cream," a preference "she likes ice cream," or perhaps a belief "she believes that eating ice cream will make her happy."

These commonsense notions of how people think is called "folk psychology." Similarly, there is "folk physics" and "folk biology." These ideas help use navigate the complex physical and social world we live in.

But we can do better than that. All folk theories have problems with them. This is a very important thing for a beginning cognitive scientist to realize. We might feel very strongly about our folk psychology, but it comes from our culture and what we've learned through experience. There also might be an evolved component. But none of these are based on science or any other scholarly pursuit of knowledge. The beginnings of physics and biology also share with cognitive science this philosophical origin.

Cognitive Science's Pre-History[edit]

We know that scholars have been thinking about how the mind works since at least the times of the ancient Greek philosophers. Using introspection, conceptual analysis, and argumentation, philosophers sought to make sense of how people do and should think.

The study of the mind as an empirical science began in 1879 when Wilhelm Wundt founded his laboratory for psychology. Shortly afterward Sigmund Freud introduced his theories of psychoanalysis, which were widely influential. However, Freud's methods were based on case studies. Case studies can be informative, but have their limitations. Most scientists (of any field) believe that while case studies are an interesting starting point, and perhaps good for theory and hypothesis generation, they lack controls, objective measurement, quantification, and other "rigorous" aspects of experiments. Claims of causation that are taken purely from case studies are taken with great skepticism.

In the 1900s there was a strong reaction, particularly in the United States, against case studies and other methods, such as introspection, which were regarded as non-rigorous. This led to a revolution in psychology.


Behaviorism rejected mental entities and events as legitimate subjects of scientific exploration. Instead, behaviorists insisted on using only objectively measurable in their studies. For example, beliefs are theoretical mental entities. But there is no objective way to determine what the contents of a belief are, or, indeed, any way to objectively determine if a particular belief even exists.

When we attribute a belief to someone, we are always inferring it from their behavior. For example, if Jill says "I live downtown," one might infer that Jill has a belief that she lives downtown. Behaviorists insisted that this inference not be made. Rather, they preferred to study only the fact that Jill said "I live downtown," because that utterance is objectively measurable. For example, her voice might be recorded. This approach is called "methodological behaviorism."

The behaviorists often studied the relation of the stimulus presented to an organism, and the response that organism to it, without speculation as to what was going on in the mind of the organism.

The behaviorists discovered a great deal of things, particularly about learning. You might have heard of the term "positive reinforcement." This is a term coined by the behaviorists.

Some behaviorists went further. Rather than just claiming that mental entities were illegitimate subjects of scientific study, some claimed that mental entities did not exist at all. This is known as "radical behaviorism."

As one might imagine, this restriction on how one can do science put severe constraints on what was possible. They often studies simpler, non-cultural creatures such as pigeons and rats. They even earned the nickname "rat runners."

In 1960 Miller, Galanter, and Pribram wrote a book called Plans and the Structure of Behavior, which started to chip away at the behaviorist paradigm. They argued that the organism could not be viewed as a black box, but that animals used some kind of iterative problem-solving strategy (T.O.T.E.).

One of the most famous behaviorists, B. F. Skinner, wrote a book that attempted to explain language. Noam Chomsky wrote a review of this book which was enormously influential. In it, Chomsky claimed that language generation could not be understood without using theoretical mental entities. This review, as well as Plans and the Structure of Behavior, were two prominent works that helped usher in the cognitive revolution.

Psychology was changing itself from within, and Linguistics was suddenly becoming relevant to cognitive issues. Simultaneous developments in computers were the third major cause of the cognitive revolution.

Computers and Computer Programs[edit]

Scholars have often thought of the mind metaphorically-- as a lens, or as valves. When programmable computers were invented, it facilitated a whole new way of thinking about how a mind might work. This metaphor has been prominent ever since.

A computer program manipulates information, and it can be programmed with little or no knowledge of how the computer actually works. This separation of hardware and software (the computer and the program) was essential for the the widespread appreciation of the "cognitive level" of understanding. In the cognitive metaphor, the brain is like the computer, and the mind, and things that it does, are like software. Although the nature of the hardware sometimes influences the behavior of the software (be it in computers or in people), this distinction freed scholars to theorize about the mind without needing to refer to brain structure.

Shortly after computers were invented, people started programming computers to do smart things. The science of building intelligent things is known as "artificial intelligence" (AI) Part of what made behaviorism so attractive was that it was hard to imagine how a mind might work. But with intelligent computer programs, people could see how information might be communicated and manipulated. It was not hard to imagine that people's minds worked on similar principles.

The Cognitive Revolution[edit]

See Also[edit]

  • Introspection
  • Conceptual Analysis
  • Argumentation
  • Case Studies
  • Behaviorism
  • T.O.T.E.