This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 07 table of contents.

The Emergence of Cognitive Science

As we saw in previous chapters, computers helped stimulate the modern interest in cognition, a word that covers knowledge, awareness, and mental processes in general. Computers influenced cognitive psychologists in at least three ways. (1) Computers provided a new perspective or approach to investigating intelligence, by portraying intelligence as information processing. (2) Computers provided a tool for doing research, for example, by displaying stimuli, collecting responses, and analyzing data. (3) Computers provided a new way of testing theories through simulations: imitations of mental processes in computer programs.

The emergence of cognitive science

At the dawn of the computer age, in the 1950s and early 1960s, researchers identified two different ways to studying cognitive processes using computers.

What was the classic distinction between the AI and cognitive approaches?

1. Artificial intelligence (AI) researchers, typically headquartered in a computer science department, tried to make computers act intelligent without regard to how humans did it. Their concern was making a program that worked (acted intelligently). If humans did things differently, AI researchers did not care.

2. Cognitive psychology researchers, typically headquartered in a psychology department, tried to explain how humans performed acts of cognition. Computer techniques were not necessarily relevant.

How is the term "cognitive science" used?

By the mid-1970s the two groups realized they could benefit by learning about each other's research, and they started borrowing ideas from each other. The term cognitive science came into use, as a way of covering all research aimed at understanding cognition, much the way neuroscience is used to cover all research related to the nervous system.

Today, cognitive science researchers could be working in a department of linguistics, computer science, education, or psychology (among others). Research in cognitive neuroscience occurs at the overlap between cognitive science and neuroscience. You will notice in this chapter frequent references to brain scans and other forms of biological evidence. Computer makers are learning from brain physiology, too, experimenting with techniques for modeling electronic circuits after brain circuits (so-called neuromorphic circuits) (Indivert & Douglas, 2000).

Most cognitive science researchers today are problem oriented. They do not care much how their approach is labeled. They care about particular problems such as handwriting recognition or auditory perception. Any helpful insights are welcomed, whether they come from artificial intelligence, cognitive psychology, neuroscience, or some other approach.

What are simulations and how do they provide a "tough challenge"?

Computer simulations (imitations of natural processes on a computer) provide a rigorous way to test a cognitive theory. The challenge to a theorist is clear: "If you think you have a good theory about how a cognitive process works, use it to design a computer program that accomplishes the task." This is a tough challenge! It is also a big change from the pre-computer era, when speculations about mental processes were hard to prove or disprove. A good example is the work of the gestalt psychologists, mentioned in chapter 4. They offered demonstrations and pronounced principles and speculated about energy fields in the brain, but they had no way to test their ideas in a more scientific way.

By contrast, computer programs either work or do not work; the results are clear. We will start our survey of cognitive science by examining one of the most successful efforts to simulate a cognitive process: the classic work from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on visual scene analysis.

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