Profound Cognitive Confusion

As I embark on intellectual adventures in cognitive science, as I intend to, I begin with the basics. The first question I tackled, and one I’m often asked, is: “What is cognitive science?” It doesn’t get much more basic than that. Even so, there is enough confusion about this to make it a very good question for anyone to ask.

I'm so confused.

Cognitive science is, of course, the science of cognition. Cognition is just another word for thinking–one that carries specific implications about how thinking happens. At this point it’s evident that we think with our brains, and presumably cognitive science is the study of this. So it purports to be, too, although there’s a whole lot more to it. You could see it as the study of mind and mental processes, in other words, of the mind and its operations; and since the mind is what the brain does, it’s not unreasonable to think that cognitive science would primarily study neural function.

Here’s where things get a little whack. There’s already another field for studying brains: neuroscience. Neuroscience is not cognitive science–although it is sometimes considered one of the “cognitive sciences.” In fact, not all neuroscientists seem to be even interested in cognitive science. So I wondered: how do they relate? For example, what is a question one discipline would address that the other wouldn’t?

I’ve asked several neuroscientists and a neurophilosopher this question directly; none could say! I even raised the question on Quora. No satisfactory answers there either. I began to wonder: given the billions spent on research into the brain, the mind and psychology every year, how could this be?

Then it gets more fun. Turns out there’s something else called cognitive neuroscience. When I discovered this, my initial reaction was, are you kidding me? But cognitive science is not cognitive neuroscience, despite the two having almost identical names. The latter is a subfield of neuroscience; the former isn’t. Yet the two definitely relate. For example, the Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuropsychology Lab at UCSD is part of the UCSD Cognitive Science department (which is considering my Ph.D. application right now).

And then it gets even better. There’s something else called computational neuroscience. Since cognitive science draws deeply from computer science (it had a major artificial intelligence research program for decades), you might at first think this is simply a synonym for cognitive science. But it’s not. It is the study of the brain as an information processor. It has multiple touchpoints to cognitive science, but again, one goes to places the other doesn’t, and vice versa.

So, what the fuck is going on? I’ve spent the past few months trying to clear this up for myself. Here’s what I’ve got so far.

Neuroscience is a life science. It’s about the nervous system, which includes the brain. It’s not really about thinking at all, although obviously it has huge relevance. A neuroscientist works with neurons, perhaps seeing how they can be affected by chemicals or sensing their electrical activity to get a grasp of neural functions. A neuroscientist might study what the brain does when a person thinks about adding two numbers, but not how a computer does the same thing, even though (I would argue) both are comparable forms of cognition, despite having very different realizations. And I doubt a neuroscientist would investigate anything cognitive that can’t be reduced to a neurological explanation. For example, the thing we call friendship is something mental that is maintained by neural functionality, but you can’t explain friendship in those terms for an individual brain. Friendship is social; it emerges from the interaction of at least two brains, and each may have very different things going on. Friendship can’t appear on an fMRI scan.

Here’s another clue. A cognitive scientist might very well study psychological and social relationships between different people without looking into neurology at all. I don’t believe a neuroscientist would do something like this unless it were to inform a specific inquiry into brain function. A cognitive scientist may even study how people and computers orchestrate themselves cognitively; this is in fact a topic of cognitive science known as distributed cognition.

So as best I can make out, cognitive science isn’t strictly reducible to neuroscience for two big reasons: one, it takes on phenomena that emerges beyond the bounds of the neurology of an individual brain; and two, it can encompass cognitive phenomena exhibited in intelligent machines, i.e. computers, which don’t have neurons.

At this point it seems like the best way to make sense of all this is as follows:

  • Cognitive science is the study of the phenomena of cognition in the world, natural or artificial, leveraging insights from the following three fields and others, such as computer science, psychology, linguistics and even philosophy;
  • Neuroscience is the study of the brain and nervous system, not artificial systems and not necessarily even cognition;
  • Cognitive neuroscience is the study of the phenomena of cognition in the brain, that is, the biological underpinnings of thinking; and
  • Computational neuroscience is the study of the brain and nervous system’s information processing abilities, cognitive or otherwise.

So there it you have it. The fields all interact in different ways and overlap considerably, and I didn’t even address other closely related fields like cognitive psychology or philosophy of mind. I take this complicated muddle to be the product of the deep confusion that exists about the mind today. All the same, the progress in this space is beyond warp speed, which creates new chaos and confusion at least as fast as discoveries and advances clear things up. In short, the “cognitive sciences” are in a state of total revolution… and revolutions get messy. There’s so much creativity in this space that these disciplines, with their distinct intellectual interests and traditions, either blend, separate or directly contradict one another in countless ways that constantly change.

I really like revolution. I think it’s a very exciting time to study cognition. There is clearly much to be done.

3 thoughts on “Profound Cognitive Confusion

  1. Pingback: Quora
  2. Yeah, I agree with most of what you said. From the tone of your article, you seem surprised that most neuroscience is NOT about cognition, which is kinda funny. I’d argue that right now we’re still trying to figure out the inputs and outputs of the brain. Once that is established, we can work on what’s in between, cognition.

    Also, re: computational neuroscience. I don’t think your definition is wrong, but I think of computational neuroscience more in terms of modeling the brain. For example, you might argue that diffusion is important for receptor trafficking. A computational neuroscientist would then take diffusion equations, build a model, and see if the numbers hold up.

  3. Maybe it sounds weird, but the mainstream conception of neuroscience is that it’s about understanding the brain; and since thinking is what the brain does, neuroscience is all about thinking. Your view from within is more nuanced and you see how big the chasm is between the two, but I doubt most people even see a chasm at all. There’s a very deep reductionist instinct to neuroscience that isn’t immediately evident. As a relative newbie to this space, it was surprising to me that cognition wouldn’t be considered interesting by those studying the very seat of cognition; it seemed like a cardiologist being uninterested in blood pressure.

    Thanks for the clarification on computational neuroscience.

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