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What’s New in Cognitive Science?

Four major trends in current cognitive science

Cognitive science is the interdisciplinary investigation of mind and intelligence, embracing psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, philosophy, anthropology, and computational intelligence.    I was recently asked to write the preface for the Chinese translation of the second edition of my textbook, Mind: Introduction to Cognitive Science.  As an update, I reviewed four major trends in current cognitive science. 

 The first trend is that cognitive neuroscience is becoming more and more central to all branches of psychology.  Brain scanning technology is continuing to improve, with more powerful fMRI machines and other technologies such as transcranial magnetic simulation and near-infrared spectroscopy  providing new experimental findings about how brains produce thoughts.   For example, the multinational Human Connectome Project is compiling data about brain pathways.    Making sense of experimental findings requires theory, and the field of theoretical neuroscience has expanded dramatically in the past decade with new computational models of the mechanisms by which brains are able to represent and process information.   I think that these developments are consistent with a general version of the computational-representational understanding of mind, but they require expansions and revisions of old ideas drawn from digital computers.   Theoretical neuroscience is generating new views of the nature of representation and computation that can even be applied to difficult questions concerning emotions, consciousness, and creativity. Progress in cognitive neuroscience also has important implications for traditional philosophical issues such as the mind-body problem, free will, and even the meaning of life. 

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 A second important trend in cognitive science in the last decade has been the increasing prominence of statistical models based on Bayesian probability theory.   These models have been applied to many important phenomena in cognitive psychology and also have had impressive applications in robotics such as the operation of autonomous vehicles.   I have doubts about the psychological plausibility of understanding the mind/brain as an engine that makes inferences using probability theory, but it does seem that there are mental operations such as vision and language processing that work statistically.  

 The third important trend that deserves more attention is increasing emphasis on embodiment.  In philosophy, this concern has erroneously led to claims that the important mental roles of  the body and the world require rejection of the computational-representational understanding of mind.    In psychology, however, there has been a more reasonable recognition that aspects of thinking such as images and emotions require expansion and modification of traditional ideas about representation and computation. Appreciation of the role of  embodiment in cognition is enhanced by the first trend I mentioned: advances in cognitive neuroscience (both experimental and theoretical) are revealing how the brain uses information gathered from the senses and interaction with the world to perform complex tasks. 

 Finally, the fourth important trend in cognitive science today is greater appreciation of the social dimensions of cognition, which may seem go in the opposite direction from the biological trend of cognitive neuroscience but is actually compatible with it.   Psychology and anthropology have increasingly shown ways in which human thinking is affected by the interactions that people have with others in the culture they share.   These interactions depend on biological mechanisms such as the generation and transmission of emotions, but social changes also produce biological changes.   For example, if someone insults you, the levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) in your blood stream will increase.     Cognitive science needs to be able to integrate increased understanding of the social context of thinking with understanding of neural mechanisms.   

 I am very hopeful that cognitive science will continue to progress and that advances in areas such as theoretical neuroscience will provide answers to some of the most challenging questions about the mind.   Let me pose as a kind of ultimate challenge for cognitive science the explanation of what happens when people experience self-consciousness of creativity.    This experience occurs when a person becomes aware that he or she has produced something that is new and valuable, as in the Eureka! moment of Archimedes.   Such awareness requires representation of the self as doing something creative, explanation of which will require new theories of creativity, consciousness, and the self.     I am excited by the prospect that even this ultimate problem can be solved by the development of theories of mental mechanisms supported by experimental evidence. 

Paul Thagard is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Waterloo and author of The Brain and the Meaning of Life.


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