Sean X. Luo M.D., Ph.D.

Hooked on Patterns

Modern Intellectual History of Cognitive Sciences

One Saturday Morning Sketch

Posted Feb 28, 2015

Figure 1
Source: Figure 1

I am thinking about Konrad Lorentz this morning, and this prompted me to sketch out the intersecting intellectual history through the 20th century that allowed for the development of contemporary cognitive science (Fig. 1).  The left side is very clear in my head: two big technological development to allow for modern computing: transistor and laser, both of which require at least early development of quantum mechanics (QM).  The emerging transistor technology made people think more about the theoretical basis of computing (information theory, computational complexity, etc).  Laser allows for storage, miniaturization, and development of other technologies.  The “experimental” portion of QM also allows for things like x-ray diffraction, which allows for the discovery of various proteins and DNAs, which subsequently led to the emergence of molecular biology.  The intersection of computational science and biology allows for the current development of “neuroscience” or “hard neuroscience” to come out as a fairly self-contained program of understanding how the brain works.  This lineage is very satisfying, one discovery rationally following another, with some window dressing here and there.  Most of the important physiology and medicine discoveries relevant to the brain can plug into this main strain.

The middle part lineage is confusing to me, but probably shouldn’t be and I can use some help to fill it.  The forerunner of this part is probably Darwin, although there are other strands.  This gives rise to the modern neo-Darwinian synthesis and experimental psychology, which required a more rigorous treatment of statistics (Fisher, etc).  To understand behavior, studying animals behave in nature is probably one of the most important intellectual contributions in the 20th century.  These fields influenced other fields of social sciences, which I am less familiar, like economics and operations research.  The “software” portion of the left side strand plugs in there too, with people like von Neumann, and Herbert Simon, who love to dabble, go over to have some fun over there.  The other interesting thing here is that if you count the number of people who were either on the left or middle who worked at Bell Labs in the 60s, it’s pretty crazy how many worked there.  Research in AI and neuroscience tend to part ways in the 80s, but I think this trend is reversing in the early 2000s. 

I suspect people like Shannon and Minsky would agree with the suggestion that they are intellectual descendants of the Einstein lineage.

Now we move to the far right side of the figure, which has a very clearly spelledout lineage in continental philosophy, but I don’t know enough to write them all down—not my area of expertise—and that lineage basically connects to the humanities (film studies, literary criticism, gender studies, etc.), but also connects to things like social work, ethics, advocacy.

Out of the list of important contributions, Freud is really the special one.  He’s the one who connects the left with the far right.  The influence of experimental psychology on psychoanalysis didn’t really happen until after him, but the emergence of psychoanalysis seems distinct and out of the blue.  Now that I’m thinking about this more, is psychoanalysis coming out what we think of as “Western Medicine”, i.e. Versailles/Harvey/Virchow/Charcot?  This particular lineage is fascinating and special to me as a physician because it really starts with pathology and disease, and a desire to heal, as opposed to our desires to either understand nature, ourselves, develop gizmos or be creative.

About the Author

Sean X. Luo, M.D., Ph.D., is a physician-scientist working at Columbia University and The New York State Psychiatric Institute.

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