Cognitive revolution

The cognitive revolution was an intellectual movement that began in the 1950s as an interdisciplinary study of the mind and its processes. It later became known collectively as cognitive science.[1] The relevant areas of interchange were between the fields of psychology, linguistics, computer science, anthropology, neuroscience, and philosophy.[2] They used approaches developed within the then-nascent fields of artificial intelligence, computer science, and neuroscience. A key goal of early cognitive psychology was to apply the scientific method to the study of human cognition.[1] Some of the main ideas and developments from the cognitive revolution were the use of the scientific method in cognitive science research, the necessity of mental systems to process sensory input, the innateness of these systems, and the modularity of the mind.[3][1][4]

Historical background

Prior to the cognitive revolution, behaviorism was the dominant trend in psychology in the United States. Behaviorists were interested in "learning," which was seen as "the novel association of stimuli with responses."[5] Animal experiments played a significant role in behaviorist research, and prominent behaviorist J. B. Watson, interested in describing the responses of humans and animals as one group, stated that there was no need to distinguish between the two. Watson hoped to learn to predict and control behavior through his research. The popular Hull-Spence stimulus-response approach was, according to George Mandler, impossible to use to research topics that held the interest of cognitive scientists, like memory and thought, because both the stimulus and the response were thought of as completely physical events. Behaviorists typically did not research these subjects.[5] B. F. Skinner, a functionalist behaviorist, criticized certain mental concepts like instinct as "explanatory fiction(s)," ideas that assume more than humans actually know about a mental concept. [6] Various types of behaviorists had different views on the exact role (if any) that consciousness and cognition played in behavior.[7] Although behaviorism was popular in the United States, Europe was not particularly influenced by it, and research on cognition could easily be found in Europe during this time.[5]

Noam Chomsky has framed the cognitive and behaviorist positions as rationalist and empiricist, respectively,[8] which are philosophical positions that arose long before behaviorism became popular and the cognitive revolution occurred. Empiricists believe that human acquire knowledge only through sensory input, while rationalists believe that there is something beyond sensory experience that contributes to human knowledge. However, whether Chomsky's position on language fits into the traditional rationalist approach has been questioned by philosopher John Cottingham.[9]

George Miller, one of the scientists involved in the cognitive revolution, sets the date of its beginning as September 11, 1956, when several researchers from fields like experimental psychology, computer science, and theoretical linguistics presented their work on cognitive science-related topics at a meeting of the ‘Special Interest Group in Information Theory’ at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This interdisciplinary cooperation went by several names like cognitive studies and information-processing psychology but eventually came to be known as cognitive science. Grants from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in the 1970s advanced interdisciplinary understanding in the relevant fields and supported the research that led to the field of cognitive neuroscience.[2]

Several important publications triggered the cognitive revolution. These include psychologist George Miller's 1956 article "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two"[10] (one of the most frequently cited papers in psychology),[11] linguist Noam Chomsky's Syntactic Structures (1957)[12] and "Review of B. F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior" (1959),[13] and foundational works in the field of artificial intelligence by John McCarthy, Marvin Minsky, Allen Newell, and Herbert Simon, such as the 1958 article "Elements of a Theory of Human Problem Solving".[10] Ulric Neisser's 1967 book Cognitive Psychology was also a landmark contribution.[14]

In the 1960s, the Harvard Center for Cognitive Studies[15] and the Center for Human Information Processing at the University of California San Diego were influential in developing the academic study of cognitive science.[16] By the early 1970s, the cognitive movement had surpassed behaviorism as a psychological paradigm.[17][18][19] Furthermore, by the early 1980s the cognitive approach had become the dominant line of research inquiry across most branches in the field of psychology.

Main ideas

George Miller states that six fields participated in the development of cognitive science: psychology, linguistics, computer science, anthropology, neuroscience, and philosophy, with the first three playing the main roles.[20]

The Scientific Method

A key goal of early cognitive psychology was to apply the scientific method to the study of human cognition. This was done by designing experiments that used computational models of artificial intelligence to systematically test theories about human mental processes in a controlled laboratory setting.[1]

Mediation and information processing

When defining the "Cognitive Approach," Ulric Neisser says that humans can only interact with the "real world" through intermediary systems that process information like sensory input. As understood by a cognitive scientist, the study of cognition is the study of these systems and the ways they process information from the input. The processing includes not just the initial structuring and interpretation of the input but also the storage and later use.[21]

Steven Pinker claims that the cognitive revolution bridged the gap between the physical world and the world of ideas, concepts, meanings and intentions. It unified the two worlds with a theory that mental life can be explained in terms of information, computation and feedback. Therefore, reasoning, intelligence, imagination, and creativity are forms of information processing, a physical process.[3]


In his 1975 book Reflections on Language, Noam Chomsky questions how humans can know so much, despite relatively limited input. He argues that they must have some kind of innate learning mechanism that processes input, and that mechanism must be domain-specific and innate. Chomsky observes that physical organs do not develop based on their experience, but based on some inherent genetic coding, and wrote that the mind should be treated the same way. He says that there is no question that there is some kind of innate structure in the mind, but it is less agreed upon whether the same structure is used by all organisms for different types of learning. He compares humans to rats in the task of maze running to show that the same learning theory cannot be used for different species because they would be equally good at what they are learning, which is not the case. He also says that even within humans, using the same learning theory for multiple types of learning could be possible, but there is no solid evidence to suggest it. He proposes a hypothesis that claims that there is a biologically based language faculty that organizes the linguistic information in the input and constrains human language to a set of particular types of grammars. He introduces universal grammar, a set of inherent rules and principles that all humans have to govern language, and says that the components of universal grammar are biological. To support this, he points out that children seem to know that language has a hierarchical structure, and they never make mistakes that one would expect from a hypothesis that language is linear.[4]

Steven Pinker has also written on this subject from the perspective of modern-day cognitive science. He says that modern cognitive scientists, like figures in the past such as Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), don’t believe in the idea of the mind starting a "blank slate." Though they have disputes on the nature-nurture diffusion, they all believe that learning is based on something innate to humans. Without this innateness, there will be no learning process. He points out that human's acts are non-exhaustive, even though basic biological functions are finite. An example of this from linguistics is the fact that humans can produce infinite sentences, most of which are brand new to the speaker themselves, even though the words and phrases they have heard are not infinite.[3]

Pinker, who agrees with Chomsky's idea of innate universal grammar, claims that although humans speak around six thousand mutually unintelligible languages, the grammatical programs in their minds differ far less than the actual speech. Many different languages can be used to convey the same concepts or ideas, which suggests there may be a common ground for all the languages.[3]

Modularity of the mind

Pinker claims another important idea from the cognitive revolution was that the mind is modular, with many parts cooperating to generate a train of thought or an organized action. It has different distinct systems for different specific missions. Behaviors can vary across cultures, but the mental programs that generate the behaviors don’t need to be varied.[3]


There have been criticisms of the typical characterization of the shift from behaviorism to cognitivism.

Henry L. Roediger III argues that the common narrative most people believe about the cognitive revolution is inaccurate. The narrative he describes states that psychology started out well but lost its way and fell into behaviorism, but this was corrected by the Cognitive Revolution, which essentially put an end to behaviorism. He claims that behavior analysis is actually still an active area of research that produces successful results in psychology and points to the Association for Behavior Analysis International as evidence. He claims that behaviorist research is responsible for successful treatments of autism, stuttering, and aphasia, and that most psychologists actually study observable behavior, even if they interpret their results cognitively. He believes that the change from behaviorism to cognitivism was gradual, slowly evolving by building on behaviorism.[22]

Lachman and Butterfield were among the first to imply that cognitive psychology has a revolutionary origin.[23] Thomas H. Leahey has criticized the idea that the introduction of behaviorism and the cognitive revolution were actually a revolutions and proposed an alternative history of American psychology as "a narrative of research traditions."[24]

Jerome Bruner criticized the view that there was a conflict between behaviorism and the study of mental events, and he characterized one of the primary objects of the cognitive revolution as changing the study of psychology so that meaning was its core.[25] His understanding of the cognitive revolution revolves entirely around "meaning-making" and the formal description of how people go about this. He believes that the cognitive revolution steered psychology away from behaviorism by taking a very different path, rather than by modifying behaviorism with mentalism.[25]

See also


  1. Thagard, Paul (2014). "Cognitive Science". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. Retrieved 8 December 2017.
  2. Miller, George (March 2003). "The cognitive revolution: a historical perspective" (PDF). TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences. 7.
  3. Pinker, Steven (2002). The blank slate : The modern denial of human nature. Viking. ISBN 0-670-03151-8. OCLC 939275519.
  4. Chomsky, Noam (1975). Reflections on Language.
  5. Mandler, George (2002). "Origins of the cognitive (r)evolution". Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. 38 (4): 339–353. doi:10.1002/jhbs.10066. PMID 12404267.
  6. Skinner, B. F. (2012). Science And Human Behavior. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-0-02-929040-8.
  7. Leahey, T. H. (1992). "The mythical revolutions of American psychology" (PDF). American Psychologist. 47 (2): 308–318. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.47.2.308. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-04-17. Retrieved 2016-05-19.
  8. "Empiricism and Rationalism, by Noam Chomsky (Excerpted from Language and Responsibility)". Retrieved 2019-12-03.
  9. Markie, Peter (2017), Zalta, Edward N. (ed.), "Rationalism vs. Empiricism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, retrieved 2019-12-03
  10. Thagard, Paul (2014). "Cognitive Science". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. Retrieved 8 December 2017.
  11. Gorenflo, Daniel W.; McConnell, James V. (26 August 2016). "The Most Frequently Cited Journal Articles and Authors in Introductory Psychology Textbooks". Teaching of Psychology. 18 (1): 8–12. doi:10.1207/s15328023top1801_2.
  12. "Noam Chomsky". 2015-10-16. Archived from the original on 2015-10-16. Retrieved 2019-07-25.
  13. Palmer, David C (2006). "On Chomsky's Appraisal of Skinner's Verbal Behavior: A Half Century of Misunderstanding". The Behavior Analyst. 29 (2): 253–267. doi:10.1007/bf03392134. ISSN 0738-6729. PMC 2223153. PMID 22478467.
  14. Neisser, U (1967) Cognitive Psychology Appleton-Century-Crofts, New York.
  15. Pinker, Steven (12 October 2011). "The Cognitive Revolution". Harvard Gazette. Retrieved 8 December 2017.
  16. "George Mandler - In Memoriam". Department of Psychology, UC San Diego. Regents of the University of California. Retrieved 8 December 2017.
  17. Friesen, Norm (2010). "Mind and Machine: Ethical and Epistemological Implications for Research" (PDF). AI & Society. 25 (1): 83–92. doi:10.1007/s00146-009-0264-8. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-08-04. Retrieved 2019-07-06.
  18. Thagard, P. (2002). "Cognitive Science". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  19. Waldrop M.M. (2002). The Dream Machine: JCR Licklider and the revolution that made computing personal. New York: Penguin Books. pp. 139, 140.
  20. Miller, George (March 2003). "The cognitive revolution: a historical perspective" (PDF). TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences. 7.
  21. Neisser, Ulric, 1928-2012. (2014). Cognitive psychology. Psychology press. ISBN 978-1-84872-693-2. OCLC 1014160397.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  22. Roediger, Henry L.; III (2004-03-01). "What Happened to Behaviorism". APS Observer. 17 (3).
  23. Lachman, Roy, Lachman, Janet L. and Butterfield, Earl C. (1979). Cognitive Psychology and Information Processing: An Introduction. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  24. Leahey, T. H. (1992). "The mythical revolutions of American psychology" (PDF). American Psychologist. 47 (2): 308–318. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.47.2.308. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-04-17. Retrieved 2016-05-19.
  25. Bruner, Jerome S. (2002). Acts of meaning. Harvard Univ. Press. ISBN 0-674-00360-8. OCLC 254587342.


Further reading


  • Baars, Bernard J. (1986) The cognitive revolution in psychology Guilford Press, New York, ISBN 0-89862-656-0
  • Gardner, Howard (1986) The mind's new science : a history of the cognitive revolution Basic Books, New York, ISBN 0-465-04634-7; reissued in 1998 with an epilogue by the author: "Cognitive science after 1984" ISBN 0-465-04635-5
  • Johnson, David Martel and Emeling, Christina E. (1997) The future of the cognitive revolution Oxford University Press, New York, ISBN 0-19-510334-3
  • LePan, Don (1989) The cognitive revolution in Western culture Macmillan, Basingstoke, England, ISBN 0-333-45796-X
  • Murray, David J. (1995) Gestalt psychology and the cognitive revolution Harvester Wheatsheaf, New York, ISBN 0-7450-1186-1
  • Olson, David R. (2007) Jerome Bruner: the cognitive revolution in educational theory Continuum, London, ISBN 978-0-8264-8402-4
  • Richardson, Alan and Steen, Francis F. (editors) (2002) Literature and the cognitive revolution Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina, being Poetics today 23(1), OCLC 51526573
  • Royer, James M. (2005) The cognitive revolution in educational psychology Information Age Publishing, Greenwich, Connecticut, ISBN 0-8264-8402-6
  • Simon, Herbert A. et al. (1992) Economics, bounded rationality and the cognitive revolution E. Elgar, Aldershot, England, ISBN 1-85278-425-3
  • Todd, James T. and Morris, Edward K. (editors) (1995) Modern perspectives on B. F. Skinner and contemporary behaviorism (Series: Contributions in psychology, no. 28) Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, ISBN 0-313-29601-4


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