Cognitive science is the study of mind, and is an interdisciplinary field that encompasses psychology, philosophy, computer science, education, neuroscience, anthropology, and linguistics. The intellectual origins of the field can be traced back to the 1950s, when researchers first began to use formal mathematical representations and computational structures to model theories of mind. Cognitive science became an “official” field in the late 1970s; in 1976, the first issue of the journal Cognitive Science was printed, and the first meeting of the Cognitive Science Society took place in 1979.
According to Thagard (1996, 5), “Cognitive science proposes that people have mental procedures that operate on mental representations to produce thought and action.” What binds researchers across the various contributing disciplines is the notion that the processes that occur during cognition can be represented abstractly by some type of predictive representation. The nature of that specific representation depends on the discipline; for example, philosophers rely on formal logic, artificial intelligence researchers employ computer code, neuroscientists are guided by biological structure, and cognitive psychologists often use statistical analyses to fit data resulting from experimentation. By building theoretically driven, empirically tested structures of cognitive processes, cognitive scientists seek to increase understanding of the mind, as well as to build systems that are able to understand, predict, and generate human thought and action.
The methods employed by cognitive scientists vary greatly. Linguists are most concerned with developing formal systems of syntax, semantics, phonetics, and pragmatics, and their work typically consists of comparing sentences and utterances. Often, this is done by examining databases of existing language, whereas some linguists perform laboratory experiments and implement computer models to test their theories. Psychologists rely primarily on laboratory experiments, aiming to understand how people form categories, reason, perceive stimuli, and encode, store, and retrieve memories. To accomplish these goals, psychologists examine the outcome of various experimental manipulations, the amount of time it takes an experimental subject to perform a task, and the various strategies people implement to complete the task. Computer scientists, in comparison, most often build algorithms to simulate artificial intelligence, creating programs that can comprehend or generate language, exhibit creativity, or solve problems. Cognitive anthropologists compare multiple cultures to assess the universality of mental structures, often using ethnographies, field observations, and some direct manipulation of experimental variables.
In sum, cognitive science spans many disciplines and methodologies, but researchers across this field seek to answer the same fundamental question: how are information processes represented in the mind?
Cognitive Science and Communication
In terms of their history and organization, the fields of communication and cognitive science share many characteristics. One of the main professional bodies of the communication field, the International Communication Association, was officially formed around the time (1950) that much of the work in cognitive science began. Like cognitive science, communication is a new field with its roots in a number of related disciplines such as psychology, sociology, political science, linguistics, journalism, anthropology, and economics. Thus, not only are both fields extremely interdisciplinary; they share many of the same sub-fields. Throughout the world, departments of cognitive science and communication are becoming more common.
The similarities between the two fields are quite manifest. A number of scholars who teach and research in communication departments were trained in cognitive science and vice versa. Furthermore, while it is rarely listed in textbooks as a component sub-field, many would agree that communication is one of the related sub-fields within cognitive science. For example, when comparing a popular textbook in communication (Griffin 2003) to a widely used textbook in cognition (Medin et al. 2001), one notes that both feature very prominently, in the opening pages of the book, the classic work by Claude Shannon on information processing. Of course, there are international and cultural variations in the use of textbooks and the crossover between the two fields, but overall the relationship is robust.
Craig (1978) was among the first communication scholars to explicitly point out the practical and theoretical overlap between the two fields. Later, Craig (1999) recognized cybernetics, an approach informed by cognitive science, as one of seven “traditions” of the communication field. According to Craig, cybernetics “points out surprising analogies between living and nonliving systems, challenges commonplace beliefs about the significance of consciousness and emotion, and questions our usual distinctions between mind and matter, form and content, the real and the artificial” (1999, 141). He argued that modern communication theory evolved from the works of Shannon, von Neumann, and Turing; cognitive scientists cite these same scholars as the foundation for the development of their field. From the cybernetic perspective, communication is defined as information processing or an evaluation of input in order to produce output.
One of the most fruitful ways of comparing the two fields may be to think of communication as a macro-version of cognitive science. Cognitive scientists create models of human behavior to gain insight into the underlying structure of the mind. In order to do so, they often study how a person interacts with some set of information or stimuli. Similarly, communication scholars examine the exchange of information among people to provide an understanding of the structure of human interaction. In communication, scholars study how people interact with others face to face as well as through media technologies and cultural artifacts. From the perspective of cognitive science, communication research might be said to take the model that cognitive scientists apply to one person interacting with information, and transfer that model to interaction among multiple individuals and society. This micro/macro-relationship between the two fields can be illustrated by comparing case examples of the Stroop Effect from cognitive science with the notion of interactional synchrony from communication.
The Stroop Effect (Stroop 1935) is considered a classic paradigm in psychology, and basically addresses how people attend to and process stimuli by examining patterns of interference when these stimuli contain a cue conflict (e.g., an experimental subject attempts to quickly state the meaning of the word “green” although it has been written in a red font). This theoretical model continues to drive a large amount of work in cognitive science, including linguistics, psychology, neuroscience, and artificial intelligence (see MacLeod 1991 for a review of this work). By studying how people process various types of information with an explicit conflict in cues, one learns more general lessons of how the brain and the mind are structured.
Interactional synchrony (Kendon 1970) refers to the idea that successful communication among multiple parties depends on their simultaneous and coordinated use of multiple channels. A key finding is that interaction succeeds only when the many verbal and nonverbal cues are correctly in synch, both within a speaker (i.e., the speaker’s verbal cues should not conflict with his or her nonverbal cues) and across speakers (i.e., the verbal and nonverbal cues between two speakers should be coordinated). By taking the general “cue-conflict” paradigm arising from the Stroop Effect, communication scholars have been learning more about how people interact with one another. The paradigm of cue conflict has been applied to studies of processes of social interaction, both face-to-face interaction (Burgoon et al. 1995) and mediated forms of interaction (Capella & Pelachaud 2002; Lee & Nass 2004; Bailenson et al. 2005).
To sum up, cognitive science attempts to formulate models of how the mind processes information, while communication research attempts to formulate models of how information flows between people, culture, and society. The paradigm of cue conflict serves to illustrate this micro/macro-distinction within two related interdisciplinary fields.
Implications for Communication Research
Cognitive science can enrich our general understanding of the psychological processes that inform the production and interpretation of messages. Several specific phenomena that are commonly addressed by communication researchers lend themselves to cognitive approaches, including interpersonal scripts, priming, attitude accessibility, patterns of discourse, human–computer interaction, and responses to media stimuli such as those originally hypothesized by Albert Bandura’s (1986) social cognitive theory. Each of these areas of inquiry can benefit from the exchange of methodological approaches and theoretical perspectives. A combination of microand macro-levels of analysis will provide a greater, more holistic understanding of communication and of the wider relationship between human cognition and behavior.
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