Cognitive Neuroscience Research Paper Starter

Cognitive Neuroscience

(Research Starters)

The basic question of interest to cognitive neuroscientists - what is the relationship between mind and brain - is described; the development of the field is then put into historical context by reviewing how others - ancient philosophers and behavioral psychologists, for example - have either addressed or ignored the relationship between the mind and brain. Cognitive neuroscience has relied on new technologies as well as the insights from a variety of different fields; the importance of collaboration and different types of methodologies are explored. Finally, the implications of cognitive neuroscience research for education and learning are explored.

Keywords Brain; Cognitive Psychology; Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI); Information Processing Theory; Lesion Studies; Mind; Network Theory


As an academic discipline, cognitive neuroscience is in its infancy; the term itself was coined in 1970, and the Cognitive Neuroscience Society didn't hold its inaugural meeting until 1994 (Bly & Rumelhart, 1999). Lack of maturity, however, does not necessarily imply lack of productivity. Cognitive neuroscience has been a remarkably fertile field in an especially limited amount of time. "Biologist E.O. Wilson even referred to the recent period of scientific fecundity within cognitive neuroscience as the occurrence of a rare 'heroic period' of science - comparable to 'the heroic periods of molecular biology, plate tectonics in geology, and the modern synthesis of evolutional biology'" (Ilardi & Feldman, 2001, p. 1114). Cognitive neuroscience is perhaps heroic not only for its fecundity, but also for exploring what many refer to as the final frontier.

What exactly is this final frontier, the subject of study of the cognitive neuroscientist? The obvious answer for many might be 'the brain' - while correct, such an answer would be incomplete and misleading. Cognitive neuroscientists don't study an object such as the brain, per se, but rather a relationship - more specifically, the relationship between the brain and mind. Ganzaggia (2000) defines it this way: "at the core, the cognitive neuroscientist wants to understand how the brain enables the mind" (p.xii). Bly and Rumelhart (1999) provide a similar definition: "the goal of cognitive neuroscience is to understand how brain function gives rise to mental abilities such as memory, reasoning, vision, or movement" (p. 320). The focus on the relationship is what distinguishes cognitive neuroscientists from cognitive scientists; cognitive scientists also study mental processes such as memory, but they do so by focusing on the function independent of 'the organ which gives rise to the function' (Bly & Rumelhart, 1999, p. 321). In other words, cognitive neuroscientists integrate physical (neural) and functional levels of analysis.

Gazzaniga (2000) describes exploration in this final frontier as 'a very tricky business'; indeed, it's difficult to ignore the significant challenges facing those who study the brain and its relation to our cognitive faculties. But there is also something uniquely challenging about this field of study. As Smith (2002) explains, "the mind and its expression in consciousness is at the same time the subject of our study and the means by which we carry on that discussion. I believe that this makes our attempt at understanding the mind both uniquely challenging and extraordinarily interesting to all of us" (p. 2). In other words, we are using our mind to investigate itself, making it both the object and subject of study.

Development of the Field

Cognitive neuroscience might be a relatively new field, but one of the questions cognitive neuroscientists are trying to answer - what is the nature of the mind and the nature of consciousness - is one that philosophers have been grappling with for centuries. Smith (2002) argues, however, that the tools available to the philosopher - mainly introspection and logic - significantly limited their ability to answer such questions. "The classic tools of the philosopher have been the mainstay of the study of human nature, but contribute little to our understanding of the material world around us, including our physical selves. One result has been a dualistic approach to our study of ourselves, with cognition separated from anatomy and physiology by a philosophical wall" (p. 57). Only by embracing science - empiricism and observation as opposed to introspection and logic - have we gained insights into the mind.


Not all science has contributed to our understanding of consciousness equally. A substantial portion of the twentieth century was dominated by a theoretical orientation known as behaviorism. Behaviorists relied on observation, defining all learning as changes in observable behavior. In addition to relying on the observable, however, many behaviorists denied the existence of the mind altogether, or argued the futility of attempting to study it. Watson, often cited as the father of the behaviorist movement, wrote "the reader will find no discussion of consciousness and no reference to such terms as sensation, perception, attention, and will…" (as quoted in Smith, 2002, p. 8). For many years, the mind and brain were virtually ignored, causing many to wonder "can a serious student again undertake a serious study of consciousness after nearly half a century hiatus produced by the embracing of behaviorism?" (Smith, 2002, p. 9).

Cognitive Psychology

The answer, of course, is 'yes' and the academic discipline that gave the serious student the opportunity to study the mind again was cognitive psychology. With renewed vigor, cognitive psychologist focused their energy on the black box - the very thing behaviorists ignored - and began studying cognitive functions such as memory, attention, and language development. Even though cognitive psychologists didn't study function in relation to physiology directly, they did embrace models that suggested how the mind and brain might work. Many cognitivists adopted an information processing model, for example, theorizing that the brain worked in much the same way as a computer. Even as neuroscientists entered the scene, the computer remained a viable model, with some suggesting that the individual neuron of the brain mimicked the digital communication of artificial intelligence systems.

Network Theory

Ultimately, however, as researchers began to understand more about the structure of the brain, both the computer metaphor and the reductionist focus on the individual neuron became unsatisfactory ways to explore the mind and brain. The computer metaphor assumed human thought was logical and linear, an assumption that would prove to be false. And "individual neurons didn't provide a reasonable model of complex behavior and thought" (Smith, 2002, p. 15). Instead, scientists began developing a more sophisticated understanding of the brain, investigating neurons as clusters of cells as opposed to single entities, and recognizing that communication between neurons and clusters of neurons was bi-directional and multi-layered. The model that now guides most cognitive neuroscience research is referred to as 'network theory' (Smith, 2002).

Cognitive neuroscientists, and the field more generally, didn't evolve in isolation. In fact, Martin & Rumelhart, 1999 describe it as "inherently multi-disciplinary" and Gazzaniga (2000) explains that the pioneers of the field were "fed by the instinct that people in various camps needed to be talking to one another" (p. xiii). Smith (2002) suggests that cognitive neuroscience rests equally on the contributions of three fields - artificial intelligence, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience. Others may define the players more broadly, with even greater emphasis on the collaborative nature of the field. "In cognitive neuroscience, we consider data collected by researchers studying behavior, cognition, neurophysiology, neuroanatomy, and computation, and each new finding provides additional fodder for theories of brain function. Theory building thus becomes a process of trying to fit together a wide variety of different types of information into a more complex, integrated whole" (Bly & Rumelhart, 1999, p. 320).


Prior to the last several decades, researchers didn't have direct access to the healthy brains of living people. The earliest studies of the relationship between the brain and cognitive function relied on observations of individuals who had suffered brain damage; loss of function was documented, and then correlated with the damaged areas of the brain upon subsequent postmortem investigation. Patient case studies such as these have been utilized since the 19th century (Chatterjee, 2005). One of the more recent well-known case studies of this sort is the study of a patient referred to as H.M.; after undergoing brain surgery as a last resort effort to eliminate seizures, H.M. suffered severe memory loss. Because doctors knew the specific areas of the brain damaged by surgery, they learned a lot of its relationship to cognitive functions such as language and memory.

Imaging Techniques

While useful, case studies of brain-damaged individuals - also referred to as lesion studies - did not give researchers information about the healthy brain in relation to cognition and learning. Not until imaging techniques were developed did scientists get a glimpse inside the brains of 'normal-functioning' individuals while they were performing mental and physical tasks. Some of the more...

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