Open Questions: Neuroscience, Cognition, and Behavior

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See also: Artificial intelligence

Is there a science of psychology?

A broader perspective on the mind

How does the mind do what it does?

Modularity of mental function



Brain mapping

Learning and memory


Consciousness and attention



Categorization and concept formation

Thinking, reasoning and logic

Creativity and problem solving



Genes and behavior

Animal cognition

Evolutionary psychology

Social behavior

Gender differences and psychology

Mental illness

Miscellaneous neuroscience and psychology

Recommended references: Web sites

Recommended references: Magazine/journal articles

Recommended references: Books

Is there a science of psychology?

Michael Gazzaniga opens his book, The Mind's Past, with this provocative assertion:
Over a hundred years ago William James lamented, "I wished by treating Psychology like a natural science, to help her become one." Well, it never occurred. Psychology, which for many was the study of mental life, gave way during the past century to other disciplines. Today the mind sciences are the province of evolutionary biologists, cognitive scientists, neuroscientists, psychophysicists, linguists, computer scientists -- you name it. ... Psychology itself is dead.

So what gives?

Perhaps the primary open question we need to consider here should be: Are cognitive science and psychology ("psychology" for short) really sciences? This question isn't intended to be dismissive to these disciplines. It's just that one of the ways to think about the open questions in psychology is to ask ourselves what appropriate answers would consist of.

Compare psychology with "hard" sciences like physics, astronomy, chemistry, biology. Here, "hard" is not used in the sense of "difficult". Indeed, in that sense psychology (and other social sciences) are clearly very hard in comparison to physics (say), in view of the complexity and lack of simple laws.

Instead, in this context "hard" means "firm", "solid", "durable". That is, in the "hard" sciences, there are bodies of findings and results that have stood the tests of time and remained fairly stable and secure for, in many cases, hundreds of years. There is no expectation that, for instance, our confidence in Newtonian gravitation (within its domain of applicability) or the periodic table of elements will ever really change. For what parts, if any, of psychology can the same be said?

In the field of psychology we have seen various theoretical points of view come and go - psychoanalysis, behaviorism, learning theory. The vogue of various psychological concepts waxes and wanes. In 50 or 100 years, what parts of what we now "know" about psychology will still look about the same? That's a rhetorical question. The point is that, in assessing the open questions in this field, we need to judge them in light of whether we may expect answers which will endure, so that future progress in psychology can build upon them, rather than replace them with new answers that are significantly different. If not, then the questions belongs to philosophy rather than to science.

In other words, our criterion for what is or is not "science" has less to do with specific methodology, and more to do with patiently constructing results which can be built upon over time, rather than completely replaced in the next round of "urban renewal".

A broader perspective on the mind

Partly in response to concerns over the scientific foundations of what was traditionally the discipline of psychology, there has emerged in the last few decades a broader perspective which groups together studies of the mind from at least five disciplines: Recently, a sixth area has been added, sometimes called "culture, cognition, and evolution". This encompases such things as sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, as well as parts of more traditional sociology and anthropology.

If nothing else, these diverse approaches to studying "mind" serve to illustrate how no single approach comes close to seeming "the" obviously correct way.

How does the mind do what it does?

"How the brain enables mind is the question to be answered in the twenty-first century," Gazzaniga says a little further on in the Preface to his book.

So, one approach we may take is to look at some things that "the mind" (whatever it is) does, and ask how it does it.

Here are some things that the mind does:

Modularity of mental function

Herbert Simon: the parable of Tempus and Hora

Minsky: the society of mind

Individual neurons

Groups of neurons



Recommended references: Web sites

Site indexes

Open Directory Project: Cognitive Science
Categorized and annotated links. A version of this list is at Google, with entries sorted in "page rank" order. May also be found at Netscape.
Open Directory Project: Cognitive Psychology
Categorized and annotated links. A version of this list is at Google, with entries sorted in "page rank" order. May also be found at Netscape.
Cognitive and Psychological Sciences on the Internet
Organized links, mainly to other resources such as academic programs, organizations, etc., but also to other indexes.
Yahoo Psychobiology Links
Annotated list of links.
Yahoo Neuroscience Links
Annotated list of links.
Yahoo Cognitive Science Links
Annotated list of links.
Yahoo Psychology Links
Annotated list of links.
Galaxy: Cognitive Science
Categorized site directory. Entries usually include descriptive annotations.
Galaxy: Cognitive Psychology
Categorized site directory. Entries usually include descriptive annotations.
Galaxy: Psychology
Categorized site directory. Entries usually include descriptive annotations.

Sites with general resources

Electronic community for scholarly research in the cognitive and brain sciences. Includes professional news, library of papers and books, editorials, discussion forums. Registration required.
MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences
Online version of an encyclopedia covering the traditional core areas of cogjitive science: philosophy, psychology, neurosciences, artificial intelligence, linguistics, and "culture, cognition, and evolution". Full text available only to book purchasers. However, the article abstracts, links, and bibliography references available to all are still valuable and provide a good overview of the field.
AI, Cognitive Science, and Robotics
Guide to resources such as conferences, publishers, FAQs, bibliographies, and other guides and indexes.
Cognitive Science Society
Web site of the professional society for cognitive science.
The ACT Web
Home page of the ACT group, led by John Anderson, which "is concerned with the ACT theory and architecture of cognition. The goal of this research is to understand how people acquire and organize knowledge and produce intelligent behavior."
William H. Calvin's Books and Articles
Calvin has written a number of books, mainly on brains, evolution, and related topics. Web site contains a great deal of material from the author's books, research, and talks.
Computational Epistemology Lab
This lab at the University of Waterloo (Canada) is headed by Paul Thagard. Site content includes research articles, software, and bibliographies.
An online journal of cognitive science.
Celebrities in Cognitive Science
Actually it's a very good collection of links to pages concerning noted authors, researchers, and thinkers who are involved with cognition and the philosophy of mind.
Institut des Sciences Cognitives
The Web site of the Institute (located in Lyon, France) contains working papers, and a good, categorized collection of external links.
" is a community web site intended to provide discussion and relevant information on all topics related to the field of Cogitive Science. The web site employs unique technology which allows the users of the site to contribute content to the site." The site includes a discussion forum, academic programs list, and a few external links.
Psychological Science on the Net!!!
" is meant to be an informative resource for students, faculty or anyone interested in psychology." Diverse resources include a newsletter, list of top-rated external sites, tutorials, tests, software, and course syllabi. The collection of external links is categorized and very large.
Cognitive Systems at Pacific Nortwest National Laboratory
Impressive colletion of resources in cognitive sytems, neural networks, fuzzy set theory, genetic algorithms, classical artificial intelligence, computational neuroscience, and cognitive science. Hosted by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
CogSci World
Categorized and annotated lists of links to various resources in cognitive science, by Henrik Gelius. Also has links in topical areas like the brain, and consciousness.
COGSCI - Cognitive Science Discussion List
Web site for a listserve discussion list on cognitive science, especially in the areas of artificial intelligence, philosophy, linguistics, psychology, and connectionism. Includes a list of a few important WWW resources.

Surveys, overviews, tutorials

Serendip: Brain and Behavior
A variety of educational articles and interactive exhibits.
Imagination, Mental Imagery, Consciousness, and Cognition
Essays and discussion board on the indicated topics, by Nigel J. T. Thomas. Has good external links.
Human Cognition in the Human Brain
Series of impassioned essays and critiques of contemporary cognitive science, by Yehouda Harpaz. The author largely takes positions against a number of the more popular paradigms in the field, grounding his arguments in neurobiology. His positions are controversial, but interesting. There are also some general comments which are intended to justify calling the ideas he argues against "nonsense", but still present interesting points on scientific methodology.

Ask an expert

The Neuroscience Network
A page giving instructions on how to pose a neuroscience question by email. Answered questions are provided on the page.

Online books and lecture notes

MIT OpenCourseWare: Brain and Cognitive Sciences
Course materials provided by the MIT OpenCourseWare project. New courses are continually added. Detailed lecture notes and additional materials such as problem sets are provided for some, but not all, courses.

Recommended references: Magazine/journal articles

The Mind Is What the Brain Does
James Shreeve
National Geographic, March 2005, pp. 2-31
Article considers a variety of topics in brain science, including emotion, autism, music, and obsession.
[Additional resources]
Psychological Science at the Crossroads
Richard W. Robins; Samuel D. Gosling; Kenneth H. Craik
American Scientist, July-August 1998, pp. 310-313
The influence on the field of psychology of four approaches was studied by a statistical analysis of the psychological literature. The current importance of psycholanalysis and behavioral psychology appears to be low. Cognitive psychology seems to be dominant, while neuroscience is gaining more attention but is not yet the major force.

Recommended references: Books

Michael S. Gazzaniga - The Mind's Past
University of California Press, 1998
This short, nontechnical work by a leading cognitive neuroscientist helps to place the key issues in the field into an understandable perspective. It's central thesis is that the human brain is structured with "interpreters" that have evolved to enable the organism to make sense of its past experience.


Copyright © 2002 by Charles Daney, All Rights Reserved