Cognitive Science


Cognitive Sciences


Interdisciplinary study of cognition across all learning/thinking entities

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … scope of possible action and interpretation
  • Knowing is … maintaining fitness (with situation)
  • Learner is … any self-modifying and situationally coupled unity (cognizing unity)
  • Learning is … adapting
  • Teaching is … triggering adaptations




Cognitive Science is the study of cognition in humans, non-human animals, and machines. Oriented by the conviction that cognition cannot be understood by studying a single level, Cognitive Science brings together Psychology, linguistics, computer science, Neuroscience, Anthropology, philosophy, and other domains. Typically, the foci of Cognitive Science are identified as learning, development, perception, attention, reasoning, emotion, consciousness, memory, language, creativity, and intelligence, and the goals of Cognitive Science are identified as better understanding the mind, advancing practical knowledge of learning, and developing intelligent devices. In this regard, matters associated with perception and awareness figure centrally in Cognitive Science:
  • Attention – Theories of Attention offer models and explanations to account for what one is motivated to notice, given that only a tiny portion of the information that floods one’s senses ever bubbles to the surface of consciousness. (For example, one's eyes can register roughly 10,000,000 sensory events per second, but one can consciously deal with only 20–40 discernments per second. Corresponding estimates for other sensory systems are: skin – 1,000,000 events, 5 discernments; ears – 100,000 events, 15–30 discernments; nose – 100,000 events, 1 discernment; tongue, 1,000 events, 1 discernment.) Typically, theories of Attention employ metaphors of sieves, filters, funnels, meshes, and networks – all of which, to varying extents, are imagined to be enabled by biology, shaped by experience, and influenced by InterestCuriosityAnxiety, and Arousal (see Motivation Theories).
  • Awareness – perception of something. Most often, Awareness is associated with conscious perception, but it is possible to be aware of a phenomenon without being conscious of it – that is, to be influenced by a phenomenon without it bubbling to the surface of Consciousness (see below). In fact, most awareness is nonconscious.
  • Consciousness – defined variously, and most often used either to mean “being conscious” or as a synonym for Awareness (see above) or Wakefulness (see below). That said, the phenomenon is neither simple nor well understood. Indeed, Consciousness Studies (see below) is one of the most vibrantly researched and hotly contested domains in Cognitive Science. Associated constructs include:
    • Lantern Consciousness (Alison Gopnik, 2000s) – a descriptive term used to draw an analogy between a lantern’s diffuse, multi-directional light and the infant’s expansive awareness of the sea of sensorial possibilities in which they are immersed (Contrast: Spotlight Consciousness, below).
    • Spotlight Consciousness (Alison Gopnik, 2000s) – a descriptive term used to draw an analogy between a spotlight’s narrow, directional beam and adults’ limited and selective awareness of their contexts (Contrast: Lantern Consciousness, above).
    • Threshold of Consciousness – the minimum intensity, duration, and relevance necessary for a sensory stimulation or a memory event to enter Consciousness
    • Unconscious Cognition – cognitive activity that is not available to consciousness – which is to say, most of cognition. Associated constructs include:
      • Coconsciousness – sensations, memories, thoughts, emotions, etc. that exist on the “edge” of consciousness – that is, influenced by and influencing consciousness, but of which one is not immediately aware
      • Cognitive Unconscious (John Kihlstom, 1980s) – unreportable mental activity, including (but not limited to) nonconscious brain functions, tacit knowledge, unconscious biases, and automatized behaviors
      • Emotional Unconscious (John Kihlstom, 1980s) – unreportable emotional or motivational states – that is, states that influence thought and action without one’s conscious awareness
      • Unconscious Context – beliefs, assumptions, habits, and other learned structures that orient perception and interpretation without one’s conscious awareness
    • Unity of Consciousness – a descriptive notion, referring to the fact that most people experience consciousness as a unified and integrated state, even though it arises in a torrent of sensations, memories, thoughts, emotions, and so on
  • Intention – a directedness of one’s thoughts and actions that is not necessarily conscious or deliberate
    • Conscious Intention – a directedness of activity or focus of thought that one has explicitly chosen
    • Unconscious Intention – a directedness of activity or focus of thought that one has not explicitly chosen
  • Perception – developing or having Awareness (see above) of a phenomenon. By definition, Perception involves the senses, but it is much more than the “taking in” of information. Rather, Perception is a complex iterative process of attending to happenings (i.e., whereby information flows to the brain from sensory systems) and imposing evolving subjective interpretations onto those happenings (i.e., whereby information flows from the brain to sensory system, operating as “fishing” for information). Subconstructs include:
    • Subliminal Perception (Subception) – those events of Perception that are not consciously noted – that is, that do not bubble to the surface of Consciousness, usually because they are too weak or too rapid, or because the perceiver’s attentions are occupied by something else, or because the stimulus has become so familiar to the perceiver that it does not require conscious attention
    • Supraliminal Perception – those events of Perception that reach the threshold necessary to prompt conscious Awareness
  • Wakefulness – being aware of one’s situation, as determined either by the ability to communicate about it with others or by the use of technology to monitor brain activity (i.e., with an electroencephalogram)
Associated constructs include:
  • Dimensions of Consciousness – assessable aspects of one’s consciousness, such as focus of attention, duration of focus, capacity to toggle among competing attentions, self-awareness, situational awareness, and mood
  • Double-Aspect Theory (Baruch Spinoza, mid-1600s) – the suggestion that mind and body are different aspects (or manifestations, or attributes) of the same substance
  • Hard Problem (David Chalmers, 2000s) – the problems that arise when attempting to study and explain subjective experience with objective methods and constructs.
  • Machine Consciousness (Artificial Consciousness) – either (1) a human-made system that is conscious, or (2) that aspect of Conscious Studies attempting to create such a system
  • Mind–Body Problem (Body–Mind Problem; Mind Control) – confusions, incongruities, and paradoxes that arise from the assumption that the mind and body are separate phenomena
Subdomains include:
  • Consciousness Studies – a multidisciplinary domain that focuses on the investigation of consciousness. Contributing fields include all those associated with Cognitive Science, with stronger representation from the Humanities and Social Sciences (see Humanisms), as well as well as art, religion, and mindfulness traditions.
  • Embodied Cognitive Science – a subfield of Cognitive Science concerned with understanding the emergence of intelligent behavior. A premise of the domain is the rejection of any sort of mind–body duality.
  • Philosophy of Mind – a branch of philosophy that shares the concerns of Consciousness Studies. Foci include the nature and emergence of mind and the such functional associations as mind-and-body, thought-and-action, subjective-and-objective, and individual-and-collective.
Associated discourses and constructs that share Cognitive Science's commitment to transdisciplinarity include:
  • Cognitive Anthropology – a domain concerned with the implicit knowledge and other non-conscious habits of association that define and distinguish the perceptions of and relations within cultural groups. In addition to Cognitive Science, Cognitive Anthropology draws on history, Sociology, Anthropology, musicology, and other domains.
  • Cultural Cognition – a specifical focus of Cognitive Anthropology, Cultural Cognition refers to the tendency to align one’s beliefs with claims that are consistent with one’s cultural identity, but that are contentious and, often, dangerous (e.g., regarding vaccines, gun ownership, environmental risks)


With regard to learning, Cognitive Science sets the gold standards at the moment on matters of both understanding the phenomenon and interdisciplinary research methodologies. Even so, and perhaps owing in part to the divergent perspectives represented in its constituent domains, its discourse is riddled with inconsistent themes and problematic notions. For example, some descriptions of the field focus on “mind” and human cognition, while others (as indicated above) project cognition as a much broader phenomenon. Further, it’s not unusual to come across assertions rooted in Representationalism, Cognitivism, and/or other debunked or limited-scientific models (e.g., asserting that learning is about acquiring, representing, processing, and performing other computational procedures on information).

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Christopher Longuet-Higgins; Daniel Dennett

Status as a Theory of Learning

Cognitive Science actually comprises several theories of learning. It is perhaps better understood in terms of the study of learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Cognitive Science is not a theory of teaching, but its conclusions have served as the foundations of many sound (e.g., Neuroeducation) and not-so-sound (e.g., Brain-Based Learning) offerings.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Cognitive Science is a rigorously scientific domain, spanning a broad range of methodologies.


  • Attention
  • Awareness
  • Coconsciousness
  • Cognitive Unconscious
  • Cognitive Anthropology
  • Conscious Intention
  • Consciousness
  • Consciousness Studies
  • Cultural Cognition
  • Dimensions of Consciousness
  • Double-Aspect Theory
  • Embodied Cognitive Science
  • Emotional Unconscious
  • Hard Problem
  • Intention
  • Lantern Consciousness
  • Machine Consciousness (Artificial Consciousness)
  • Mind–Body Problem (Body–Mind Problem; Mind Control)
  • Perception
  • Philosophy of Mind
  • Spotlight Consciousness
  • Subliminal Perception (Subception)
  • Supraliminal Perception
  • Threshold of Consciousness
  • Unconscious Intention
  • Unconscious Cognition
  • Unconscious Context
  • Unity of Consciousness
  • Wakefulness

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2022). “Cognitive Science” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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