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. Subdiscourses with particular relevance to education include:
  • Science of Learning (2010s) – effectively, “Applied Cognitive Science” – that is, those insights from Cognitive Science that pertain specifically to the processes of student learning and their implications for teaching
  • Science of Learning and Development (SoLD) – an area of inquiry that combines Neuroscience, Psychology, and Learning Sciences
Matters associated with Perception and Awareness figure centrally in Cognitive Science:
  • 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.
  • 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:
    • Exteroception (Charles Sherrington, 1900s) – those sensory systems that deal with information from stimuli outside the body (sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch)
    • Interoception (Charles Sherrington, 1900s) – those sensory systems that inform one about internal functioning – including visceroception (perceptions from the internal organs in the body’s trunk), proprioception (sense of body position and movement), and others
    • Stroop Effect (John Ridley Stroop, 1930s) – an increase in reaction time as stimuli become more incongruent. used to demonstrate the role of expectation in Perception (Most often, the Stroop Effect is illustrated with color names that are printed in either matching or non-matching colors. E.g., name the font colors of the following four words: RED, GREEN, BROWN, PURPLE. Now name these four font colors: ORANGE, BLACK, YELLOW, BLUE.)
    • Subception (Subliminal Perception) (Carl Rogers, 1950s) – 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. Subtypes include:
      • Neuroception (Stephen Porges, 1990s) – a type of Subception concerned specifically with identifying and responding to threats
    • Supraliminal Perception – those events of Perception that reach the threshold necessary to prompt conscious Awareness
Core constructs associated with Perception and Awareness include:
  • 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).
    • Types of Attention include:
      • Primary Attention (Passive Attention; Reflex Attention) – attention that doesn’t require deliberate effort. All animals have Primary Attention.
      • Secondary Attention (Active Attention) – attention that requires deliberate effort
    • Modes of Attention include:
      • Involuntary Attention (Exogenous Attention) – attention that is “caught” rather than deliberately given
      • Postvoluntary Attention (Effortless Attention) – a type of activity-oriented attention that is enjoyable, deep, focused, and easily sustained. (See Flow.)
      • Voluntary Attention (Endogenous Attention) – attention that is deliberately focused and maintained
  • 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).
    • Neural Complexity (various,  2010s) – a measure of the level of information/activity in the brain, determined as the number of unique brain signals (i.e., ignoring repetitive signals). Neural Complexity is correlated to consciousness as is boosted by some Psychoactive Drugs (under Human Enhancement).
    • Self-Awareness – a form of Consciousness associated with not just having an experience but with experiencing the experience – that is, knowing that one is having an experience
    • Sentience – the most basic form of Consciousness. A being with Sentience can have positive/pleasurable experiences and negative/painful experiences.
    • 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
  • Sensation – any activation of a sensory system (i.e., touch, hearing, etc.), regardless of its effect on the agent. A Sensationis necessary for Perception (see above), but not the same phenomenon.
  • 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 discourses and constructs include:
  • Capacity Theory (Daniel Kahneman, 1970s) – the suggestion that the element that determines how one’s Attention is split among multiple demands is how much “capacity” each of those demands requires. Capacity Theory was originally articulated as an alternative to Filter Theory (see below).
  • 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
  • Filter Theory (of Attention) (Donald Broadbent, 1950s) – a theory of Attention that suggests one is always processing information through multiple channels, but most of those channels are filtered out so that only a few reach conscious awareness. Associated theories include:
    • Attenuation Theory (Anne Marie Treisman, 1960s) – a type of Filter Theory that suggests that most of the multiple channels of information impinging on one’s senses are attenuated – that is, reduced in strength – enabling one to one to attend to one’s immediate focus
  • Global Workspace Theory (Bernard Baars, 1980s) – the suggestion that a core function of personal consciousness is to “broadcast” important information to various parts of the brain – thus mobilizing and integrating those parts, enabling one to utilize one’s “global workspace”
  • 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
  • Multiple Drafts Theory (Daniel Dennett, 1990s) – a direct challenge to models of consciousness associated with Representationalism (i.e., that assume the existence of an internal observer). Multiple Drafts Theory starts by noting that different parts of the brain are constantly producing “content,” and then asserts that consciousness is merely an awareness of the content that is having the most significant impact on one’s cognitive system at any given moment
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.
  • Psychophysiology (Physiological Psychology) – as the name suggests, research into the relationship between Psychology and physiology (physical functioning). Subdiscourses include:
    • Sensory Psychophysiology – the study of Psychophysiology as it pertains to perception
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
  • Attenuation Theory
  • Awareness
  • Capacity Theory
  • Coconsciousness
  • Cognitive Unconscious
  • Cognitive Anthropology
  • Conscious Intention
  • Consciousness
  • Consciousness Studies
  • Cultural Cognition
  • Dimensions of Consciousness
  • Double-Aspect Theory
  • Embodied Cognitive Science
  • Emotional Unconscious
  • Exteroception
  • Filter Theory (of Attention)
  • Global Workspace Theory
  • Hard Problem
  • Intention
  • Interoception
  • Involuntary Attention (Exogenous Attention)
  • Lantern Consciousness
  • Machine Consciousness (Artificial Consciousness)
  • Mind–Body Problem (Body–Mind Problem; Mind Control)
  • Multiple Drafts Theory
  • Neural Complexity
  • Neuroception
  • Perception
  • Philosophy of Mind
  • Postvoluntary Attention (Effortless Attention)
  • Primary Attention (Passive Attention; Reflex Attention)
  • Psychophysiology (Physiological Psychology)
  • Science of Learning
  • Science of Learning and Development (SoLD)
  • Secondary Attention (Active Attention)
  • Self-Awareness
  • Sensation
  • Sensory Psychophysiology
  • Sentience
  • Spotlight Consciousness
  • Stroop Effect
  • Subception (Subliminal Perception )
  • Supraliminal Perception
  • Threshold of Consciousness
  • Unconscious Cognition
  • Unconscious Context
  • Unconscious Intention
  • Unity of Consciousness
  • Voluntary Attention (Endogenous Attention)
  • Wakefulness

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2024). “Cognitive Science” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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