The (first) cognitive revolution

In the aftermath of WWII, new research domains (e.g., computer science) were looking for their place in academia while several established disciplines, such as anthropology and linguistics, were redefining themselves. This was also the case for psychology: for decades, the study of thought had been restricted to determining the links between observable stimuli and observable behavioral responses—a movement known as behaviorism that prevailed through the 1950s. Then psychology brought “mentalism” back into the focal point, under the label ofcognition.

In 1956, psychologist George A. Miller wrote that human memory limitations are not absolute and may be overcome when information is chunked into larger units, and suggested that this entailed some kind of internal (i.e., mental) representation. Jerome Bruner had already shown that perception and sensation were active processes that were influenced by some mental factor. Also in 1956, Bruner—with Jacqueline J. Goodnow and George A. Austin—published A Study of Thinking, which portrayed humans as construing concepts and focused on the way people figured out the rules to do so.

Also in 1956, Allen Newell, John C. Shaw and Herbert A. Simon presented their Logic Theorist, the first Artificial Intelligence program ever. In their view, minds and computers were to be seen as knowledge systems that generate behavior by manipulating (internally represented) symbolic structures. Artificial Intelligence systems could then be used as simulators to explain human behavior as a function of memory operations, control processes and rules working on symbols.

Also in 1956, Noam Chomsky discussed his theory of language at an MIT conference. He rejected behaviorism and argued that the mental structure of language had underlying universal, innate principles that were genetically transmitted. Chomsky also claimed that the mind needed special mechanisms to handle the special properties of natural language, such as productivity. Since rules were shared but people often flouted them in actual communication, Chomsky disregarded performance and instead favored the study of competence in an ideal speaker-listener unaffected by “grammatically irrelevant conditions” such as memory limitations, shifts of attention, and errors.

Many problems of these budding or changing disciplines called for solutions that implied input from other disciplines as well (e.g., anthropology, computer science, linguistics, philosophy, psychology). Soon their cooperation converged into a cognitive revolution, whose basic assumptions were that the human mind works like a computer (in that it neutrally manipulates abstract symbols to yield behavior) and that the mind could be studied as a self-contained, logical system—i.e., with no reference to its physical basis and also independently of social, cultural and situational factors. This is known as the information-processing paradigm of cognition, the core of thefirst cognitive revolution.

George A. Miller’s book Language and Communication (1951) is considered to be the first milestone for psycholinguistics, or the psychology of language. Psycholinguistics had started to develop somewhat earlier as a branch of psychology. It was and still is devoted to studying the mental faculties, mechanisms and processes involved in language acquisition, comprehension and production. Popular research topics are bilingualism, reading and the mental lexicon, among others.

In principle, psycholinguistics is a research orientation that does not imply any particular referential framework. It is simply a close-up on the relationship between language and mind, zooming in on aspects such as perception, storage (lexicon) and the like. However, psycholinguistics bloomed within the first cognitive revolution and it is often associated with generativist (modular, innatist, decontextualized, idealized) approaches to language.

Steven Pinker. The Cognitive Revolution (2011).

George A. Miller

I date the moment of conception of cognitive science as 11 September, 1956, the second day of a symposium organized by the ‘Special Interest Group in Information Theory’ at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At the time, of course, no one realized that something special had happened so no one thought that it needed a name; that came much later. […] I left the symposium with a conviction, more intuitive than rational, that experimental psychology, theoretical linguistics, and the computer simulation of cognitive processes were all pieces from a larger whole and that the future would see a progressive elaboration and coordination of their shared concerns. […] By 1960 it was clear that something interdisciplinary was happening. At Harvard we called it cognitive studies, at Carnegie-Mellon they called it information-processing psychology, and at La Jolla they called it cognitive science.

Miller (2003: 142–143)

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