Cognitive revolution

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The cognitive revolution refers to the roughly twenty year period during the 1950s and 1960s when cognitivism became the dominant approach to psychology. Cognitive psychology takes a positivist approach, observing outward behavior as well as its relation to brain activity and building computationally based models of the mind. The cognitive revolution is sometimes described as a paradigm shift in psychology, it implied a synthesis of research in various fields centering around cognitive psychology which came to be called the cognitive sciences (or simply cognitive science). This involves research relevant to the study of the mind in neuroscience, linguistics, philosophy of mind, artificial intelligence, and anthropology. (Economics is starting to come along too.)

Leading up to the 1950s, competing psychological theories of mind had been developed by a number of schools. The anglophone world tended to be more scientific and positivist-oriented. Behaviorism was the dominant school in this area. The psychoanalytic school of Sigmund Freud and Gestalt psychology of the Berlin School were more prominent in continental Europe.[note 1] The leading figures of the emergent cognitive school rejected the psychoanalytic school as mostly pseudoscientific. They sought to build a theory of mind using the experimental techniques developed by behaviorists. However, the cognitivists rejected two central concepts of behaviorism, specifically that the mind was a blank slate and that introspection didn't have a significant role in psychology.[note 2]

The earliest research considered to be part of the cognitive revolution was published in the early 1950s, though 1959 is often cited as the starting point due to the fact that Noam Chomsky's review of B.F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior was released that year.[note 3] Chomsky mounted an all-out attack on the concept of the blank slate. Skinner argued that language was learned one linguistic unit at a time through reinforcement in the behaviorist paradigm. Chomsky replied that this model was flawed and that the mind has some innate language ability (this is sometimes referred to as "nativism"). A number of foundational papers that concentrated on perception and memory were published during this period. The most famous of these is probably George Miller's "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two," describing units of memory (referred to as "chunks" in psychology) and defining a capacity for the size of working memory.[1] [note 4] The use of the term cognitive became widespread with the release of Ulric Neisser's Cognitive Psychology in 1967. The cognitive revolution also incorporated some concepts from Gestalt psychology. The idea of the mind as emergent from the physical properties of the brain was borrowed from the Gestalts. Ideas originating in Gestalt psychology are often applied in the study of visual perception.

New technology was a boon for the cognitivists as the 20th century wore on. Brain scanning technologies like fMRI and PET scans opened up new doors in neuroscience. More powerful processors allowed theoretical models to be tested on computers.

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  1. Gestalt psychology is not to be confused with Gestalt therapy, which is an unrelated technique of talk therapy.
  2. There is sometimes a popular conception that behaviorism denied the existence of thoughts or feelings. This is not true — behaviorists played something of a semantic trick by redefining internal states as behavior itself. While there were various strains of behaviorism, the general idea was that introspection was too subjective to be of scientific value and research should concentrate on behavior itself.
  3. The 1967 revision of Chomsky's review can be read here
  4. It is also worth noting that a number of misinterpretations of this have shown up in popular culture, a collection of which can be found here.


  1. George A. Miller's original paper: "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two" from Psychological Review Vol. 101, No. 2, pp. 343-352