Cognition or what is cognitive science?

Last updated: 20.12.2018

This article was originally published on the Scilog blog related to the magazine “Pour la Science”. Cet article a été publié sur le blog Scilog du magazine “Pour la science.

Target audience: all audiences, high school students 

Keywords: Cognitive Science, Artificial Intelligence

Short introduction:

This article is the result of a collaboration with  Alexandra Delmas, Ph.D. in Cognitive Sciences

How can a human memorize information? How does he manage to express himself, reason, solve a problem, make a decision…? We do not realize it, but the human being evolves throughout his life via the intervention of mental functions which are used to process the information which surrounds us, we speak then of cognition (from the Latin cognitio, action of knowing, derived itself from cognoscere, to seek to know, to inquire). Cognition refers to the set of mental processes associated with knowledge and information processing. This current of thought, which emerged in the 1950s, replaced behaviorism, which stipulated that humans acted and functioned solely by reflex to a given stimulus, or by the history of the individual’s interactions with his or her environment. In order to study in more detail the mechanisms of human, animal or artificial thought, to understand its origins and its evolution in order to be able to model it at several levels, a scientific discipline was born: these are the cognitive sciences, and it involves Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Marvin Lee Minsky defined artificial intelligence as “the construction of computer programs that perform tasks that are currently best done by humans because they require high-level mental processes such as: perceptual learning, memory organization, and critical reasoning“.

In other words, building or being interested in AI is first about understanding mental processes in humans. But what is a mental process? And how do we study humans?

Cognitive sciences are a neglected and unknown science, and they are here to try to answer these questions!

Cognitive science: a science of sciences!

Figure A – Image from the french article “When memory fails us?” by Mathilde Chasseriaud, 2017

Cognitive science is a multidisciplinary science in itself that lies at the junction of several other sciences :

  • Philosophy, allows us to address very abstract questions about human nature, the human mind and the world in which we evolve.
  • Linguistics, studies language, its emergence, and its impact on humans.
  • Anthropology addresses the question of the human in all its aspects and the development of civilizations.
  • Neuroscience deals with the question of brain development, the nervous system, and its biological functioning.
  • Psychology is interested in mental processes, psychic facts, and psychological states.
  • Finally, computer science, makes it possible to artificially simulate the cognitive and/or biological functioning of the brain, which is called modeling!

The goal of cognitive science is to describe, specify, explain and simulate cognitive processes, also called mental processes, and which correspond to all processes of acquisition, processing and use of information.

Behind this technical definition lies what we do every day in a spontaneous way: thinking by using our memory, concentrating on a task by focusing our attention, or simply discussing and communicating by using language!

You, dear reader, while reading these lines, are using your cognitive processes to analyze words, associate them together, extract a semantic and then analyze them! And for this, you use your word memory (semantic memory), your working memory, your reasoning, etc.

The cognitive processes

It seems important to remember that the brain, the seat of our cognitive processes, is a “machine” that functions permanently! During the sleep phases, it does not put itself to sleep, far from it, since it continues to analyze and process the information acquired during the day. In preparation for exams, you should not neglect your sleep, far from it!

It is by using all the cognitive processes, working in synergy (all together), that we succeed in carrying out intellectual or manual actions on a daily basis.

We will distinguish 5 cognitive processes: Memory, Attention, Language, visuospatial functions, and executive functions.


Great news, we do not have only one memory, but several! Behind the term “memory” lies a whole range of concepts. To mention only a few, we have for example episodic memory which allows us to record the episodes of our lives. This is what allows us to experience an event only once and to be able to remember it or to learn a list of telephone numbers. Procedural memory is the memory of reflexes and motor learning. In other words, it is what allows us to ride a bike and especially to do it automatically after several training episodes. In fact, the functioning of all these memories allows us to be what we are!

During the development of Alzheimer’s disease, a neurodegenerative disease (the neurons are destroyed), the hippocampus, an essential structure of episodic memory, is the first to be affected. This leads to an inability to acquire new memories and thus to keep in mind names, places, and events experienced after the onset of the disease.

Figure B – Different long-term memories. Image adapted from [1992]. Translation of terms: 1) Mémoire à long terme : Long-term memory, 2)Mémoire déclarative(explicite) : Declarative memory (explicite) 3) Mémoire non déclarative (implicite): Non-declarative memory (implicite) 4) Episodique/sémantique/Procédurale : Episodic/Semantic/Procedural


Without attention, it is difficult to focus on a goal long enough to achieve it. Attention is paramount for explicit learning (of which I am aware) of a phone number or a poem. We are not all equal when it comes to the ability to concentrate: some people can focus their attention for 30 minutes (or even hours) while others can only focus for 10 minutes. It is therefore important to know ” your cruising speed ” in order to adapt your learning methods.

Here is a well-known experiment that highlights selective attention :


We communicate every day, all the time with everyone. It is so obvious that it seems elementary, even simple as the rise of connected speakers (Alexa, Google home) and voice assistants (Siri, Cortana, Google now) would have us believe. However, this is not the case. Language comprehension is a complex domain in its own right. A very important cognitive process, it is the basis of social interaction and involves two important parts: the transmission of a message in a format that can be understood by the recipients, and the reception and understanding of the message received.

The field of translation with Natural Language Processing (NLP) is precisely at the junction of the study of the cognitive process and its modeling in AI.

Some researchers go even further to understand language by looking at its genesis, or how children learn to speak without knowing the grammatical rules beforehand! Here is for example the interview of Pierre-Yves Oudeyer, research director at Inria Bordeaux Sud-Ouest, who is interested in language in children and its modeling in robotics:

Visuospatial functions

Figure C – Spatial navigation (source)

Have you ever closed your eyes to imagine a place? Mentally imagined a missing object? Memorized a route? If so, then you’ve engaged your visuospatial functions!

These functions allow you to orient yourself and move around in space while avoiding obstacles in order to reach a goal (the exit door for example). These functions not only allow navigation but also actively participate in thought processes, reasoning, object recognition, and text production.

Executive functions

When looking for a solution to a given problem, we need to analyze the problem and develop strategies and even scenarios. This is accompanied by making one or more decisions. If you agree with all this, you have used your executive functions! Located in the prefrontal cortex, these functions allow us to reason, make decisions, analyze our environment, interact with it and even inhibit our behavior when necessary. This set of cognitive processes is essential in everyday life! As our knowledge evolves over time, so does our reasoning. The experience of each person also has an impact on the rules that govern our reasoning.

The alliance of AI and Cognitive Science: Why?

So why are we interested in cognitive science when we are doing Artificial Intelligence? IBM asked the question in 2013.

Wanting increasingly adaptive and responsive AI that evolves as we progress as humans require an understanding of how we develop. By gathering insights into this we may be able to move toward increasingly intelligent tools that would then best assist us.

Another reason why the alliance between computer science and cognitive science is interesting is the accompaniment of a world population that is getting older and older: the life expectancy at the world level has increased, which implies a larger and larger elderly population. Unfortunately, this does not necessarily imply being in good health. In recent years, scientific advances have revealed the existence of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and senile dementia. In order to allow these people to remain as long as possible in their homes, where they have their memories and habits, it is important to study the factors that lead to the appearance of these diseases, their development, and their evolution. For this purpose, numerical simulations provide a more accessible study framework for scientists and physicians than asking patients to come several times a day to the laboratory or overloading them with physiological sensors. Children’s cognitive development is also the focus of researchers’ attention. Indeed, they are subjected to screens and new technologies at an increasingly early age, and the relationship between humans and machines is undoubtedly impacted!

The fields of AI and cognitive sciences are thus strongly linked. Studying the former often involves asking “But how do we do it as humans?”. Whether it’s to develop smart tools or to help medicine, it’s important to understand what cognitive science is all about. Aside from the fact that it’s thrilling, it turns out that it also helps us better understand the world around us.

To cite this article : 

Ikram Chraibi Kaadoud & Alexandra Delmas. “Cognition or what is cognitive science?” English version of the publication “La cognition ou qu’est-ce que les sciences cognitives?” Published on the blog of, December 2018


Squire, Larry R, 1992. Declarative and nondeclarative memory: Multiple brain systems supporting learning and memory. Journal of cognitive neuroscience, 4(3):232–243.

For more information on Attention:

For more information on the visuo-spatial functions:

For more information on executive functions: