George Miller

George Miller, one of the instigators of the “cognitive revolution”, has died. He passed away on Sunday July 22nd of natural causes, aged 92. I mentioned Miller’s classic 1956 paper in my first post on this blog. Here’s a nice article he wrote for Trends in Cognitive Science in 2003: “The cognitive revolution: a historical perspective”. The article starts:

Cognitive science is a child of the 1950s, the product of a time when psychology, anthropology and linguistics were redefining themselves and computer science and neuroscience as disciplines were coming into existence. Psychology could not participate in the cognitive revolution until it had freed itself from behaviorism, thus restoring cognition to scientific respectability. By then, it was becoming clear in several disciplines that the solution to some of their problems depended crucially on solving problems traditionally allocated to other disciplines. Collaboration was called for: this is a personal account of how it came about.

Miller writes “[a]t the time it was happening I did not realize that I was,
in fact, a revolutionary”. He was, of course one of the most important figures in psychology, and will be missed.

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Welcome to Cognitive Revolution

Hi! Welcome to Cognitive Revolution, my blog on psychology, critical thinking, skepticism, atheism, humanism, and social justice (that’s the plan, anyway). I’m going to start by explaining why I picked this title:

The “Cognitive Revolution” was an important period in the history of psychology. Up until the late 1950s behaviorism was the dominant paradigm in the field, but a number of events meant that behaviorist ideas started to be questioned.  The advent of digital computers provided a new metaphor: the mind as software and the brain as hardware. In philosophy and psychology a new way of thinking – functionalism – appeared. Functionalism continues the behaviorist tradition of being somewhat suspicious of subjectivity, but allows for the existence of internal mental states that, although are not directly observable, can have observable causes and effects. Our mental states can arise from perception and can affect behavior.

In 1956, the term “artificial intelligence” was first used (by John McCarthy) at a conference at Dartmouth College. Allan Newell and Herb Simon demonstrated that a computer program could construct logical proofs. Thought began to be seen as a kind of computation. Also in 1956, George Miller discovered we have a working memory capacity of 7 +/- 2 items. To overcome this limitation, he argued we need to create mental representations. In 1957 Noam Chomsky published Syntactic Structures, a book that changed the face of linguistics. In general, psychological scientists were starting to think about the processes necessary for language and thought, and realizing that they needed to investigate mental processes.

In short, mental phenomena entered the bailiwick of science. This is not to say that psychology was unscientific prior to this, but rather that the field lacked the tools and concepts to explore thought, as opposed to behavior. Experimental psychologists devised ways of examining reasoning, perception, memory, and language. One of the implications of the scientific study of the mind is that our thoughts cannot be seen as part of any mystical or supernatural realm; the “I” that each of us apprehends when we look inwards is an entity that is amenable to examination using scientific methods. Further implications of the cognitive revolution include the decreased likelihood of the existence of paranormal phenomena and of the continued existence of our personal identities after death. All of these implications had already arisen in philosophy as a consequence of materialism, but psychologists added evidence in support of materialism from empirical experimentation and observation.

Although “cognitive revolution” is typically taken to mean the birth of cognitive science, I can think of several other things it means to me. As well as the aforementioned implications for how we view humans, the paranormal, and the supernatural, it can also mean the changes that occur with respect to an individual’s thought processes during development, and – by extension – any changes in how we think about the world as a result of personal growth and experience.

I will be writing about issues that directly (or tangentially) relate to how we think in general, how we think about specific concepts and issues, and why we behave in particular ways. As well as talking about interesting findings from psychological science, I also want to talk about some of the practical implications and applications of research with respect to topics in skepticism, pseudoscience, religion, social justice, and anything else that seems interesting and/or fun.

Cheers,
Steve