What is a cognitive neuroscientist?

Posted on 20th November 2016

Posted by Alice Little


CENTURY’s Cognitive Neuroscientist, Alice Little, gives us an insight into what cognitive neuroscience really is.

Let’s start with the ‘cognitive’ bit: what is cognition?

Cognition refers to all the stuff that goes on in your brain when you think. It refers to all the stuff that happens when you process the world via your senses. Acquiring knowledge, learning things, perceiving. Any mental action or process is a form of cognition.

Cognitive science is the multidisciplinary field that studies cognition. Understanding the memory process, or perception, decision making, problem solving, language acquisition or emotion regulation are all the domain of cognitive scientists, amongst many other things. If it’s a mental process that involves thought, then cognitive scientists are all over it.

Now for the neuroscience bit.

Neuroscience is the study of the physical structure and function of the brain (and nervous system). It is the study of neurons, the chemicals in the brain, and the electricity flows in the brain. Neuroscientists might look at specific instances of brain damage to deduce what that area of the brain is involved in; they might use imaging techniques; they might look at the function of an individual neuron or a highly specific neurotransmitter. They might investigate human brains, primate brains, rodent brains or even the more primitive brain-like structures in simple organisms. What brings all neuroscientists together is that they are studying the brain itself.

So, what do you get when you cross a cognitive scientist with a neuroscientist? Well, you get a specific method for studying cognition. Cognitive neuroscientists investigate any aspect of cognition with direct reference to what is going on in the brain: we study the brain to understand what the mind is doing.

In short, cognitive neuroscience is the study of brain processes to understand how the mind works.

And how is CENTURY using Cognitive Neuroscience?

CENTURY’s general principle behind incorporating cognitive neuroscience is the same with any features we design and implement. We trust our data to tell us what is effective and what isn’t effective. We will design implementations of various theories and then let the data tell us whether they are successful for learning. If not, we will iterate and try again. Ultimately, we are not attached to any cognitive dogmas; we have no vested interest in seeing one theory succeed or fail. The only thing we are driven by when considering the inclusion of cognitive theories into CENTURY is this:

Does it make the learning better?

There is nothing revolutionary about applying cognitive theories to pedagogical practice, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be innovative with how we do that. In the coming blogs I will give a more detailed picture of a couple of the cognitive principles we are currently using in our software and what the evidence is for their benefit for learning, so look out for Growth Mindset – What’s the big deal? and Let’s test out the Testing Effect if you’re interested in learning more.