Psychology Cognitive Neuroscience
Teal S. Eich, Edward E. Smith
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0015


In 1918, the American philosopher and psychologist William James wrote: “Nature in her unfathomable designs had mixed us of clay and flame, of brain and mind, that the two things hang indubitably together and determine each other’s being but how or why, no mortal may ever know” (Principles of Psychology, 1918, p. 200). The study of how the brain produces thoughts and behaviors is referred to as cognitive neuroscience (CNS). CNS is defined as an interdisciplinary field that combines neuroscience and cognitive psychology. Neuroscience is the scientific study of the central nervous system. Cognitive psychology is a branch of psychology that explores human cognition (Latin cognitiōn-em, a getting to know, acquaintance, notion, knowledge [Oxford English Dictionary]), or the internal mental processes, including learning, memory (including long term and short term), perception, attention, cognitive control, language, motor control, decision making, and social cognition. CNS is devoted to understanding how the human brain supports, through neural mechanisms, these cognitive processes. For example, the “primacy effect” in memory is a cognitive phenomenon in which memory for items that appear at the beginning of a list will be better remembered than items that appear toward the middle of the list. Cognitive psychology helps us to understand why and when this phenomenon occurs: the first items are rehearsed more than the middle items because there are fewer interfering items at the beginning, and therefore the first items are encoded more strongly into long-term memory. CNS would help us to understand what brain mechanisms contribute to this phenomenon: The medial temporal lobe (an area long known to be involved in the formation of memories) is activated only for items from the beginning of the list. Thus, rather than trying to simply understand how and when a memory is formed, CNS attempts to discover how the brain allows for the formation of memories. The methods and technologies used to study these aspects of human cognition are diverse. Cognitive neuroscientists perform behavioral tests on both animals and humans inside and outside of the laboratory. Numerous types of structural brain imaging and functional brain-imaging technologies are used in CNS (for example, MRI, fMRI, EEG, PET, CAT, MEG), and researchers also employ computational modeling, genetic and candidate gene studies, and pharmacologic manipulations to better understand how the brain underlies cognitive processes. Research from numerous scientific disciplines in addition to neuroscience and cognitive psychology are also integrated into the study of CNS, including social and affective neuroscience, neurology, pharmacology, and computational neuroscience.

General Overviews

Readers wishing to gain a historical perspective on the formation of the field of CNS should look to Bennett and Hacker 2008 as well as Moskowitz 2010. Both books provide broad historical overviews of the field, including major theoretical advances from the 20th century. Crick 1995, Gazzaniga 2000, and Purves 2008 also provide excellent overviews of the major themes in CNS, and these works are intended for an introductory reader. LeDoux 2003 covers a more narrow field of study, including topics in emotion and motivation.

  • Bennett, M. R, and P. M. S. Hacker. 2008. History of Cognitive Neuroscience. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.

    This book explores the major neuroscientific experiments and theories undertaken and advanced during the last 150 years.

  • Crick, F. 1995. The astonishing hypothesis: The scientific search for the soul. New York: Scribner.

    Aimed toward researchers and also lay persons who are interested in science in general, this book focuses on the cornerstone idea of CNS, that all mental processes are due to neural function.

  • Gazzaniga, M. 2000. Cognitive neuroscience: A reader. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    An ideal source for students, this book provides a collection of seminal readings within the field of CNS.

  • LeDoux, J. 2003. Synaptic self: How our brains become who we are. New York: Penguin.

    An excellent source for advanced undergraduates and scientists in the field, Ledoux covers topics including cognitive, emotional, and motivational functions of the brain, with an emphasis on how synaptic connections allow for neural communication and eventually enable individuality.

  • Moskowitz, M. 2010. Reading minds: A guide to the cognitive neuroscience revolution. London: Karnack.

    A practical and accessible guide to the cognitive neuroscience revolution.

  • Purves, D. 2008. Principles of cognitive neuroscience. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer.

    One of the best basic CNS books available, aimed toward advanced undergraduates, this book provides an overview of topics within CNS that are well established as well as a set of issues that remain to be solved by future generations of scientists.

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