The Frontal Cortex

I’ve got an article in the Boston Globe Ideas section today on the cognitive revolution, and recent research demonstrating the relationship between cognition and emotion.

Ever since Plato, scholars have drawn a clear distinction between thinking and feeling. Cognitive psychology tended to reinforce this divide: emotions were seen as interfering with cognition; they were the antagonists of reason. Now, building on more than a decade of mounting work, researchers have discovered that it is impossible to understand how we think without understanding how we feel.

“Because we subscribed to this false ideal of rational, logical thought, we diminished the importance of everything else,” said Marvin Minsky, a professor at MIT and pioneer of artificial intelligence. “Seeing our emotions as distinct from thinking was really quite disastrous.”

This new scientific appreciation of emotion is profoundly altering the field. The top journals are now filled with research on the connections between emotion and cognition. New academic stars have emerged, such as Antonio Damasio of USC, Joseph LeDoux of NYU, and Joshua Greene, a rising scholar at Harvard. At the same time, the influx of neuroscientists into the field, armed with powerful brain-scanning technology, has underscored the thinking-feeling connection.

“When you look at the actual anatomy of the brain you quickly see that everything is connected,” said Elizabeth Phelps, a cognitive neuroscientist at NYU. “The brain is a category buster.”

The field has largely welcomed the new emotion studies, according to scientists. They have yielded discoveries that are widely acknowledged as important. And they have even generated enthusiasm among the leaders of the cognitive revolution, as emotion studies have helped ground cognitive psychology — which has had a penchant for the abstract — in the real world, uncovering important science behind everything from how people decide what to buy in a supermarket to how they make weighty moral decisions.

The impetus for the article was this historic gathering of eminent cognitive psychologists:

The Cognitive Revolution at Fifty, Plus or Minus One:
A Conversation with Jerome Bruner, Susan Carey, Noam Chomsky, and George Miller

Harvard University
Monday, April 30, 2007, 4pm-6pm
Science Center, Hall B, One Oxford St., Cambridge, MA

If you have any interest in the mind and happen to live in the Boston area, the free event is a must-attend.


  1. #1 Paul Sunstone
    April 30, 2007

    Great article in the Globe!

  2. #2 Mr. G
    April 30, 2007

    In the article you say “In three groundbreaking papers, including one on grammar by a 27-year-old linguist named Noam Chomsky, the scholars ignited what is now known as the cognitive revolution, which was built on the radical notion that it is possible to study, with scientific precision, the actual processes of thought. The movement eventually freed psychology from the grip of behaviorism, a scientific movement popular in America that studied behavior as a proxy for understanding the mind.”

    Why did psychology need to be “freed” from “the grip of behaviorism”? Do you think Chomsky’s attacks Skinner had merit?

    You go on to say “Cognitive psychology has fueled a generation of productive research, yielding deep insights into many aspects of thought, including memory, language, and perception.”

    Can you give examples of real world (or even theoretical) benefits from these “deep insights”. I would suggest there are none (except to those who receive money to “study” such things.)

    A relevant quote:

    “I accuse cognitive scientists of relaxing standards of definition and logical thinking and releasing a flood of speculation characteristic of metaphysics, literature, and daily intercourse, speculation perhaps suitable enough in such arenas but inimical to science.” B.F. Skinner, “Cognitive Science and Behaviorism”.

  3. #3 Daniel
    May 3, 2007

    So, Mr. G, what is your point? Just say it in PLAIN English; spit it out. What is your point? Some of us aren’t experts in all of the controversies in these obscure fields, so you are assuming that we “get it” but I, at least, don’t get it, not unless you just say, plainly, what you mean.

  4. #4 Keane
    May 5, 2007

    Thanks Jonah, I’ve appreciated your work for some time now. Would you know if the lecture was videotaped and will it be uploaded for streaming in the future? Thanks a lot.

  5. #5 Susan
    August 14, 2009

    I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


New comments have been disabled.