What happened to cognitive science?


More than a half-century ago, the ‘cognitive revolution’, with the influential tenet ‘cognition is computation’, launched the investigation of the mind through a multidisciplinary endeavour called cognitive science. Despite significant diversity of views regarding its definition and intended scope, this new science, explicitly named in the singular, was meant to have a cohesive subject matter, complementary methods and integrated theories. Multiple signs, however, suggest that over time the prospect of an integrated cohesive science has not materialized. Here we investigate the status of the field in a data-informed manner, focusing on four indicators, two bibliometric and two socio-institutional. These indicators consistently show that the devised multi-disciplinary program failed to transition to a mature inter-disciplinary coherent field. Bibliometrically, the field has been largely subsumed by (cognitive) psychology, and educationally, it exhibits a striking lack of curricular consensus, raising questions about the future of the cognitive science enterprise.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Fig. 1: The multidisciplinarity of cognitive science.
Fig. 2: Four indicators of the status of cognitive science.
Fig. 3: The citation environment of the journal Cognitive Science for the years 2000, 2007 and 2014.
Fig. 4: The current undergraduate cognitive science curriculum in North America.

Data availability

The data sets generated in this study can be found on GitHub (https://github.com/rdgao/WH2CogSci) and FigShare (https://figshare.com/articles/scrapingcognition/7973372). They are openly available and free for use, with proper attribution.

Code availability

The code used for analysis and draft figure generation can be found on GitHub (https://github.com/rdgao/WH2CogSci) and FigShare (https://figshare.com/articles/scrapingcognition/7973372). It is openly available and free for use, with proper attribution.


  1. 1.

    Collins, A. Cogn. Sci. 1, 1–2, https://doi.org/10.1207/s15516709cog0101_1 (1977).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2.

    Gardner, H. The Mind's New Science: A History of the Cognitive Revolution. (Basic Books, 1987).

  3. 3.

    Simon, H. & Kaplan, C.A. Foundations of Cognitive Science. In Foundations of Cognitive Science. (ed. Posner, M.I.) 1–47 (MIT Press, 1993).

  4. 4.

    Bechtel, W. & Graham, G. (eds.) A Companion to Cognitive Science. (Blackwell, 1998).

  5. 5.

    Miller, G. A. Trends Cogn. Sci. 7, 141–144 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6.

    Boden, M. Mind as Machine: A History of Cognitive Science. Vols. 1 & 2 (Oxford University Press, 2006).

  7. 7.

    Posner, M.I. (ed.) Foundations of Cognitive Science. (MIT Press, 1993).

  8. 8.

    Sloan Foundation. Cognitive Science, 1978: Report of the State of the Art Committee to The Advisors of The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. New York. http://csjarchive.cogsci.rpi.edu/misc/ (1978).

  9. 9.

    Gentner, D. Top. Cogn. Sci. 2, 328–344 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10.

    Von Eckardt, B. What is Cognitive Science? (MIT Press, 1993).

  11. 11.

    Wikipedia. Cognitive Science https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_science (retrieved 26 April, 2019).

  12. 12.

    Doctoral Universities: Highest Research Activity. Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education http://carnegieclassifications.iu.edu/lookup/srp.php?clq=%7B%22basic2005_ids%22%3A%2215%22%7D (retrieved 26 February, 2019).

  13. 13.

    Psychology Undergraduate Program. Harvard University https://undergrad.psychology.fas.harvard.edu/mbb (retrieved 27 February, 2019).

  14. 14.

    Symbolic Systems. Stanford University https://symsys.stanford.edu/ (retrieved 27 February, 2019).

  15. 15.

    Leydesdorff, L. & Goldstone, R. L. J. Assoc. Inf. Sci. Technol. 65, 164–177 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16.

    Van den Besselaar, P. & Heimeriks, G. Disciplinary, multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary: concepts and indicators. in Proceedings of the 8th International Conference on Scientometrics & Informetrics (ISSI) (eds Davis, M. & Wilson, C.S.) 705–716 (University of New South Wales, 2001).

  17. 17.

    Vugteveen, P., Lenders, R. & Van den Besselaar, P. Scientometrics 100, 73–96 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18.

    Thagard, P. Mind: Introduction to Cognitive Science. (MIT Press, 2005).

  19. 19.

    Lakatos, I. The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes. Vol. I. (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1978).

  20. 20.

    Sheehy, N. & Chapman, A.J. (eds.) Cognitive Science, Volume I. (University Press, 1995).

  21. 21.

    Varela, F., Thompson, E. & Rosch, E. The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. (MIT Press, 1991).

  22. 22.

    Rumelhart, D.E., McClelland, J.L. & Group, P.D.P. Parallel Distributed Processing Vol. 1. (MIT Press, 1987).

  23. 23.

    Lave, J. Cognition in Practice: Mind, Mathematics and Culture in Everyday Life. (Cambridge University Press, 1988).

  24. 24.

    Brown, J. S., Collins, A. & Duguid, P. Educ. Res. 18, 32–42 (1989).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25.

    Clancey, W.J. Situated Cognition: On Human Knowledge and Computer Representations. (Cambridge University Press, 1997).

  26. 26.

    Robbins, P. & Aydede, M. (eds.) The Cambridge Handbook of Situated Cognition. (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

  27. 27.

    Cole, M. & Engeström, Y. A cultural-historical approach to distributed cognition. In Distributed Cognitions: Psychological and Educational Consideration. (ed. Salomon, G.) 1–46 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993).

  28. 28.

    Hutchins, E. Cognition in the Wild. (MIT Press, 1995).

  29. 29.

    Clark, A. Trends Cogn. Sci. 3, 345–351 (1999).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  30. 30.

    Thelen, E., Schöner, G., Scheier, C. & Smith, L. B. Behav. Brain Sci. 24, 1–34; discussion 34–86 (2001).

  31. 31.

    Wilson, M. Psychon. Bull. Rev. 9, 625–636 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. 32.

    Pfeifer, R., Lungarella, M. & Iida, F. Science 318, 1088–1093 (2007).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  33. 33.

    Barsalou, L. W. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 59, 617–645 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. 34.

    Calvo, P. & Gomila, T. (eds.) Handbook of Cognitive Science: An Embodied Approach. (Elsevier, 2008).

  35. 35.

    Freeman, W. & Skarda, Ch Brain Res. Rev. 10, 147–175 (1985).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. 36.

    Freeman, W. & Skarda, Ch. Representations: Who needs them? In Third Conference, Brain Organization and Memory: Cells, Systems and Circuits. (eds. McGaugh, J.L., Weinberger, N.M. & Lynch, G.) 375–380 (Guilford Press, 1990).

  37. 37.

    Stewart, J., Gapenne, O. & di Paolo, E. (eds.) Enaction: Toward a New Paradigm for Cognitive Science. (MIT Press, 2010).

  38. 38.

    Miller, J.R., Polson, P.G. & Kintsch, W. Problems of methodology in cognitive science. In Methods and Tactics in Cognitive Science. (eds Kintsch, W., Miller, J.R. & Polson, P.G.) 1–18 (Erlbaum, 1984).

  39. 39.

    Varela, F. Connaître les Sciences Cognitives: Tendances et Perspectives. (Seuil, 1989).

  40. 40.

    Schunn, Ch., Crowley, K. & Okada, T. Cogn. Sci. 22, 107–130 (1998).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. 41.

    Von Eckardt, B. Cogn. Sci. 25, 453–470 (2001).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. 42.

    Derry, S.J., Schunn, C.D. & Gernsbacher, M.A. (eds.) Interdisciplinary Collaboration: An Emerging Cognitive Science. (Erlbaum, 2005).

  43. 43.

    Thagard, P. Being interdisciplinary: trading zones in cognitive science. In Interdisciplinary Collaboration: An Emerging Cognitive Science. (eds Derry, S.J., Schunn, C.D. & Gernsbacher, M.A.) 317–339 (Erlbaum, 2005).

  44. 44.

    Goldstone, R. L. & Leydesdorff, L. Cogn. Sci. 30, 983–993 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. 45.

    Bergmann, T., Dale, R., Sattari, N., Heit, E. & Bhat, H. S. Cogn. Sci. (Hauppauge) 41, 1412–1418 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. 46.

    Doreian, P. & Fararo, T. J. J. Am. Soc. Inf. Sci. 36, 28–37 (1985).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. 47.

    Borgman, C. L. & Rice, R. E. J. Am. Soc. Inf. Sci. 43, 397–411 (1992).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. 48.

    Tijssen, R.J. Cartography of Science: Scientometric Mapping with Multidimensional Scaling Methods. (DSWO Press, 1992).

  49. 49.

    Leydesdorff, L. & Cozzens, S. Scientometrics 26, 135–156 (1993).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. 50.

    Van den Besselaar, P. & Leydesdorff, L. J. Am. Soc. Inf. Sci. 47, 415–436 (1996).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. 51.

    Van Raan, A. Scientometrics 38, 205–218 (1997).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  52. 52.

    Mingers, J. & Leydesdorff, L. Eur. J. Oper. Res. 246, 1–19 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  53. 53.

    Van den Besselaar, P. Interdisciplinary and disciplinary identities: towards a theory of forms of knowledge change. Preprint at bioRxiv https://doi.org/10.1101/603449 (2018).

  54. 54.

    Ratcliff, J.L. What is a curriculum and what should it be. in Handbook of the Undergraduate Curriculum: A Comprehensive Guide to Purposes, Structures, Practices, and Change. (eds Gaff, J.G. & Ratcliff, J.L.) 5–29 (Jossey-Bass, 1997).

  55. 55.

    Gaff, J.G. & Ratcliff, J.L. (eds.) Handbook of the Undergraduate Curriculum: A Comprehensive Guide to Purposes, Structures, Practices, and Change. (Jossey-Bass, 1997).

  56. 56.

    Academic Programs in Cognitive Science. Cognitive Science Society http://www.cognitivesciencesociety.org/studying/ (retrieved 14 May, 2018).

  57. 57.

    Cognitive Science Department. Vassar College https://cogsci.vassar.edu/about/ (retrieved 6 September, 2018).

  58. 58.

    Dreyfus, H. What Computers Can’t Do: The Limits of Artificial Intelligence. (Harper & Row, 1972).

  59. 59.

    Searle, J. Behav. Brain Sci. 3, 417–424 (1980).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  60. 60.

    Maturana, H. & Varela, F. The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. (New Science Library, 1987).

  61. 61.

    Winograd, T. Cogn. Psychol. 3, 1–191 (1972).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  62. 62.

    Winograd, T. Cogn. Sci. 4, 209–241 (1980).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  63. 63.

    Winograd, T. & Flores, F. Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design. (Addison-Wesley, 1986).

  64. 64.

    D’Andrade, R. Cogn. Sci. 5, 179–195 (1981).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  65. 65.

    Cole, M. Outl. Crit. Pract. Stud. 5, 3–15 (2003).

    Google Scholar 

  66. 66.

    Bender, A., Hutchins, E. & Medin, D. Top. Cogn. Sci. 2, 374–385 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  67. 67.

    Beller, S., Bender, A. & Medin, D. L. Top. Cogn. Sci. 4, 342–353 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  68. 68.

    Levinson, S. C. Top. Cogn. Sci. 4, 396–403 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  69. 69.

    Evans, N. & Levinson, S. C. Behav. Brain Sci. 32, 429–448; discussion 448–494 (2009).

  70. 70.

    Squire, L.R. et al. (eds.) Fundamental Neuroscience. 2nd ed. (Academic Press, 2003).

  71. 71.

    Purves, D. et al. Principles of Cognitive Neuroscience. (Sinauer, 2008).

  72. 72.

    Konopka, G. & Geschwind, D. H. Neuron 68, 231–244 (2010).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  73. 73.

    Richerson, P. J., Boyd, R. & Henrich, J. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 107(Suppl 2), 8985–8992 (2010).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  74. 74.

    Dobzhansky, T. Mankind Evolving: The Evolution of the Human Species. (Yale University Press, 1962).

  75. 75.

    Mayr, E. What Makes Biology Unique? Considerations on the Autonomy as a Scientific Discipline. (University Press, 2004).

  76. 76.

    Neisser, U. Cognitive Psychology. (Prentice-Hall, 1967).

  77. 77.

    Sanford, A.J. Cognition & Cognitive Psychology. (Basic Books, 1985).

  78. 78.

    Howard, D.V. Cognitive Psychology: Memory, Language, and Thought. (Macmillan, 1983).

  79. 79.

    Medin, D., Ross, B. & Markmann, A. Cognitive Psychology. 4th ed. (Wiley, 2005).

  80. 80.

    Piaget, J. The Origins of Intelligence in Children. (Norton, 1952).

  81. 81.

    Piaget, J. The Development of Thought: Equilibration of Cognitive Structures. (Viking, 1977).

  82. 82.

    Piaget, J. Language and Thought of the Child. (Routledge, 2005).

  83. 83.

    Piaget, J. & Inhelder, B. Memory and Intelligence. (Psychology Press, 2015).

  84. 84.

    Vygotsky, L.S. Thought and Language. (MIT Press, 1962).

  85. 85.

    Vygotski, L.S. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. (Harvard University Press, 1978).

  86. 86.

    Fillmore, C. J. Ann. NY Acad. Sci. 280, 20–32 (1976).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  87. 87.

    Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. Metaphors We Live By. (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980).

  88. 88.

    Langacker, R. Cogn. Sci. 10, 1–40 (1986).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  89. 89.

    Langacker, R. Concept, Image, and Symbol: The Cognitive Basis of Grammar. (de Gruyter, 1991).

  90. 90.

    Fauconnier, G. Mental spaces: Aspects of Meaning Construction in Natural Language. (Cambridge University Press, 1994).

  91. 91.

    Fauconnier, G. & Turner, M. Cogn. Sci. 22, 133–187 (1998).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  92. 92.

    Talmy, L. Toward a Cognitive Semantics. (MIT Press, 2000).

  93. 93.

    Chomsky, N. Syntactic Structures. (Mouton, 1957).

  94. 94.

    Chomsky, N. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. (MIT Press, 1965).

  95. 95.

    Chomsky, N. Cartesian Linguistics. (Harper & Row, 1966).

  96. 96.

    Chomsky, N. Language and Mind. (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972).

  97. 97.

    Chomsky, N. Rules and Representations. (Columbia Univ. Press, 1980).

  98. 98.

    Croft, W. & Cruse, D.A. Cognitive Linguistics. (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2004).

  99. 99.

    Lee, D. Cognitive Linguistics: An Introduction. (Oxford Univ. Press, 2001).

  100. 100.

    Cognitive Science Society. “CogSci 2017: London” Annual Meeting http://www.cognitivesciencesociety.org/conference/cogsci2017/ (retrieved 15 August, 2018).

  101. 101.

    Gao, R., Donoghue, T. & Voytek, B. Automated generation of cognitive ontology via web text-mining. Proceedings of the 39th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society. 2067–2072 (Cognitive Science Society, 2017).

  102. 102.

    Hirst, W. (ed.) The Making of Cognitive Science: Essays in Honor of George A. Miller. (Cambridge University Press, 1988).

  103. 103.

    Wilson, R.A. & Keil, F.C. (eds.) The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences. (MIT Press, 1999).

  104. 104.

    Choi, B. C. K. & Pak, A. W. P. Clin. Invest. Med. 29, 351–364 (2006).

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

Download references


We are grateful to K. Cooperrider, E. Beringer, J. Núñez and P. Gagneux for valuable comments on earlier drafts of this article, and to P. Van den Besselaar and M. Cole for constructive input on methods and theory, respectively. We thank C. Gere and R. Westman for insights into the history and practice of science as well as D. Christiano, K. Lacroix, and J. Dominguez for helping with data collection.

Author information




In the author list, M.A., R.G., C.M.R., J.R.-D. and A.S. are listed in alphabetical order. R.N. conceived and designed the overall structure of the study, organized the intellectual content of the article, was involved with data analysis and data visualization design, and wrote most of the paper with systematic input from all co-authors. C.M.R. did the analysis of the faculty Ph.D. backgrounds, wrote the draft reporting on these data and produced most of the figures, following designs conceived by the entire team. J.R.-D. and M.A. conducted the curriculum analysis. J.R.-D. wrote the draft reporting on these data and managed the work of a research assistant. M.A. wrote the supplementary information of this analysis. R.G. and A.S. conducted the authors’ affiliation analysis, performed web-page scraping and managed the computational work of two research assistants. R.G. wrote the draft reporting on these data and prepared the corresponding text for the supplementary information. R.G. performed the factor analysis and hierarchical clustering on the journal–journal citation data, produced the resulting dendrograms and wrote the drafts of the results and supplementary information. A.S. provided input regarding scientometric methods and compiled all the supplementary information.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Rafael Núñez.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Peer review information: Primary Handling Editor: Stavroula Kousta

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Figures 1–4, Supplementary Tables 1–4 and Supplementary References.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Núñez, R., Allen, M., Gao, R. et al. What happened to cognitive science?. Nat Hum Behav 3, 782–791 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-019-0626-2

Download citation

Further reading


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing