No Limit to Benefits of Cognitive Science

January 21, 2014

by Jennifer Anderson

For anyone looking to start a business or develop new technologies, the clear personnel choice might be engineers and IT specialists.  But if the job requires both analysis of existing data and creation of new ideas, the better choice might be a cognitive scientist.

Cognitive science is about understanding thought processes, explained Tom Landauer, executive vice president of Pearson Knowledge Technologies and Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.  “It’s about how people learn and perform, and how they go about and live their daily lives.”

The skills of the cognitive scientist can be invaluable for companies looking to market new ideas and technologies that address those things people really want and find useful in society.

A multidisciplinary study of the mind, cognitive science looks at intelligent processes involving humans, animals and computers.  Its origins can be traced to discussion groups and symposiums of the 1950s, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that the term was coined and the Cognitive Science Society was founded. 

landauer quote.jpgBy the 1980s, colleges were awarding degrees in cognitive science, requiring majors to explore thinking through an assemblage of traditional sciences including psychology, artificial intelligence, neuroscience, linguistics, philosophy and anthropology.  Cognitive scientists, or cognitive psychologists, use their training to theorize about and study how people learn.

These skills are exactly what Landauer and his partners applied in creating Latent Semantic Analysis, or LSA, a technology that uses mathematical models to analyze how words make meaning.  Among other objectives, LSA makes it possible to program computers to understand the meaning of language and to create new ways of teaching and learning.

LSA formed the basis of their company, Knowledge Analysis Technologies, founded in 1998 and purchased by Pearson in 2004.

Landauer described LSA using the example of a telephone message left in English by a non-native English speaker calling from another country.  LSA can measure whether the message is clear enough for someone on the receiving end to understand and use it.

LSA also is used to measure how well people understand things they are supposed to learn.  If two teachers were to assess, independently, the value of a student’s essay, they almost never will completely agree and may have to reach a compromise.  With LSA, “we do not compromise; we can measure directly how well they are doing, and we are more accurate than the humans,” he said.

Cognitive science is useful not just for technologies involving teaching and learning but also for the development of all new technologies.  Unlike the individual disciplines--psychology, linguistics, computer science and the like—cognitive science teaches practitioners to view problems from multiple perspectives and look for new and innovative ways to solve them.

From helping people recognize the bias in their decision making to assessing the depth of knowledge in a particular discipline, “any field would benefit from cognitive science,” Landauer said.  “It touches upon everything we do, and gets to the root of how we think and learn.”



Thomas K Landauer, PhD, is executive vice president of Pearson Knowledge Technologies and Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Landauer has published widely in the field of cognitive science and is an editor of "The Handbook of Human-Computer Interaction," and the author of "The Trouble with Computers: Usefulness, Usability, and Productivity," which received the Association of American Publishers award for best Computer Science book in 1994.