The Difference Between Neuroscience and Cognitive Science

Just the other day I was having a discussion with one of my friends who was telling me about a study where the researchers used fMRI to study what happens in people’s brains when they procrastinate. After telling me about the study in all detail, he said “The advances they are making in neuroscience are amazing”. I immediately felt the need to correct him and told him that he is referring to cognitive science and not neuroscience. Then I got to thinking about it and realized that even a lot of well educated people do not understand the difference between these two completely different branches of science. So, I decided to write this post to clear it up once and for all.

Po-tay-to Po-tah-to? Not Really!

Neuroscience refers to the study of the biochemistry, electrochemistry, genetics as well as the anatomy of the nervous system and the brain. The techniques of this science focus on individual neurons (imaging, patch, extracellular recording) or a group of neurons (wide field imaging, voltage sensitive dyes, immunoblotting). It grew out of neurobiology and clinical neurology, which later evolved into a separate branch of its own. It is only occupied with how the brain works systemically, mechanistically and functionally to give rise to the observable behavior.

Cognitive science techniques study entire areas of the brain using techniques like fMRI, EEG or DTI. It is important to bear in mind that cognitive science was an offshoot of psychology which deals with the study of thought or cognition. It includes a wide variety of things under its umbrella, like the study of problem-solving, language, perception and decision-making. The science started with such testable or observable high-level behavior traits and understand the thinking processes in the brain or mind that make it possible. For instance, a cognitive scientist will study social relationships and psychology without looking into the neurological basis behind it. While the insights derived from neuroscience can be used to shed more light on cognition, it is important to bear in mind that we are dealing with something much bigger than just neurons.

More recently however, both the sciences have found a common meeting ground. With the advent of fMRI, cognitive science became a hard science. With more funding for fMRI studies, cognitive scientists have started generating images of what is going on in the head instead of just speculating like they used to. Similarly, neuroscience has also started working up from individual neurons to forming representational schemes, memory, neural coding and decision making. In this regard, fMRI has also helped them out a lot as it has finally made it possible for them to conduct live human experiments, which has opened the door to the study of human-only, higher-level capacities. Naturally, that led to a common meeting ground between the two sciences and both of them have greatly benefited from the shared pool of knowledge.

Deeper waters

This is not the end of the road though. Increasing specializations have led to more branches of study. For instance, there is a branch called cognitive neuroscience which studies the biological underpinnings of cognition. You also have computational neuroscience, which basically deals with the study of the brain as an information processor. Although it has a lot in common with cognitive science, it goes places where the latter can’t.

There is no denying that there is considerable overlap among these fields. However, the techniques they use and the phenomena they study are completely different. So, if you are interested in studying the biology behind the brain, neuroscience is the way to go. If you want to know more about how the human mind works, cognitive science will have the more relevant answers.