What is cognitive neuroscience, and why should anyone care?

I often have trouble explaining to people what I am doing for my PhD. This is not a consequence of the topic being so fiendishly complex that no-one else can understand it. Instead it comes from a fact that the area of study seems to fall between several difference subject areas. When I tell people that I am doing my PhD within the Neuroscience department I imagine this provokes images of test-tubes, microscopes and pipettes, and perhaps associations with genetics, animal testing and stem cells. In reality I have little knowledge or experience of any of these topics, having last done ‘traditional’ lab work while I was at secondary school. If you asked me to dissect something, I would probably run a mile! When I instead say that I work within the psychiatry department this probably brings up an altogether different set of images, of drug therapies, ECT and perhaps of ‘talking therapies’ such as CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy). In fact both the above statements regarding my PhD are true, as the Psychiatry department sits within the Neuroscience department, but neither appear to give an accurate impression of what I actually do.

The best description of my area of research is ‘cognitive neuroscience’, but what does this mean? Cognitive Neuroscience relates to the study of the neural basis of behaviour. Roughly, it bridges the gap between biological sciences, and behavioural sciences such as psychology and psychiatry. It attempts to determine how the brain achieves the legion of processes that it performs – crudely ‘what part of the brain does what’! Cognitive neuroscience has only been seen as a separate area of study relatively recently, partly because the advanced brain imaging techniques which the discipline now heavily relies on have only been developed within the last 30 years (according to Wikipedia the term ‘cognitive neuroscience’ itself was coined in the back of a taxi in 1979!!). However scientists from various disciplines have been trying to understand how the brain functions, using whatever methods were available, since at least the 19th century.

Cognitive Neuroscience relies heavily on work done within behavioural sciences, which have served to define how human behaviour and cognition can be classified into concepts that can be studied. Unsurprisingly therefore, cognitive neuroscience research normally involves the application of a behavioural task which has already been utilised without the use of brain imaging techniques. One question this raises is what does knowing how the brain achieves it function tell us that purely behavioural science does not?  Psychologists have been ably investigating the details of mental processes for well over a century without knowing (or even caring) what part(s) of the brain are involved. The knowledge that spatial processing is largely dependent on the Hippocampus is not necessary for studying the intricacies and individual differences in spatial processing. So what does an understanding of the neural basis of mental processes achieve?

Firstly understanding the neural basis of a mental process can help distinguish between different theories relating to how that process is performed. Behavioural data is often not sufficient to distinguish between competing theories (e.g. whether a particular process is performed in totality, or whether it is split into components processes that are dealt with separately, and whether such component processes are performed in parallel or in series). Neuroimaging data can be used to provide strong evidence in relation to these questions (1).  Secondly cognitive neuroscience can provide insight into areas of cognition that were difficult or impossible to address without neuroimaging techniques. For example much work has been done on trying to understand what the brain does ‘at rest’ (i.e. when no task is being performed, effectively ‘mind wandering’) which can allow us to understand how the brain might work as an self-contained integrative mechanism. As, by definition, non-task related mental processes can’t be manipulated systematically, it is hard to investigate these processes from a purely behavioural standpoint. Similarly neuroimaging has enabled scientists to begin to uncover the neural basis of ‘consciousness’, raising interesting questions about how our experience of the world is constructed (3). These achievements of cognitive neuroscience help elucidate the nature of human thought and behaviour, shedding light on why we act the way that we do. 

On a larger scale, understanding how the brain is able to processes such a large variety of information, and produce such a wide variety of responses, can help guide the design of artificial intelligence systems intended to mimic human abilities, facilitating advances in medicine and engineering. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, knowing how the brain produces certain responses can lead to the development of interventions to alter the functioning of the appropriate brain areas when those responses become problematic (e.g. during mental health disorders). One of the major aims of cognitive neuroscience is to identify the neural deficiencies that mark various psychiatry and neurodegenerative disorders. From this information it becomes potentially possible to identify methods of combating such deficiencies. Indeed biological interventions are being developed that can target specific brain areas, potentially offering great hope for improving the therapeutic treatment of mental disorders.  


(1) Jonides et al (2006). What has Functional Neuroimaging told us about the Mind? So many examples, so little space. Cortex, 42, 414-417 http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jjonides/pdf/2006_3.pdf

(2) Van den Heuval & Pol (2010) Exploring the brain network: A review on resting-state fMRI functional connectivity. European Neuropsychopharmacology, 20(8), 519-534 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0924977X10000684

(3) Dehaene & Changeux (2011) Experimental and Theoretical Approaches to Conscious Processing. Neuron, 70. 200-225 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0896627311002583

36 thoughts on “What is cognitive neuroscience, and why should anyone care?

  1. Hi there, im shalini mohan from malaysia,currently doing Foundation in Science in the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus. I would really like to know more on Cognitive Neuroscience as im planning to take this course during my degree. I would like to know on how and what job specification will be given later on and what do we actually do. Would like to here from you as soon as possible. Thank You.

    • Shalini
      If you want to know what you will be doing on a particular course you are probably best talking to the course administrator of any courses you are interested in, to get more details as to what is involved. You shoud be able to find contact details on the relevant website. In general terms the specific knowledge that is taught on cognitive neuroscience courses would be designed to lead onto careers in academic research as I don’t believe that the private sector do a great deal of research in cognitive neuroscience, although I may be wrong on that. You would also gain skills in data analysis from a cognitive neuroscience course, which would be helpful in a wide variety on non-research jobs.

  2. Hello my name is Eloisa Jimenez and i just started my college career here in California and you see I want to get my Masters or PhD on psychiatry, moreover dealing with Schizophrenia. Is Cognitive Neuroscience relevant to this? To be honest I’m having a little trouble on knowing what classes to take in order to reach my goal. If its irrelevant what classes do you suggest I look into ? i Would really appreciate the help. Hope to hear from you soon. Thank you

    • Hi, Eloisa. As schizophrenia is (at least in part) caused by biological factors, and as all behaviour (whether adaptive or dysfunctional) is a consequence of brain activity, cognitive neuroscience is definitely relevant to the study of schizophrenia.
      A good proportion of the research that is performed with the aim of understanding psychiatric symptoms involves Cognitive Neuroscience methods, so I think that a MSc in Cognitive Neuroscience, or classes on neuroimaging, would be useful for your purposes.
      There are of course other forms of Psychiatric research that don’t involve cognitive neuroscience. There is work that concentrates on the cognitive/behavioural basis of symtpoms, which uses methods from experimental psychology (in effect this is like Cognitive Neuroscience but without the neuroimaging). There is also a lot of clinical trials research (e.g. is treatment X effective) and some genetic research, as there is a complex genetic background to schizophrenia.
      Good luck with finding the correct course! It mind be helpful if you can find some recent review articles with reference to schizophrenia and have a look at the sort of research that is being done. From that you might be able to identify what specific areas you are interested in. I’ve linked a couple of recent ones below, but you can use GoogleScholar, or Web of science (if you have access) to find others.



  3. In researching for what I wanted to study for college, I only had a phrase that I was hoping to connect with an “ology.” I’d like to study how, say, psychological fears affected physical reactions. For example, if someone were deeply afraid of spiders, why would that fear, which is mental, affect how their body ends curled up shaking in a corner, while someone else could walk over and pick up the spider and run it through their shirt without a blink. I came across cognitive neuroscience, also known as psychophysiology. I’ve done a lot of research, but I can’t quite tell- Is this the field I am looking for to study how the physical body reacts to mind processes?

    • Hannah. In terms of college courses your best bet would be psychology which looks at how the brain processes information and how the effects behaviour. It would cover things like the cognitive basis of phobias (which is what you are describing with the spider example in your post). Cognitive Neuroscience effectively fills the gap between psychology and neuroscience by looking at the actualy biological mechanisms involved (i.e. which parts of the brain) rather that just the processes.
      To be honest I wouldn’t get too hung up on a particular ‘ology’. Most sciences overlap with other sciences to a greater or lesser extent. Psychology is a very broad discipline, so if you did it university, the courses would likely cover a whole range of stuff, and you could choose what to focus on later (you can see sheffield’s BSc course option here: http://www.shef.ac.uk/prospectus/courseDetails.do?id=5055472013 ). If you talking about secondary/high school, then just doing psychology and maybe biology would be a good preparation for doing the sort of research you mention later on.

  4. Hi. I was wondering what classes I should take in high school to become a Cognitive Neuroscientist?

    • Sophia
      The best thing to do would be to look at the BSc Cognitive Neuroscience courses that universities offer in your area, and see if they have any entry requirements. I suspect they’ll want some GCSE Maths or equivalent. In terms of A-Levels, probably Psychology and Biology would be best. If there are no Con Neuro course, have a look fior the entry requirements at either Psychology or Neuroscience courses instead.
      Those are UK qualifications, I don’t know what the US equivalents are if you are from the US. G.S.C.Es are done at the US equivalents of 9th and 10th grade. A-levels are done at the equivalent of 11th and 12th grade.

  5. Hi, I am still confused about some definitions in neuroscience. It would be great if you could help me there.
    1. What is the difference of Cognitive Neuroscience and Behavioral Neuroscience?
    2. And also: What exactly is the difference of Neuroscience in general and Cognitive Neuroscience?

    Thanks in advance.

    • Hi
      1) I think they are terms that largely overlap in meaning. In practice I think ‘behavioural neuroscience’ is used to refer to research into more basic behaviours (e.g. the basic senses) using animal models (i.e. experiments on animals) whereas the term ‘cognitive neuroscience’ is used more when the research is looking at higher functions and the experiments are performed on humans.

      2) Neuroscience in general is the study of the nervous system. Cognitive neuroscience is the part of neuroscience that is interested in how the nervous system achieves cognition (i.e. mental processes). This is largely restricted to the study of the brain, whereas Neuroscience as a whole involves the study of the peripheral nervous system as well.

  6. hi i am sangamesh from india, i am interested in cognitive neuroscience and want to study on it.presently i am MBBS(doctor) degree holder now, so how i proceed to next level to cognitive neuroscience studies? what are the options for me. suggest me courses on it. i mailny do research on it. thank you i am waiting for your reply..

    • You should be qualified to get on a masters course with your existing degree, if there is one available. Alternatively contact research centres that do cognitive neuroscience research and see whether they have any opportunities available which might suit you.

  7. Hi! I am a chess grandmaster. i want to understand why some people are brilliant in playing chess while others are not. is there a difference between men and women in playing chess?what is the secret of chess genius?i would like to research the relationship between talent for playing chess and linguistic talent too. i do not know what major i should stidy: cognitive psychology or cognitive neuroscience? thanks for your attention !

    • Cognitve Psychology will cover research into ‘executive functions’ such as those involved in chess playing and linguistics. Cognitive neuroscience attempts to identify the brain mechanisms behind those functions. The two disciplines are therefore closely related. A psychology/cognitive psychology degree should cover what you are interested in. It will also probably cover some cognitive neuroscience as well.

  8. Hi Rob,

    Thanks for your post. I earned undergraduate degrees in Speech, Language, Hearing Science, and in Spanish after having taught piano for 12 years. I am about to start my doctoral program in Audiology at UNC (next week). As a piano teacher, and in all of my language classes, I was perpetually curious about how we learn, and how we might improve things for people who struggle with certain aspects of learning. In particular, clinical observations of stroke patients with aphasia left me feeling that we have a very long way to go in order to really make an effective difference for those folks. I imagine that after working clinically as an audiologist for a few years I will head back for a PhD in cognitive neuroscience. Do I have the right assumption that cog. neuroscience works on such issues as improving treatment for individuals effected by any of the aphasias, or improving the response to cochlear implant after lengthy neglect of the neural auditory pathways? Also, would it be within the scope of cognitive neuroscience to work with researchers on inner hair cell regeneration?

    Thank you again for your post. Being such a new field, none of my undergraduate professors could really even give me a solid feel for what cognitive neuroscience is. Your explanation reassures me that I may be on the right track.

    • Yes some Cognitive Neuroscience is involved in looking at the basis of Aphasia’s. Likewise looking at the effect of cochlear implants would come under the topic of cognitive neuroscience. Inner (ear?) hair cell regeneration might come under the more general neuroscience banner (or perhaps medicine) because cognitive neuroscience generally deals with just the central nervous system (or more specifically the brain) rather than the peripheral nervous system. Nevertheless a doctorate in Cognitive Neuroscience would potentially be good experience for moving into these fields of research.

  9. Hi there,
    I have just applied for a cognitive neuroscience degree for this upcoming year and will be studying the course come september. I have always loved biology and learning more about cortical specialisation, but a tad scared that the course won’t go into enough depth on the biology side of things (ie. axons, transmission) and stick further to the psychology side. Is this so? and if so, have i picked the wrong course?

    • If it is an undergraduate degree then there is usually some element of choice in the course content, as you tend to be able to select from a variety of ‘optional’ modules that you want to study. You should then be able to push things more towards the biology side of the course if you wish. Regardless I would imagine there is plenty of biology involved, although it is more likely to be at a macro level (e.g. the function of particular brain structures, and their connectivity with each other) rather than looking at the micro detail of individual neurons (although that will probably be covered to some extent).

      If you have doubts check the description of the individual modules on the university webpage, or contact the course leader/administrator if that information is not available online.


  10. Very informative piece, thank-you. I am looking at doing MSc ideally in Psychology & Cognitive Neuroscience (Manchester) but I’m not sure if I will be able to manage the workload as I need to work part time & have family commitments too. How would you say the workload compares to fellow students who are undertaking other degrees such as Psychology, Engineering, Medicine etc? I’m not sure if I would be accepted on my DipHE anyway as a mature student who didn’t take A Levels so I am just exploring options right now. I found Biology & Chemistry came naturally to me at school/ college & have work experience that is relevant. I would expect that this degree is rated highly by employers when recruiting for health related research assistant posts, do you believe this to be the case? Thanks in advance.

    • You’d be best asking the course leader about the workload for a specific course. They would be able to tell you how many hours you would have to be in attendance. Generally the more ‘science-based’ the subject is the more compulsory hours you have, mainly because of lab time. My guess is that you would be required to be in attendance for more hours than for ‘straight’ psychology, but less hours than Chemistry and a lot less hours than Medicine.

      Employers advertising for research assistant posts tend to look for people with experience/knowledge of the experimental techniques which they are going to be using. So a psychology and cog neuro course would be good for research jobs in those areas of medicine.

  11. Hi Rob,
    I have completed my Bachelors in medicine . I’m actually interested in pursuing research on creative arts with regard to neuro-psychiatric rehabilitation. I have a particular interest in music and dance cognition. I’m confused about whether to apply for a cognitive psychology program or a cognitive neuro science program. Initially I wanted to apply for dance and movement therapy but then I thought cognition would give me better grounding to begin with. Can you please give your opinion about what would be the best course of action.? The thing is I have difficulty about explaining about my future goals too. So I have not been receiving much guidance in the matter.
    I’d be grateful for suggestions from you.

    • Your goal sounds very specific so I would suggest contacting someone who already works in that area and asking them what the best course of action would be. General cognitive psychology/neuroscience programmes are unlikely to have much content regarding the effect of creative arts.

  12. Hi I just wanted to ask.does congitive neuroscience invole studying alot about mental health as I am really interested in studying mental disorders

    • Yes a lot of Cog Neuro research looks at mental health disorders. However it will focus on the biological basis of such conditions, rather than the contribution of social/environmental factors.

  13. Hi I wanted to know what career I could go into if I was to study cognitive neuroscinece with psychology at uni. Also What salary would I be looking at?

  14. Hi, im a bachelor degree cognitive science student from malaysia. Im interested to further my study in cognitive neuroscience. Do you have any suggestion on which university offers the best of this course and what are the careers prospect?

  15. Hi! I find this EXTREMELY fascinating! I am VERY interested in the brain and would someday like to study brain waves in relation to human behavior-what waves are being made when people behave a certain way or are feeling a certain emotion. Would this be the degree I would want in order to study such things? I do NOT want to test solely on animals. I want real people (obviously, if I am trying to study waves in relation to emotion I wouldn’t be able to exactly do that on say a cat). I am also curious about pay and job opportunities in this field. Do you have any information on this? I am eagerly awaiting your response!
    Thank you!

    • Yes Cognitive Neuroscience would be the subject to study how brain activity is related to human behaviour. Many (BSc not BA) Psychology degrees may also cover some cognitive neuroscience, but you’d have to check the syllabus of the course to confirm this. In general the Psychology degrees would be more focussed on behaviour.
      Most of the jobs related to Cognitive Neuroscience are in research. You can surf http://www.jobs.ac.uk to get an idea of the types of jobs available.

  16. Hi
    I’m interested in finding out more about cognitive and behavioral neuroscience. I’m looking at the university if florida’s bachelors degree in psychology. I have two boys ages 8,5 and both have trisomy 20 disorder as well as being in the autism spectrum. My 8 year old has a processing delay and possible dyslexia. Would this degree be in this field? I’m really wanting to learn more about helping my children,as well as other children and parents to understand this. Any feedback us greatly appreciated!!!

    • Hi

      You are probably best directing your question to the University department in question. On the prospectus and/or website for the course there should be some contact details which you can use to find out more specifics about the syllabus. In general Psychology degrees cover a wide range of topics, including neurological disorders. You might also want to look for Cognitive Neuroscience / Neurobiology sorts of courses; they will cover the biology of the nervous system and it’s disorders.

      Good luck!

  17. Hi I’m Naz and I’m a sophomore in high school. I’m trying decide my major and what I know is that I am fascinated by biology, specifically human biology. I also love to analyze people and question why they act the way they do. Is cognitive neuroscience basically the combination of psychology and biology? I feel like I’m into the idea of studying it from my probably-not-so-accurate research from google. I wanted to ask a person who is actually studying it… And also what does one become from studying cognitive neuroscience as an undergraduate? Do we get a degree on psychology with it? I am really curious and confused.

    • Hi

      Cognitive Neuroscience is basically the combination of psychology and biology as regards understanding how the human brain works. So I would gauge from your post that Cog Neuro is something you would be interested in. In general though you are best contacting the course administrator of any course you are considering to get details from them on what the course will cover. Courses with the same name will often cover different areas depending on the University that is offering the course.

  18. As a neuroscientist could you write a referral/prescription to a patient for an MRI?