Cognitive Science: An Introduction/What is an Architecture?

Cognitive scientists create descriptions of the processes of minds. When they do this with human minds, one question that arises is this: what, if any, aspects of human minds are common to all humans? We know, for example, that some people speak English and others speak Chinese. So it can't be that speaking any particular language is common to all human beings.

But some things appear to be universal. The aspects of mind that are universal, for all healthy human individuals, constitute the human mind's cognitive architecture. It is the underlying processing capacity for all human minds. It gets used to learn to do culturally and individually-specific things. So even though speaking English is not a part of our cognitive architecture, it might be that some capacity to learn language is a part of it.

It is generally assumed that the basics of perception, classification, attention, and memory can all be described as a part of the human cognitive architecture. But how to we find evidence that something is architectural, rather than learned in the life of the individual?

When trying to find universals in human cognition, scientists take two approaches:[1] First, they test infants who have not had an opportunity to learn very much. For example, infants only minutes old orient their attention to human faces (citation needed). Because they have spent their life in darkness, it is impossible that they learned to orient to them. As such, we interpret this finding as evidence that detection of faces, and the drive to orient to them, is an inborn and universal aspect of human nature.

Second, we might look for cross-cultural effects. The idea here is that a universal of human nature would show up in many cultures. It's important, in these cases, to look particularly closely at cultures that have not had very much interaction with other cultures. What is tricky about this is that all human cultures evolved on planet Earth--a place with gravity, predators, plants, etc. This means that, in spite of the geographical differences we see around the world, there are some constants. When a behavior shows up cross-culturally, it can be difficult to know if all cultures evolved the same behaviors as responses to the same kind of environmental learning, or if the human genome evolved those behaviors long ago, when our ancestors evolved in the African savanna, or some combination of the two.

But when these two lines of evidence converge, it's pretty good evidence of a human universal.

  1. Saxe, R. (2016). Moral status of accidents. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201604154.