First, we need to establish what the two sciences entail. What is the focus of each of them and then determine what the similarities and differences are? From there, we examine how their respective degrees may vary.
What is Neuroscience?
Neuroscience is the scientific study of the brain and its functions at the neuron level. The brain has approximately 100 billion nerve cells or neurons, each of which transmits electrochemical signals. For comparison, man’s best friend, the dog, has around two billion.
One of the earliest known pioneers in this field was the Greek physician, Herophilos (335-280 BC). He opined that the brain was the seat of intelligence and not the heart, as theorized by Aristotle (384-322 BC). Preceding both these sages was Hippocrates who believed that epilepsy, known then as the Sacred Disease, originated in the brain. He defied the premise that epilepsy was due to vengeful gods.
As neuroscience propagated during the nineteenth and twentieth century, many new areas of research arose. Examples are the transmission of electrical signals in neurons, biological neuron models, biochemical changes in the brain, neurophysiology, and nerve interaction. The first use of the word ‘neuroscience’ occurred in 1962 in a research program supported by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Shortly after that, the Society for Neuroscience formed in 1969.
What is Cognitive Science?
Cognitive science explores how the mind processes information and experiences. It involves the disciplines of psychology, philosophy, linguistics, computer science, biology, artificial intelligence, and even neuroscience. It is the study of cognition, which encompasses emotion, perception, memory, knowledge, language, and judgment.
Cognitive science does not have the same storied history as neuroscience. However, Aristotle reflects on psychology with an emphasis on the soul or animus. The Latin of the soul is the word animus. He stated that the three most important aspects of the soul are nutrition, perception, and the mind. Only humans have all three capabilities.
Therefore, to use a computer as an analogy, the CPU is the brain, and the software is the mind. The neuroscientist studies the circuitry and the processors to see how it functions and to analyze problems in the machine. The cognitive scientist examines the software to determine why it is not operating correctly. Both scientists have concerns about the cause and the effect through different processes.
The function of the brain relies on chemical and biological properties. Therefore, a Bachelor of Science in Neuroscience will have several courses related to these two subjects. Your introduction to cell biology may involve the study of cell molecules, cell structure, metabolism, and genetics. Other topics may include mutational analysis of organisms, cell division, cytoskeleton (the material within a cell, including bacteria), and macromolecules.
The other science that shares a dominant role in neuroscience is chemistry. It comes in a few different flavors, namely organic chemistry, biochemistry, and at least one chemistry lab. Biochemistry involves the metabolism and biosynthesis of proteins, lipids, steroids, amino, and nucleic acids.
Physics rounds out the trifecta of sciences you will see in most programs. Typically, the courses cover motion, forces, diffusion, thermal physics, magnetism, and a physics lab.
A Bachelor of Science in Cognitive Science differs in that there is less focus on the trio mentioned above. Instead, there are courses related to behavior, perception, cognitive psychology, artificial intelligence, and visual cognition, as examples. The association to psychology is evident in those schools that house their cognitive science program within the Department of Psychology.
The lines can blur between neuroscience and cognitive science. An example is the Wayne State University neuroscience curriculum. The coursework begins with a foundation in math, statistics, biology, chemistry, biochemistry, and physics. However, the choice of electives seems to mirror what you would expect to see in a cognitive science program. Examples are courses titled – the Philosophy of the Mind, Psychology of Perception, Psychology of Learning, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Brain, and Cognitive Neuroscience. These courses are part of the section called Behavioral and Cognitive Neuroscience.
Another category of electives at Wayne State has the heading of Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience. The electives in this group favor genetics, biology, neurobiology, and developmental biology. Students must take a minimum of six credits from the two groups of electives. Therefore, this particular program is a blend of neuroscience and cognitive science.
What are the objectives of a Neuroscience major?
- Develop the statistical, mathematical, and computational skills
- Gain expertise in research technologies, such as functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) and event-related potential (ERP-measures electrophysiological response to a stimulus)
- Understand the brain-mind connection
- Ability to work in research areas as cellular neuroscience and neurobiology
- Ability to critically evaluate evidence
What are the objectives of Cognitive Science major:
- Work in bionic and prosthetic technology (AI concentration)
- Understand user-experience design and development
- Perform brain-imaging studies of perceptual and cognitive processing
- Develop skills in scientific reasoning and critical thinking
- Conduct research in communication disorders, memory degradation, and other cognitive disorders
If you are undecided on which discipline to choose as a major, we offer this illustration with stress as the condition. Would you prefer to study how stress attacks a molecule in the hippocampus of the brain? Or research why chronic anxiety and depression may cause shrinkage of the medial frontal cortex? If these scenarios sound enticing, then neuroscience could be your better choice.
Perhaps you relish studying the behavioral causes and effects of stress and anxiety. Address how the person can cope with anxiety in daily life. Do you want to help an individual with stress-reducing therapies and methods? On the research side, you would experiment with how and why abnormal reactions to stress develop. Therefore, your studies are more involved with the psychological elements than the physiological.