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?
Sometimes referred to as neural science, neuroscience is the scientific study of the human brain and the nervous system. The complexity of the human brain is vast – housing 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 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 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 was formed in 1969.
Neuroscience looks into the inner workings of the brain, not just from the cellular level, but also the functional, molecular, evolutionary, and behavioral aspects. Scientists in this field study tissue samples, perform MRI scans, analyze brain activity, and use computerized 3D models.
What is Cognitive Science?
Cognitive science explores how the mind processes information and experiences. It is the study of cognition, which encompasses emotion, perception, memory, knowledge, language, and judgment. It involves the disciplines of psychology, philosophy, linguistics, computer science, chemistry, biology, artificial intelligence, and even neuroscience.
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, and 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’s focus is the circuitry and the processors to see how they function and analyze hardware problems. In comparison, the software loaded into the computer is the cognitive scientist’s concentration. Both scientists have concerns about the cause and the effect through different processes.
Consequently, with the growth of this multidiscipline, it has evolved into a host of research and specialty field. Some of these are:
- Behavioral Neuroscience – how the brain affects human behavior
- Cognitive Neuroscience – a melding of psychology, linguistics, and cognitive science
- Computational Neuroscience – studies how the brain computes information
- Clinical Neuroscience – disorders of the brain
- Neurophysiology – understanding the relationship between the brain and individual body parts
- Social Neuroscience – how biological systems affect behavior and social activities
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 studying 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: 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.
Do programs in neuroscience support the above premise?
The B.S. in Neuroscience at the University of Texas-Austin has three options:
- Neuroscience Scholars: Students must take eight hours of physics
- Neuroscience Honors: Requires an honors math course and three hours of statistics.
- Neuroscience: This also includes eight hours of physics and fifteen hours of upper-division neuroscience courses.
The coursework in the three is weighted with biology, chemistry, and neuroscience.
A second example is the B.S. in Neuroscience at Georgia Tech (GT) that allows students to specialize in one of ten areas, such as psychology, computer science, engineering, health and medical services, and physiology – in addition to three natural sciences referenced above for UT.
Similar but different in some respects to the UT program, GT has classes in physics, calculus, biochemistry, neuroscience, human physiology, behavioral biology, cell biology, cognitive psychology. Some of these are electives.
Cognitive science is the interdisciplinary study of how the mind works, how it computes information, how the brain affects behavior, principles of intelligence, and many more functions. Some of the associated disciplines these scientists employ are psychology, linguistics, neuroscience, philosophy, and anthropology.
Reverting to the analogy of a CPU, neuroscience concentrates on what makes the computer work, and cognitive science homes in on the tasks you can perform with the computer. In other words, neuroscience explores the brain from a biological, neural, and chemical perspective, whereas cognitive science studies memory, language, reasoning, attention, and learning – mental processes.
Graduates may have more job opportunities because cognitive science is interdisciplinary – you study linguistics, psychology, education, and behavior. According to a July 2020 article in U.S. News, cognitive science grads should have the qualifications to work in healthcare, marketing, research, and education.
A Bachelor of Science in Cognitive Science differs in that there is less focus on the trio mentioned above: biology, chemistry, and physics. Instead, there are courses associated with human behavior, perception, cognitive psychology, artificial intelligence, and visual cognition. The relationship to psychology is evident in those schools that house their cognitive science program within the Department of Psychology.
Carnegie Mellon University’s Department of Psychology in Pittsburgh offers a Bachelor of Science in Cognitive Science that emphasizes the five disciplines or specializations: Linguistics, Psychology, Artificial Intelligence, Philosophy, and Neuroscience. After completing the degree requirements in math, statistics, calculus, computational modeling, cognitive psychology, and more, students can choose a concentration.
The lines are sometimes vague between neuroscience and cognitive science, for example, 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 mirrors what you would expect to see in a cognitive science program. Examples are courses titled – Philosophy of the Mind, Psychology of Perception, Psychology of Learning, Nutrition, Cognitive Psychology, Philosophy of the Mind, Motor Learning, 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, which create a blend of neuroscience and cognitive science in the curriculum.
What are the learning outcomes of a Cognitive Science bachelor’s degree?
- Understand the cognitive processes behind perception, learning, memory, and attention
- Ability to use computer simulations to develop and test aspects of cognition
- Be able to administer and interpret Cognitive Impairment and Cognitive Ability tests
- Use cognitive assessment tools to determine dementia or mild cognitive impairment
- Have a grasp of the brain-mind relationship
- Understand cognitive theories, evidence, methods, and history of the science
- Have a foundation in the computational approaches, philosophy of the mind, linguistics, and neuropsychology
- Realize the advantages and disadvantages of different research applications in cognitive science
What are the learning outcomes of a Neuroscience bachelor’s degree?
- 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)
- Explain the relationship between neuroscience and culture
- Ability to work in research areas as cellular neuroscience and neurobiology
- Ability to critically evaluate evidence in behavioral neuroscience journals
- 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 mental disorders
Surprisingly, neuroscience and cognitive science have a Bachelor of Arts program. Despite being an arts program, students do not avoid a preponderance of science courses. Rice University, for example, has a B.A. with a major in neuroscience with a load of Foundation Courses in Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics, Physics, and Statistics. In the Electives, you have the option of diverting from sciences by choosing philosophy, psychology, or history (of sensation).
The Bachelor of Arts in Cognitive Science at the University of California-Berkeley differs from Rice, as you can escape the clutches of most sciences. You will have to take calculus, geometry, and mathematics, but no biology, chemistry, or physics. However, you also can deviate into education, linguistics, philosophy, computer science, and psychology from the perspective of human cognition. There are also electives in rhetoric, education, data science, and anthropology.
Does employment favor neuroscience or cognitive science? The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics doesn’t report on the occupation of neuroscientist; the closest profession is Medical Scientists. In the category, there were 138,300 employees in 2019 with a doctoral or professional degree. The ten-year growth is expected to be 6% through 2029, or a turnover of 8,400 jobs. The median wage in May 2020 was $91,510. These stats make for a promising career, except for the Ph.D. requirement.
On the bright side, there are numerous vocations for graduates with a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience- for example:
- Science writer
- Lab technician
- Clinical research assistant
- Forensic science technician
- Healthcare manager
- Pharmaceutical sales
- Orthotic and Prosthetic technician
- EEG technician
Some of these positions may require additional training or certification. The salary may not reach the level of the medical scientist; for example, the BLS reports the median income for health technicians at $48,910 for those working in General Medical and Surgical Hospitals.
The BLS doesn’t have a listing for cognitive scientists – only psychologists requiring a doctorate in psychology or a Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.).
Case Western Reserve University opines that cognitive science graduates have numerous employment possibilities. Some on their list are:
- Intelligence Analysis
- Artificial Intelligence
- Linguistic Analysis
- Human Factors Engineering
- Computer-human Interaction
UC Berkeley published a survey in 2018 with the results from 132 grads with a cognitive science baccalaureate. Many individuals employed outside of academia found work as Software Engineers or Developers. According to the BLS, Software Developers and Quality Assurance Analysts earn a decent wage of $110,140 with a bachelor’s degree. Equally attractive is the number employed as of 2019 (1,469,200) and a projected growth rate of 22%!
A bachelor’s degree in cognitive science might provide a greater scope of careers than neuroscience in the context of employment prospects. The more branches on your job tree, the better are your chances of pursuing different avenues without being relegated to one field. As mentioned above, the Berkeley report had the average salary for cognitive science graduates (bachelor’s) at $68,619, with 69% in for-profit and 21% in education sectors.
If you can’t decide 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 a bachelor’s degree in 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. The emphasis on a more clinical approach may lead the student to a bachelor’s degree in cognitive science.
Regardless of where your tendencies lean, it’s prudent to research the job market in areas of interest, particularly those not planning on advancing to a graduate program.