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The cognitive revolution:
a historical perspective
George A. Miller

Department of Psychology, Princeton University, 1-S-5 Green Hall, Princeton, NJ 08544, USA

Cognitive science is a child of the 1950s, the product of

a time when psychology, anthropology and linguistics

were redefining themselves and computer science and

neuroscience as disciplines were coming into existence.

Psychology could not participate in the cognitive

revolution until it had freed itself from behaviorism,

thus restoring cognition to scientific respectability. By

then, it was becoming clear in several disciplines that

the solution to some of their problems depended cru-

cially on solving problems traditionally allocated to

other disciplines. Collaboration was called for: this is a

personal account of how it came about.

Anybody can make history. Only a

great man can write it.

Oscar Wilde’s aphorism is appropriate. At the time, the
suggestion that we were making history would have been
presumptuous. But anybody can make history; writing
history is another matter. I know something of the
scholarship required and nothing approaching it has
gone into the story I will tell here. But I offer this personal
account in the hope that it might interest and help the real
historians of science.

At the time it was happening I did not realize that I was,
in fact, a revolutionary, and two different stories became
intertwined in my life. They unfolded concurrently but I
will tell the psychological story first.

The cognitive revolution in psychology

The cognitive revolution in psychology was a counter-
revolution. The first revolution occurred much earlier
when a group of experimental psychologists, influenced by
Pavlov and other physiologists, proposed to redefine
psychology as the science of behavior. They argued that
mental events are not publicly observable. The only
objective evidence available is, and must be, behavioral.
By changing the subject to the study of behavior,
psychology could become an objective science based on
scientific laws of behavior.

The behavioral revolution transformed experimental
psychology in the US. Perception became discrimination,
memory became learning, language became verbal beha-
vior, intelligence became what intelligence tests test. By

the time I went to graduate school at Harvard in the early
1940s the transformation was complete. I was educated to
study behavior and I learned to translate my ideas into the
new jargon of behaviorism. As I was most interested in
speech and hearing, the translation sometimes became
tricky. But one’s reputation as a scientist could depend on
how well the trick was played.

In 1951, I published Language and Communication [1],
a book that grew out of four years of teaching a course at
Harvard entitled ‘The Psychology of Language’. In the
preface, I wrote: ‘The bias is behavioristic – not fanatically
behavioristic, but certainly tainted by a preference. There
does not seem to be a more scientific kind of bias, or, if there
is, it turns out to be behaviorism after all.’ As I read that
book today it is eclectic, not behavioristic. A few years
later B.F. Skinner published Verbal Behavior [2], a truly
behavioral treatment of language and communication. By
Skinner’s standards, my book had little or nothing to do
with behavior.

In 1951, I apparently still hoped to gain scientific
respectability by swearing allegiance to behaviorism. Five
years later, inspired by such colleagues as Noam Chomsky
and Jerry Bruner, I had stopped pretending to be a
behaviorist. So I date the cognitive revolution in psychol-
ogy to those years in the early 1950s.

Limitations of information theory

During those years I personally became frustrated in my
attempts to apply Claude Shannon’s theory of information
to psychology. After some initial success I was unable to
extend it beyond Shannon’s own analysis of letter
sequences in written texts. The Markov processes on
which Shannon’s analysis of language was based had the
virtue of being compatible with the stimulus–response
analysis favored by behaviorists. But information
measurement is based on probabilities and increasingly
the probabilities seemed more interesting that their
logarithmic values, and neither the probabilities nor
their logarithms shed much light on the psychological
processes that were responsible for them.

I was therefore ready for Chomsky’s alternative to
Markov processes. Once I understood that Shannon’s
Markov processes could not converge on natural language,
I began to accept syntactic theory as a better account of the
cognitive processes responsible for the structural aspects
of human language. The grammatical rules that govern
phrases and sentences are not behavior. They areCorresponding author: George A. Miller ([email protected]).

Review TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences Vol.7 No.3 March 2003 141

http://tics.trends.com 1364-6613/03/$ – see front matter q 2003 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved. doi:10.1016/S1364-6613(03)00029-9

mentalistic hypotheses about the cognitive processes
responsible for the verbal behaviors we observe.

The end of behaviorism

Behaviorism was an exciting adventure for experimental
psychology but by the mid-1950s it had become apparent
that it could not succeed. As Chomsky remarked, defining
psychology as the science of behavior was like defining
physics as the science of meter reading. If scientific
psychology were to succeed, mentalistic concepts would
have to integrate and explain the behavioral data. We were
still reluctant to use such terms as ‘mentalism’ to describe
what was needed, so we talked about cognition instead.

Whatever we called it, the cognitive counter-revolution
in psychology brought the mind back into experimental
psychology. I think it is important to remember that the
mind had never disappeared from social or clinical
psychology. It was only experimentalists in the US who
really believed that behaviorism would work. In my
own case, when I became dissatisfied at Harvard between
B.F. Skinner’s strict behaviorism and S.S. Stevens’
psychophysics, I turned to Jerry Bruner’s social psychol-
ogy, and in 1960 that led to the creation at Harvard of the
Center for Cognitive Studies. Bruner’s group at Bow
Street had been calling themselves the ‘Cognition Project’
for some time, so we simply changed it from a project to a
center. Bruner obtained a grant from the Carnegie
Corporation of New York and Dean Bundy gave us space
to house the enterprise. We assembled a group of bright
young graduates and a few senior scholars who shared our
interests. Peter Wason, Nelson Goodman and Noam
Chomsky had the most influence on my thinking at that
time.

Behaviorism flourished primarily in the US and this
cognitive revolution in psychology re-opened communi-
cation with some distinguished psychologists abroad. In
Cambridge, UK, Sir Frederic Bartlett’s work on memory
and thinking had remained unaffected by behaviorism. In
Geneva, Jean Piaget’s insights into the minds of children
had inspired a small army of followers. And in Moscow,
A.R. Luria was one of the first to see the brain and mind as
a whole. None of these three spent time at the Center but
we knew their work well. Whenever we doubted ourselves
we thought of such people and took courage from their
accomplishments.

I’m happy to say the Harvard Center for Cognitive
Studies was a success. The bright young graduates grew
up to become important psychologists unafraid of words
like mind and expectation and perception and memory. So
that was how I experienced the cognitive revolution in
psychology.

The cognitive revolution and cognitive science

While experimental psychologists were rethinking the
definition of psychology, other important developments
were occurring elsewhere. Norbert Wiener’s cybernetics
was gaining popularity, Marvin Minsky and John
McCarthy were inventing artificial intelligence, and
Alan Newell and Herb Simon were using computers to
simulate cognitive processes. Finally, Chomsky was
single-handedly redefining linguistics.

In the Historical Addendum to Newell and Simon’s
Human Problem Solving [3] they say: ‘1956 could be taken
as the critical year for the development of information
processing psychology’ (p. 878). This is not difficult to
justify. 1956 was the year that McCarthy, Minsky,
Shannon and Nat Rochester held a conference on artificial
intelligence at Dartmouth that was attended by nearly
everyone working in the field at that time. In 1956
Shannon and McCarthy edited Automata Studies [4],
and Minsky circulated a technical report that, after many
revisions, and 5 years later, became his influential article,
‘Steps toward artificial intelligence’ [5].

It was also in 1956 that Jerry Bruner, Jackie Goodenough
and George Austin published A Study of Thinking [6],
which took seriously the notion of cognitive strategies. In
1956 signal-detection theory was applied to perception by
Tanner, Swets, Birdsall and others at Michigan. I
published an article entitled ‘The magical number seven,
plus or minus two’ [7] describing some limits on our human
capacity to process information. In 1956 Ward Goodenough
and Floyd Lounsbury published several articles on
componential analysis that became models for cognitive
anthropology, and J.B. Carroll edited a collection of
papers by Benjamin Lee Whorf on the effects of language
on thought.

In short, 1956 was a good year for those interested in
theories of the mind, but it was only slightly better than
the years just preceding and following. Many were riding
the waves that began during World War II: those of servo
theory, information theory, signal-detection theory, com-
puter theory and computers themselves.

Moment of conception

Newell and Simon were right to put a finger on 1956, which
was not only crucial in their own development but for all of
us. Indeed, I can narrow it down even further. I date the
moment of conception of cognitive science as 11 September,
1956, the second day of a symposium organized by the
‘Special Interest Group in Information Theory’ at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology [8]. At the time, of
course, no one realized that something special had
happened so no one thought that it needed a name; that
came much later.

The chairman of the organizing committee was Peter
Elias, who had only recently arrived at MIT from a Junior
Fellowship at Harvard. The first day, 10 September, was
devoted to coding theory, but it is the second day of the
symposium that I take to be the moment of conception for
cognitive science. The morning began with a paper by
Newell and Simon on their ‘logic machine’. The second
paper was from IBM: Nat Rochester and collaborators had
used the largest computer then available (an IBM 704 with
a 2048-word core memory) to test Donald Hebb’s neuro-
psychological theory of cell assemblies. Victor Yngve then
gave a talk on the statistical analysis of gaps and its
relation to syntax.

Noam Chomsky’s contribution used information theory
as a foil for a public exposition of transformational
generative grammar. Elias commented that other linguists
had told him that language has all the precision of
mathematics but Chomsky was the first linguist to back

Review TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences Vol.7 No.3 March 2003142

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up the claim. His 1956 paper contained the ideas that he
expanded a year later in his monograph, Syntactic
Structures [9], which initiated a cognitive revolution in
theoretical linguistics.

To complete the second day, G.C. Szikali described some
experiments on the speed of perceptual recognition, I
talked about how we avoid the bottleneck created by our
limited short-term memory, and Swets and Birdsall
explained the significance of signal-detection theory for
perceptual recognition. The symposium concluded on the
following day.

I left the symposium with a conviction, more intuitive
than rational, that experimental psychology, theoretical
linguistics, and the computer simulation of cognitive
processes were all pieces from a larger whole and that
the future would see a progressive elaboration and
coordination of their shared concerns.

The birth of cognitive science

By 1960 it was clear that something interdisciplinary was
happening. At Harvard we called it cognitive studies, at
Carnegie-Mellon they called in information-processing
psychology, and at La Jolla they called it cognitive science.
What you called it didn’t really matter until 1976, when
the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation became interested.

The Sloan Foundation had just completed a highly
successful program of support for a new field called
‘neuroscience’ and two vice-presidents of the Foundation,
Steve White and Al Singer, were thinking that the next
step would be to bridge the gap between brain and mind.
They needed some way to refer to this next step and they
selected ‘cognitive science.’ They created a Sloan Special
Program in Cognitive Science in order to explore the
possibilities.

I learned of the Foundation’s interest in 1977 from
Kenneth A. Klivington, who was on the staff at the
Foundation. My recollection is that Ken had talked to
Marvin Minsky and others at MIT and was considering a
recommendation that the Foundation invest in artificial
intelligence. Shamelessly, I argued that in that case the
Foundation’s money would be spent buying computers. I
claimed that AI was merely part of a much larger
movement. At that time the Sloan Foundation was
sensitive to the charge that it had become part of the
MIT endowment, so my lobbying for a broader constitu-
ency was well received.

Interdisciplinary activities

I argued that at least six disciplines were involved:
psychology, linguistics, neuroscience, computer science,
anthropology and philosophy. I saw psychology, linguistics
and computer science as central, the other three as
peripheral. These fields represented, and still represent,
an institutionally convenient but intellectually awkward
division. Each, by historical accident, had inherited a
particular way of looking at cognition and each had
progressed far enough to recognize that the solution to
some of its problems depended crucially on the solution of
problems traditionally allocated to other disciplines.

The Sloan Foundation accepted my argument and a
committee of people from the several fields was assembled

to summarize the state of cognitive science in 1978, and to
write a report recommending appropriate action. The
committee met once, in Kansas City. It quickly became
apparent that everyone knew his own field and had heard
of two or three interesting findings in other fields. After
hours of discussion, experts in discipline X grew unwilling
to make any judgments about discipline Y, and so forth. In
the end, they did what they were competent to do: each
summarized his or her own field and the editors – Samuel
Jay Keyser, Edward Walker and myself – patched together
a report (Keyser, S.J., Miller, G.A., and Walker, E.,
Cognitive Science in 1978. An unpublished report sub-
mitted to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, New York).

Our report had one figure, which is reproduced here
(Fig. 1). The six fields are connected in a hexagon. Each
line in the figure represented an area of interdisciplinary
inquiry that was well defined in 1978 and that involved the
tools of the two disciplines it linked together. Thus,
cybernetics used concepts developed by computer science
to model brain functions elucidated in neuroscience.
Similarly, computer science and linguistics were already
linked through computational linguistics. Linguistics and
psychology are linked by psycholinguistics, anthropology
and neuroscience were linked by studies of the evolution of
the brain, and so on. Today, I believe, all fifteen possible
links could be instantiated with respectable research, and
the eleven links we saw as existing in 1978 have been
greatly strengthened.

The report was submitted, reviewed by another
committee of experts, and accepted by the Sloan Foun-
dation. The program that was initiated provided grants to
several universities with the condition that the funds be
used to promote communication between disciplines. One
of the smaller grants went to Michael Gazzaniga, then at
the Cornell Medical School, and enabled him to initiate
what has since become cognitive neuroscience. As a
consequence of the Sloan program, many scholars became
familiar with and tolerant of work in other disciplines. For
several years, interdisciplinary seminars, colloquia and
symposia flourished.

Fig. 1. Cognitive science in 1978. Each line joining two disciplines represents inter-

disciplinary inquiry that already existed in 1978.

TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences

Psychology

Computer
science

Linguistics

Anthropology

Neuroscience

Philosophy

Review TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences Vol.7 No.3 March 2003 143

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Cognitive sciences today

Unfortunately, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation did not
follow up this initiative, but the interactions stimulated in
the early 1980s have left their mark. Some veterans of
those days question whether the program was successful,
and whether there really is something now that we can call
‘cognitive science’. For myself, I prefer to speak of the
cognitive sciences, in the plural. But the original dream of
a unified science that would discover the representational
and computational capacities of the human mind and their
structural and functional realization in the human brain
still has an appeal that I cannot resist.

References

1 Miller, G.A. (1951) Language and Communication, McGraw-Hill
2 Skinner, B.F. (1957) Verbal Behavior, Appleton-Century-Crofts
3 Newell,A.andSimon,H.A. (1972)HumanProblemSolving,Prentice-Hall
4 Shannon, C.E., McCarthy, J. eds (1956) Automata Studies, Annals of

Mathematics Studies (Vol. 34) Princeton University Press
5 Minsky, M. (1961) Steps toward artificial intelligence. Proc. IRE 49,

8–29
6 Bruner, J.S. et al. (1956) A Study of Thinking, John Wiley
7 Miller, G.A. (1956) The magical number seven, plus or minus two.

Psychol. Rev. 63, 81–97
8 Elias, P. et al. (1956) Information theory. IRE Trans. Information

Theory, IT-2(3)
9 Chomsky, N. (1957) Syntactic Structures, Mouton

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Review TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences Vol.7 No.3 March 2003144

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  • The cognitive revolution: a historical perspective
    • The cognitive revolution in psychology
      • Limitations of information theory
      • The end of behaviorism
    • The cognitive revolution and cognitive science
    • The birth of cognitive science
      • Interdisciplinary activities
      • Cognitive sciences today
    • References

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