The mind in its own place

The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences
October 15, 1999

Richard Cooper finds expert views on all aspects of the cognitive sciences included in an invaluable single volume.

The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences ( Mitecs ) is a major new reference work designed for the practising cognitive scientist. It consists of 471 articles covering all areas of cognitive science, preceded by an extensive preface that introduces each of the major disciplines that constitute cognitive science. The articles range from introductions to major topic areas to biographies of leading cognitive scientists. Important dichotomies, key debates, philosophical positions and influential theories and approaches are also presented. The articles all include extensive reference lists, and many also include pointers to further reading. The package as a whole is a comprehensive reference resource that active researchers in the cognitive sciences and specialists from related disciplines will refer to on a regular basis.

There is a clear place for a work of this sort. The cognitive sciences are a disparate set of disciplines, and cognitive scientists typically specialise in one field, such as social cognition, but the adoption of the methods and tools of cognitive science invariably introduces the active researcher to debates from other, often distant fields (such as computational learning theory).

Although Mitecs is organised around six primary discipline areas (computational intelligence; culture; cognition and evolution; linguistics and language; neurosciences; philosophy and psychology), this organisation is really only evident in the 132-page preface. This comprises an extensive introduction to each primary discipline area, with each introduction written by the section editor(s) in charge of that area. The introductions aim to serve two purposes: to explain the role of the corresponding discipline within cognitive science; and to highlight the links and inter-relations between all relevant articles. The various section editors are all leaders in their fields. It is therefore not surprising that each of the introductions succeeds in these twin aims.

It does seem a little odd to preface an encyclopedia with 132 pages of introductory material. This feeling persists despite the quality of the individual introductions. Although the volume is in no way meant as a textbook or primer in cognitive science, the introductions transform it into something beyond a mere reference work. In particular, the organisation necessary to weave a story around the individual articles means that each introduction is sufficiently well structured to form the basis of an advanced-level course. Thus, each of the introductions is an invaluable reference resource in its own right. This is particularly so in the philosophy introduction, in which Robert A. Wilson expertly blends relevant philosophical issues with a historical perspective to provide what is perhaps the clearest presentation of the place of philosophy in cognitive science that I have read.

As an ad hoc reference to terms and debates beyond one's own areas of expertise, Mitecs excels. The articles are predominantly scholarly yet clear, and they all include cross-references to other articles to provide further background, should it be necessary. There are also a large number of headings within the alphabetically arranged articles that serve purely to direct the reader to other locations within the volume. (These directions are not always helpful, as in the case of Monte Carlo simulation, which directs the reader to somewhat tangentially related articles.) The cross-referencing facilities are completed by extensive subject and name indices. There are occasional omissions. I was surprised, for example, not to find pointers to terms as diverse as DSM-IV (the standard clinical reference volume that provides definitive statements of a range of cognitive and neurological disorders), situation semantics (an approach to meaning popular in the 1980s), or subitising (the act of perceiving a small group of objects as a precise number of individual objects). Although completeness in a volume such as this is hugely important, the magnitude of the endeavour renders it virtually impossible.

The articles that I am most qualified to judge are, on the whole, comprehensive and accurate. Cognitive science can be characterised by a long list of ongoing debates. The authors of articles that address both sides of a debate face a challenge: to present relevant arguments in objective, non-dogmatic terms.

Rarely, the biases of individual authors show through, but the vast majority of articles address contentious issues fairly and accurately. This aids in the volume's coherence. There is, however, significant variability in the style and approach adopted by the contributing authors. Some presuppose little and begin by defining the area or term under scrutiny. While this contributes to readability, it is perhaps inappropriate, for example, to attempt to define attention in an article on "Attention in the human brain" just three pages after a perfectly good general article on "Attention". Other articles leap into subtle or complex theory without providing adequate context for the non-specialist.

The adoption of a uniform length (of between 1,000 and 1,500 words) for all articles is a second factor that works against a clear presentation. Relatively minor areas, which could just as well be catered for in short definitional paragraphs, are over-emphasised. At the same time larger fields, which can be given only cursory summary treatment within the word limit, are de-emphasised. While a maximum of 1,500 words is probably appropriate for an encyclopedia format, in many cases it is excessive.

A final factor that is somewhat disconcerting relates to the choice of articles and their titles. The inclusion of an article titled "Cortical localisation, history of" is not problematic, until one realises that there is no article on cortical localisation itself. The article on "Ageing, memory, and the brain" is equally puzzling in the absence of a more general article on cognitive aspects of ageing. Similar comments can be made about a whole host of other articles. As for the titles themselves,it is unlikely that many readers will intentionally consult articles titled "Modelling neuropsychological deficits" or "Top-down processing in vision" without first locating various index terms or scanning related articles. The resolution of problems such as these is not obvious, yet article and title selection is highly important with any encyclopedia.

Notwithstanding these reservations, Mitecs has several significant advantages over a set of encyclopedias. The cross-references between articles from different disciplines are simply unobtainable within single-discipline encyclopedias. Perhaps more important, the articles in Mitecs are written by experts in their fields who happen also to be cognitive scientists. The articles are therefore written with a focus on issues of interest and relevance to cognitive scientists, without compromising quality.

The one disadvantage of a single unified encyclopedia relates to depth of coverage. The coverage of, for example, topics in artificial intelligence is necessarily less extensive than a specialist encyclopedia of artificial intelligence. Whether this is a problem depends on what one expects from Mitecs . It succeeds in providing sufficient detail to allow practitioners from one sub-field of cognitive science to get to grips with concepts and debates in other sub-fields. It does not replace specialist encyclopedias.

Two issues emerge from the above as slight imperfections in the volume: minor incompleteness in the index, and inconsis-tency or incoherence between articles. Neither should be taken to undermine the immense significance and value of the work. Indeed, the index is sufficiently comprehensive to render the alphabetical ordering of articles in the body of the encyclopedia redundant, and most readers will access the encyclopedia via its index. In fact, indexing is less of an issue with the CD-Rom version of the encyclopedia, and the on-line version - free access with the book - promises to resolve all indexing difficulties. The on-line version contains the same text as the paper and CD-Rom versions but is fully searchable. Although the text is the same, the on-line version will be continually updated with new bibliographic information and links to related websites as and when they become available.

MIT Press has a strong commitment to both electronic publishing and the cognitive sciences. Mitecs is only half of that story. The other half is MIT's Cognet website ( http:/// ). This site provides numerous reference and bibliographic facilities, a news service, conference and seminar listings, contact details for participating cognitive scientists, and a range of further resources owned by MIT Press.

The Mitecs project has clearly been an immense undertaking. Although I cannot agree with the somewhat over-enthusiastic remarks of MIT's own Steven Pinker on the rear cover - that the volume is one of the "great achievements of civilisation", and appropriate for "a time capsule for the next millennium" - Mitecs is certainly in a class of its own. No other reference work in the cognitive sciences comes close to providing the depth and breadth of coverage captured within this single volume. It has no competitors. As such, there is little doubt that it will quickly become the standard in the field.

Richard Cooper is lecturer in psychology, Birkbeck College, University of London.

The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences

Editor - Robert A Wilson and Frank C Keil
ISBN - 0 262 23200 6 or 73124 X (CD-rom)
Publisher - MIT Press
Price - £90.95
Pages - 964

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