Psychological phenomena are rich, mysterious, and often counterintuitive -- but they can be studied scientifically. What is often known as the "cognitive revolution" in the psychological sciences began about 50 years ago as a reaction to the then-dominant "behaviorism," which held that only observable events were a proper subject of study. During behaviorism's reign, thoughts, feelings, ideas, desires, and other hidden mental phenomena were largely off-limits to both research and theory.
But advances in areas like clinical and social psychology, as well as the advent of new technologies linked to computer science and artificial intelligence, made behaviorism's avoidance of internal mental processes moot. By the mid-1960s, mental states and constructs were fundamental aspects of any attempt to study the human mind.
Since that time, cognitive psychology has yielded vast amounts of rigorous research on memory, language, and perception, with applications for numerous real-world applications. But, at least initially, its approach reinforced a clear distinction between thought and emotion -- a part of philosophy that has been around since Plato. In this view, emotions were seen as interfering with cognition, as antagonists to reason. More recently, a broader view bridges the supposed chasm between thinking and feeling. It is now clear that any reasonable understanding of the human mind requires the study of interactions, even overlaps, between reason and emotion.
Recent research on the experience and neurobiology of emotion has changed what it means to think. Firstly, "thinking" now includes many processes occurring outside our conscious awareness. Although a good deal of mental activity occurs unconsciously, new ways of measuring brain activity, including maps of the brain as it processes information, today display the interplay between thought and emotion in brightly colored and highly detailed images.
In addition to studying specific mental phenomena, cognitive scientists are also working on broad mental processes like attention, emotion, memory, and decision-making, yielding important discoveries and grounding cognitive psychology in the real world. For example, there is strong science devoted to studying everything from how people choose products at the grocery store to how they make key moral decisions.
When discussing consciousness, some neuroscientists describe the mind as something like a massive biological computer processing millions of bits of information -- some from the outside world, some internally generated -- every second. Through processes we are only beginning to understand, emotional experiences emerge from this frenetic activity. Feelings are regarded as responses to facts and sensations existing beyond awareness. Or they might be considered messages from the unconscious -- conclusions reached after considering a wide range of information. Either way, emotions are powerful and necessary complements to thought.
Although psychology itself has been around as a genuine science for over one hundred years, popular understanding of what research psychologists actually do lags behind that of older sciences such as physics, chemistry, astronomy, and biology. Many of the exhibits in Mind are inspired by the work of leading cognitive scientists and bring the public directly into the experiences of researchers studying mental processes in the laboratory. Visitors will learn firsthand that mental and emotional processes -- often subtle or even unconscious -- are accessible to deep and quantifiable exploration.
Mind is about getting visitors to observe and reflect upon their own psychological experiences. The collection focuses on three important areas of psychological investigation and experience -- attention, emotion, and judgment -- that can be experienced, investigated, and pondered by Exploratorium visitors. They can compare those experiences with their own ideas and expectations of how minds work, as well as with the experiences of others. They can examine how emotional reactions and cognitive assessments from disparate parts of the brain are woven into a cohesive understanding of an event or experience. Visitors may also discover that in many judgments, decisions, and beliefs, their experience of being in control of what they think and feel is, at least in part, illusory. And they can consider the implications of these experiences for broader questions of the human condition, such as consciousness, morality, and our understanding of reality.
It is unsettling to think that at least some of the processes that underlie our thoughts and feelings are hidden from our view. However, it is also empowering to explore these hidden processes, to learn about ourselves and others, and perhaps to use that knowledge in negotiating our complex social and media-packed environments. And there is sheer pleasure in pondering age-old questions about how it is that minds -- that we -- are able to think, feel, and believe