Prof. Margaret Boden, Distinguished and Productive Cognitive Scientist, Awarded Gold Medal by Sussex University

Margaret Boden, OBE, Research Professor of Cognitive Science at Sussex University received a gold medal from Sussex University yesterday along with Sussex’s two Nobel Prize laureates. She is a world authority on cognitive science. She authored many substantial books covering a wide range of topics such as creativity, Artificial Intelligence and motivation. Prof. Boden recently contributed to the canon of cognitive science the two-volume Mind As Machine: A History of Cognitive Science, which every cognitive scientist and aficionado should have on their book shelf (only available on paper, unfortunately). My Ph.D. thesis supervisor, Aaron Sloman returned from Birmingham to Brighton to present Prof. Boden with the award.

Prof. Boden wrote the first substantial book on the problem of conceptually integrating the traditionally separate domains of ‘cognition’, ‘affect’ (motivation, emotion, moods) and ‘volition’: Purposive Explanations in Psychology. She was the first to argue persuasively that these could all be understood in information processing terms.

Prof. Boden’s account is very relevant to cognitive productivity, because one of the keys to becoming effective with knowledge is to step out of the narrow box of “classical cognition”. One must understand and apply “affective” (i.e., emotional and motivational) processes to learning to make significant progress in knowledge work. (Star Trek’s Spock is not possible!) I refer to this as “broad cognitive science” in Cognitive Productivity.

I had the privilege of taking a D.Phil course with Prof. Boden, along with a single other student. This compounded the two-sigma effect, i.e., that one learns substantially more when directly instructed by a teacher–but in this case it was a Master Professor! When Prof. Sloman left Sussex in 1991 to become the head of the School of School of Computer Science of the University of Birmingham and the Cognitive Science programme’s co-chair, I accompanied him, completing my Ph.D. at Birmingham. (Prof. Humphreys of Psychology was co-chair and my co-supervisor.) Prof. Sloman had begun researching cognitive science in the early 1970s. He concurred with Boden on what I now call “broad cognitive science” (which, incidentally does not preclude depth!)

Ian Wright, Sloman and I published a paper on emotion as information-processing, to which Prof. Boden responded. Her comments on our paper are worth reading: ” [The paper by Wright, Sloman and Beaudoin] encourages cognitive psychologists to regard emotions as a central aspect of intelligence, not to sideline (or even to forget) them, as is too often done. In addition, it shows — at least in general outline — how emotions might be understood in computational terms.” How? We see (tertiary) emotions as states of perturbance, or disruption, of internal management processes.

In Cognitive Productivity, I pursue Sloman’s argument that the mind contains myriad “monitors” and “motive generators”. I argue that human “learning” should be seen as mental development, or more potently, mindware development. (Mindware being to the brain what software is to artificial computers.) A self-directed learner using this approach becomes a mindware developer. This is not just scientific jargon. It has practical implications for what learners should try to develop when they are learning. Unless one develops new monitors and motive generators one will not apply the knowledge that one has processed (read, listened to, etc.) This raises the practical question, that I answer in my book, “How can one develop mindware?” As I argue, this contributes to resolving the factual “problem of transfer” (applying what we know) that has plagued education and psychology researchers for over a century.

Prof. Boden was my external thesis examiner. She encouraged me to write a book about my Ph.D. research. She told me after my defense that, of all the books she had written, she was most fond of was Purposive Explanations in Psychology. After I graduated, Prof. Boden mailed me a copy of Purposive Explanations in Psychology which I have cherished ever since. Prof. Sloman persuaded me a few years ago that my thesis work was still relevant and that I should take it up again. (My thesis was featured in 2011 in the tier-1 Journal of Artificial Intelligence.) I updated my theory and demonstrated how it could be used to understand learning. I published some of these updated ideas in Cognitive Productivity. There, I refer to several of Prof. Boden’s publications, including some from Purposive Explanations in Psychology.

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Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity books. Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. Adjunct Professor of Education, Simon Fraser University. Why, Where, and What I Write. See About Me for more information.