A Few Steps Toward a Science of Mental Life


  • In the fall 2005, I was elected to the Collège de France in Paris, for a newly created chair of Experimental Cognitive Psychology. Shortly after their election, professors at the Collège de France traditionally give a 1-hr inaugural lecture, which both introduces their discipline and sets a program of research and teaching for the years to come. The present article is the translation and adaptation of the text of the inaugural lecture, which was given on April 27, 2006. I am grateful to Kurt Fischer for encouraging the publication of this text, which only partly relates to issues of mind, brain, and education, and to Michel Ferrari and Marc Schwartz for their translation from the French original

Stanislas Dehaene, INSERM-CEA Cognitive Neuroimaging Unit, CEA/SAC/DSV/DRM/NeuroSpin, Bâtiment 145, Point courrier 156, F-91191 Gif/Yvette, France; e-mail: stanislas.dehaene@cea.fr.


ABSTRACT— Under what conditions can a true “science of mental life” arise from psychological investigations? Can psychology formulate scientific laws of a general nature, comparable in soundness to the laws of physics? I argue that the search for such laws must return to the forefront of psychological and developmental research, an enterprise that requires extensive collaboration between psychologists, neuroscientists, physicists, and mathematicians. Psychological laws may arise from at least 3 sources: the anchoring of thought processes in the biophysics of the brain, the computational constraints on possible mental algorithms, and the internalization of physical or statistical laws into our brains during evolution or development. I consider as an illustration the domain of numerical cognition, where a few solid psychophysical and decision-making laws have been established and related in part to their evolutionary precursors and neural bases. From this platform, I tentatively outline a few promising research directions in the domains of infant development, reading acquisition, executive control of multiple tasks, access to conscious report, and the spontaneous flow of conscious thoughts.