Trading zones combining cognitive psychology and disciplinary science

published Sep 27, 2016

This essay, part promissory note, is an effort to articulate why interdisciplinary research that includes cognitive science can yield discoveries that leap-frog work within component disciplines. The argument is based on an analogy to discoveries in engineering and Peter Galison's historical analysis of the role of a trading zone.

Galison argues that the development of functional radar in World War 2 required theoretical physicists to work in the same space as electrical engineers (the instrument makers). He referred to this space as a trading zone ( In working toward a common goal they developed formal concepts that allowed communication. A key aspect of this alignment across disciplines was working to establish the application of a theory developed in one discipline to a problem in the other discipline. This practice effectively tested a theory for whether or not it was specified in sufficient detail so that it could be applied to a novel concrete problem.

Engineering a solution to the problem of using radar to detect planes required theorists to collaborate with instrument makers towards a common, concrete, goal in a common space. Galison argues that a trading zone allows for asynchronous transitions in theory and instrument design. The result is theoretical advancements that would otherwise have required a Kuhnian revolution. The trading zone thus acts as a catalyst reducing the energetics needed to achieve a scientific transition.

How is this relevant to cognitive science generally and specifically to interdisciplinary research developing a science of learning?

Research on learning can be a trading zone where experts on the way the mind works come together with experts on the to-be-learned content. The content provides the concrete problem that tests the cognitive scientist's theory. For example, asking how the mind simulated geological processes led to a recognition that the majority of research on mental event simulation focused on rigid transformations (e.g., mental rotation). By testing geology and chemistry experts' skill in reasoning about both rigid rotation and brittle deformation we learned that reasoning about rigid and non-rigid transformations are separable mental skills, thus significantly expanding our understanding of how the mind simulates events.

However, the content expert does more than just provide a test bed for the cognitive scientist. The content expert provides an account of the world that the mind is adapted to grasp. Thus, the content expert may provide a description of the object and events in the world that the mind is reasoning about. Central to such a description are pointers to the categories and dimensions of reality that the content expert has found to be necessary or useful. In the example above, geology uses a formal description of the changes in rocks that allowed the science to characterize shape changes that occurred in the world (rotation, translation, dilation, and shear). This categorization highlighted the areas where we needed to know more about how the mind comprehends the world.

By characterizing the role of the mind in grasping dimensions of reality we may guide the content expert as they seek to learn about reality. Tools may be developed to support the mind as it make observations and inferences about the world just as tools such as the compass and mass spectrometer extend the scientists ability to observe. Understanding how the mind understands the natural world may inform the development of new teaching approaches for the classroom and field. Furthermore, an understanding of the mind may also aid experts as they seek new understanding at the forefront of their science.

The value of having cognitive scientists and content experts working in the same space is that there is opportunity for exchange of goals –each knows where progress would be important for the other discipline- and theories – allowing mutual testing on a concrete problem.

Reference: Galison, Peter (1997). Image and logic: a material culture of microphysics. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226279176.

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