Unified Theories of Cognition

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Unified Theories of Cognition is a 1990 book by Allen Newell.[1] Newell argues for the need of a set of general assumptions for cognitive models that account for all of cognition: a unified theory of cognition, or cognitive architecture.


Newell argues that the mind functions as a single system. He also claims the established cognitive models are vastly underdetermined by experimental data. By cognition, Newell means:

  • Problem solving, decision making, routine action
  • Memory, learning, skill
  • Perception, motor behavior
  • Language
  • Motivation, emotion
  • Imagining, dreaming, daydreaming

After arguing in favor of the development of unified theories of cognition, Newell puts forward a list of constraints to any unified theory, in that a theory should explain how a mind does the following:

  1. Behave flexibly as a function of the environment
  2. Exhibit adaptive (rational, goal-oriented) behavior
  3. Operate in real time
  4. Operate in a rich, complex, detailed environment (Perceive an immense amount of changing detail; use vast amounts of knowledge; and control a motor system of many degrees of freedom)
  5. Use symbols and abstractions
  6. Use language, both natural and artificial
  7. Learn from the environment and from experience
  8. Acquire capabilities through development
  9. Operate autonomously, but within a social community
  10. Be self-aware and have a sense of self
  11. Be realizable as a neural system
  12. Be construable by an embryological growth process
  13. Arise through evolution

Newell's secondary task is to put forward the cognitive architecture Soar as an implementation of a UTC that meets the constraints above. Other efforts at unified theories of cognition cited in the book include ACT-R and the human processor model.

Further reading[edit]

  • Newell, A. (1994).Unified Theories of Cognition, Harvard University Press; Reprint edition, ISBN 0-674-92101-1.
  • Newell, A. (1973). "You can’t play 20 questions with nature and win: Projective comments on the papers of this symposium". In W. G. Chase (ed.), Visual Information Processing. New York: Academic Press. (Read article online.)

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ Newell, Allen. 1990. Unified Theories of Cognition. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.