What Is the Difference Between Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychology?


Diego Sanchez

Cognitive neuroscience and psychology are two fields that are often conflated, but they are actually quite different in their approaches and areas of focus. While both fields study the workings of the brain and behavior, their methods, theories, and goals diverge significantly.

Cognitive Neuroscience:

Cognitive neuroscience is an interdisciplinary field that focuses on understanding the biological mechanisms underlying cognitive processes such as perception, attention, memory, language, and decision-making. It combines principles from neuroscience (the study of the nervous system) with cognitive psychology (the study of mental processes) to investigate how neural activity gives rise to complex behaviors.

One of the primary goals of cognitive neuroscience is to identify the neural substrates of mental processes by mapping brain activity using various neuroimaging techniques such as fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), EEG (electroencephalography), MEG (magnetoencephalography), and PET (positron emission tomography). By measuring changes in blood flow or electrical activity in response to specific tasks or stimuli, researchers can infer which brain regions are involved in different aspects of cognition.

For example, studies have shown that the prefrontal cortex is critical for executive functions like planning, decision-making, and working memory. The visual cortex is responsible for processing visual information from the eyes.

The hippocampus is important for forming new memories. By pinpointing these regions and understanding how they interact with each other, cognitive neuroscientists hope to develop a comprehensive model of how the brain supports cognition.


Psychology is a broader discipline that encompasses many subfields including social psychology, developmental psychology, clinical psychology, personality psychology, and cognitive psychology. Unlike cognitive neuroscience which focuses on the biological mechanisms underlying cognition, psychology investigates behavior from a variety of perspectives including social factors (e.g., culture), individual differences (e., personality traits), developmental stages (e., childhood vs adulthood), and clinical disorders (e., depression, anxiety).

Psychologists use a range of techniques to study behavior including self-report surveys, behavioral observations, experiments, and case studies. Unlike cognitive neuroscience which relies heavily on neuroimaging data, psychology research often involves collecting data directly from participants through interviews or questionnaires.

One of the primary goals of psychology is to understand the underlying processes that contribute to behavior. For example, social psychologists study how people interact with each other and how group dynamics influence behavior.

Developmental psychologists investigate how cognitive and emotional processes change over the lifespan. Clinical psychologists diagnose and treat psychological disorders using a combination of therapy, medication, and behavioral interventions.

  • The Key Differences:

While both cognitive neuroscience and psychology are concerned with understanding human cognition and behavior, they differ in several key ways:


Cognitive neuroscience relies heavily on neuroimaging techniques to measure brain activity while psychology uses a variety of methods including surveys, experiments, and case studies to investigate behavior.

Level of Analysis:

Cognitive neuroscience focuses on neural mechanisms underlying cognition while psychology investigates behavior from multiple levels of analysis including social factors, individual differences, and clinical disorders.


Cognitive neuroscience aims to develop models that describe the neural basis of cognition while psychology seeks to understand the underlying processes that contribute to behavior.

In Conclusion:

In summary, cognitive neuroscience and psychology are two distinct fields that complement each other in their pursuit of understanding human cognition and behavior. While cognitive neuroscience focuses on the neural mechanisms underlying cognition using neuroimaging techniques, psychology investigates behavior from multiple perspectives including social factors, individual differences, developmental stages, and clinical disorders using a variety of methods such as surveys or experiments. By working together these fields can provide a more complete picture of how the brain supports complex behaviors and mental processes.