What would be a more suitable background to enter cognitive sciences, mathematical psychology, and study of emotions? I have the option of taking a Integrated Masters Degree in Mathematical Sciences, or Physical Sciences. Going into which field will allow me to contribute greater to the study of the mind? Also, which field gives me more research options for the same?

  • $\begingroup$ Sorry Aakash, this question isn't really a good fit for our Q&A format. We expect questions to have a single correct answer, and this is more of an opinion question. Looks like you already got a lot of useful advice before I saw the question though, so hopefully that helps you! $\endgroup$
    – Josh
    Commented May 1, 2013 at 23:34
  • $\begingroup$ Take a look at this question on dynamics systems for some connections. Also, pick computer science ;). @JoshGitlin I don't understand why this question was closed :(. I have a background in physics, math, and theoretical computer science and would have wanted to contribute an answer. I find this perfectly on-topic for this forum and much better and more genuine than a lot of our other recent questions. $\endgroup$ Commented May 12, 2013 at 17:24
  • $\begingroup$ Note, however, if you do opt for physics OR math, make sure to remain connected to people who actually work on psychology and cognitive science, especially experimenters. Otherwise, it is too easy to sucumb to interdisciplinitis and promote completely silly ideas. $\endgroup$ Commented May 12, 2013 at 17:37
  • $\begingroup$ @Artem please ask on Meta. Our community does not yet have an established policy for "list type" questions. $\endgroup$
    – Josh
    Commented May 12, 2013 at 19:16
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry @ArtemKaznatcheev I have been AFK all day. I can discuss this with you in chat tomorrow if you'd like! $\endgroup$
    – Josh
    Commented May 12, 2013 at 22:39

3 Answers 3


I would go with Physics.

Physicists study the world using mathematics, while mathematicians study mathematics itself which is a construct that does not necessarily exist in the real world (Albert Einstein once said: "as far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality."). This means that physicists encounter the interface between theory and experimentations, just like cognitive researchers, while mathematicians do not.

I think this is the reason why there are many examples of models developed in the study of Physics being applied successfully in cognitive science (e.g The famous Hopfield model (1982); Spin-Glass, Amit et al (1985); Ornstein-Uhlenbeck, Heath (2000); Diffusion, Ratcliff et al (2004) ). Obviously, all of these examples use math heavily. But while a mathematics student would study them using a theoretical approach, a physics student would probably study them emphasizing their application.

(PS. My bachelor's degree is in Math, Physics, and Computer science, so I think I can say I'm unbiased here... At least I hope so)


  • Geometry and Experience, a lecture by Einstein A. English translation HTML
  • Hopfield, J. J. (1982). Neural networks and physical systems with emergent collective computational abilities. Proceedings of the national academy of sciences, 79(8), 2554-2558.
  • Amit, D. J., Gutfreund, H., & Sompolinsky, H. (1985). Spin-glass models of neural networks. Physical Review A, 32(2), 1007.
  • Heath, R. A. (2000). The Ornstein-Uhlenbeck model for decision time in cognitive tasks: An example of control of nonlinear network dynamics. Psychological Research, 63(2), 183-191.
  • Ratcliff, R., Gomez, P., & McKoon, G. (2004). A diffusion model account of the lexical decision task. Psychological review, 111(1), 159.
  • $\begingroup$ +1. My background is psychology but I'm doing cognitive neuroscience now, and I see more physicists than mathematicians in the field. $\endgroup$
    – Ana
    Commented Apr 28, 2013 at 20:41
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ +1 there's also a good amount of physics involved in some methodologies, like the physics of how fMRI work (NMR) $\endgroup$
    – Jeff
    Commented Apr 29, 2013 at 19:14
  • $\begingroup$ @Ana the over-representation of physicists (versus mathematicians) is more of a sociological thing then a relevance of the field. Physicists are much more over produces than mathematicians and tend to have a hard time finding positions in their own field, this was especially prominent in the 70s when the largest waves of them moved into adjacent fields. $\endgroup$ Commented May 12, 2013 at 17:29
  • $\begingroup$ @ArtemKaznatcheev - I agree, and I later thought of an additional reason for not knowing so many mathematicians in the field: there's just less of them overall. On the other hand, physicists are actively working on improving the neuroimaging techniques we use, whereas the mathematicians I meet (through my pure mathematician husband) have completely different interests. But this is very specific to neuroimaging, which was not exactly the question. $\endgroup$
    – Ana
    Commented May 12, 2013 at 18:08

Now that @ofri has presented a good argument for physics, I'll give a few arguments for the benefits of a course in maths, and particularly a math course that focuses heavily on statistics.

There are many areas of psychology where a good understanding of statistics is very helpful. Statistics is particularly useful in psychometrics, mathematical psychology, and more broadly, any research involving multivariate or other more complex statistical methods. Furthermore, the statistics that is often taught in undergraduate psychology programs is often more applied, focussing on how to interpret common statistical techniques. If you have a degree in mathematics and statistics, you should be able to understand the techniques used in psychological data analysis in a deeper way.

In particular, calculus, linear algebra, probability, mathematical statistics, statistical computing, and a wide range of statistics subjects (e.g., introductory statistics, multivariate statistics, bayesian statistics, etc.) are a huge help when it comes to contributing to the psychological literature using advanced quantitative methods.

Also, when it comes to seeking an academic position, the capacity to teach statistics and research methods to psychology students is often a bonus, as is the capacity to consult and collaborate with fellow researchers on statistical methods.

My background is as someone who has specialised in the interface of statistics and psychology. Thus, I am biased, but equally I consider that I am in a fairly good position to have seen the benefits to my own and many other people's psychological research careers in having good quantitative skills.

  • $\begingroup$ +1. In physics, most experiments are so reliably reproducible, that you rarely encounter the need for solid knowledge of statistics. At least for me, this was a weak point for some time after moving to cognitive science... $\endgroup$
    – Ofri Raviv
    Commented Apr 29, 2013 at 7:08
  • $\begingroup$ I agree with @OfriRaviv in that a physics (or a math background even, since the schools I've been at usually separate math and stats) does not give you adequate background in statistics. However, I think statisticians are much better represented in psychology than physicists or mathematicians, so if you are coming from a multi-disciplinary background, I think it is easier to be noticed as a physicist/mathematician since there are fewer of them working on psychology. $\endgroup$ Commented May 12, 2013 at 17:35

Looking back at the history of current academic psychology, I would say that it has a tripartite foundation: The beginnings of psychology lie in ancient Greek to early modern metaphysics, that is the philosophical speculation about the nature of the soul (psyche). Many psychological concepts (such as the psyche itself, but also consciousness, volition, emotion etc.) are metaphysical in origin and nature, that is: they have never been empirically proven to exist. In this respect modern psychology and cognitive sciences are still metaphysical.

Since the eighteenth century philosophers (beginning with Christian Wolff) have attempted to conceive of a measurement of these psychic constructs. The theory and practice of this measurement has been developed by scholars from a more medical (such as Wundt) or more natural sciences background (such as Fechner and Helmholtz). If you wonder about the relevance of physics or geology to psychology, then you must first understand that scholars of that age were still almost always polymaths, educated and practicing in a variety of fields. If you look at their scientific biographies, you'll realize that they were not "physicists" or "physicians" in the currents sense, but interested in and researching the whole of "God's creation". What Fechner brought to psychology was not physics, but the methodology of physics: the experiment and the mathematical analysis of the experiment's results.

The third foundation of psychology today is, of course, physiology. Since the Descartes' substance dualism (that the soul is a substance independent of the body) has been effectively abandoned by modern philosophers in favor of a physicalist position (that the mind is an effect of the body or, specifically, the brain), psychology and, more specifically, neuropsychology has attempted to understand where in the brain which psychological processes are taking place, and how.

More and more of today's cognitive sciences are performed by biologists and medical scientist. Many researchers in our (psychology) department are already from a medical background, and the departments of medicine and biology have large laboratories doing psychological research. If psychology does not want to become irrelevant, psychologists have to become experts in neurophysiology.

Another huge influence is research by economists (Kahnemann etc.), who bring a lot of statistics with them. The relevance and status as a scientific discipline of psychology rest on the ability of psychologists to not only apply mathematical and statistical models developed in fields with different perspectives and purposes, but the ability to develop models and methods of mathematical analysis that fit psychological phenomena.

Unfortunately most psychologists and cognitive scientists lack in philosophy of science, so they don't understand when and where their research is leaving the firm ground of experimental science and entering the domain of metaphysical speculation.

What I believe is the best foundation for meaningful psychological research today is, therefore, threefold:

  1. Philosophy of science
  2. Statistics
  3. Neurobiology

Borsboom (2006) explains, why mathematics is fundamental to the development of psychology: most psychologists are unable to understand, develop and apply the theoretical models of item response theory, therefore current psychology is using classical test theory, which has several shortcomings.

Borsboom, D. (2006). The Attack of the Psychometricians. Psychometrika, 71, 425-440.

If you downvote, please provide a critique, so I can amend my mistakes. A downvote without comment is not really helpful. Thank you.

  • $\begingroup$ The question wasn't about what you think good foundations for studying cognitive science is, but if the student should pursue physics or mathematics. You barely touch on this question, and hence I downvoted your answer because it is off-topic, although the text of it is insightful. $\endgroup$ Commented May 12, 2013 at 17:32

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.