Foundations Of Cognitive Science

Reverse Engineering

Reverse engineering is the most popular approach to explaining cognitive systems, particularly in branches of cognitive science that are predominately empirical in practice.  In reverse engineering, one is presented an intact agent, and must observe the behavior of the agent in a variety of situations in an attempt to infer the internal mechanisms that are responsible for this behavior.  That is, a researcher must use experimental paradigms to analyzes, decompose, or break down the agent to identify its parts, what they do, and how they interact with each other.  It is called reverse engineering because the agent already exists – it has already been “engineered” – and the goal is to work backwards to determine “what makes the agent tick”.

Important examples of reverse engineering in cognitive science include functional analysis (Cummins, 1975, 1983) and the use of protocol analysis to explain human and expert problem solving (Ericsson & Simon, 1984; Newell & Simon, 1972).


  1. Cummins, R. (1975). Functional analysis. Journal of philosophy, 72, 741-760.
  2. Cummins, R. (1983). The Nature Of Psychological Explanation. Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press.
  3. Ericsson, K. A., & Simon, H. A. (1984). Protocol Analysis: Verbal Reports As Data. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
  4. Newell, A., & Simon, H. A. (1972). Human Problem Solving. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

(Added January 2010)