Cognitive Science Program

We human beings take it for granted that we are possessed of minds. You know that you have a mind and you assume that other people do too. But what, exactly, are we referring to when we talk about the mind? Is a mind just a brain? What endows your mind with the property of being conscious? How does your mind allow you to extract music from sound waves, or relish the taste of chocolate, or daydream, or feel happy and sad, or reach for your cup when you want a sip of coffee? Are minds directly aware of the world out there? Or, when you think that you are perceiving reality, are you just consulting some representation of the world that your mind has built? How similar is your mind to the minds of other people? Do you have to be a human being to have a mind? Could other entities have minds so long as they were built the right way? Does your computer have a mind?

These are the kinds of questions that cognitive scientists want to address. Cognitive Science is a broadly multidisciplinary field in which philosophers, psychologists, anthropologists, linguists, neuroscientists, biologists, mathematicians, and computer scientists, among others, combine their respective theories, technologies, and methodologies in the service of a unified exploration of mind. The hallmark of the field is a genuinely multidisciplinary outlook in which the perspectives and methods of all of the component disciplines are simultaneously brought to bear upon a particular question. In 1982, Vassar College became the first institution in the world to grant an undergraduate degree in Cognitive Science.

The key elements of the Cognitive Science major are (1) a sustained, broad, in-depth exploration of mental phenomena via the multidisciplinary strategy of the field, (2) application of the Cognitive Science strategy to a specific domain of interest to the student, and (3) completion during the senior year of an independent research project on a topic chosen by the student.

The first of these goals is met by completion of the Core Courses. All majors are required to complete all of these courses:

  • Cognitive Science 100 Introduction to Cognitive Science (1)
  • Cognitive Science 211 Perception and Action (1)
  • Cognitive Science 213 Language (1)
  • Cognitive Science 215 Knowledge and Cognition (1)
  • Psychology 200 Statistics and Experimental Design (1)
  • Cognitive Science 219 Research Methods in Cognitive Science (1)
  • Cognitive Science 311 Seminar in Cognitive Science (1)

The second goal of the major is met by choosing one of the paths listed below and electing four elective courses from the chosen path. Courses under each path are listed on the Cognitive Science website and are also available in the Cognitive Science office Blodgett 237, and by request from any faculty member of the Program. The following stipulations apply to path electives: (1) the choice of path and electives within the path are to be made in consultation with the adviser at the time of declaration of the major. (2) At least one of the four electives must be a 300-level seminar. This can include a second Cognitive Science seminar if it is relevant to the path. (3) No more than one of the electives can be a 100-level course. The exception is the Computer Science 101-102 sequence. A student who takes this sequence can have both courses count toward the major. A student may petition his or her advisor to develop a customized path and will be allowed to do so under the direction of the advisor if the rationale is deemed justified. Independent work in Cognitive Science, for instance the annual Robot Competition, can count toward the major with the approval of the Program. The Cognitive Science Book Club, taken as an independent, counts as a path course. Please consult the Cognitive Science website for the full listing of courses under each path.

Cognitive Science Electives Paths

  • Cognition and Culture
  • Cognition and Language
  • Cognition and the Arts
  • Cognitive Development and Education
  • Embodied Agents
  • Evolved Minds
  • Formal Analysis of Mind
  • Mind and Brain
  • Rationality, Value, and Decision-making

The final goal of the major is met by completing a thesis in the senior year. The topic of the thesis is chosen by the student in consultation with one or more members of the program faculty. All majors must sign up for the thesis in the senior year. Students are strongly encouraged to sign up for Cognitive Science 300-301 for 1/2 credit in the a-semester and 1/2 credit in the b-semester, for a total of 1 unit of credit. In cases where this is not possible it is acceptable to sign up for Cognitive Science 302 for a full unit in either the a- or the b-term. Students should consult their adviser before electing the latter option.

After declaration of the major, all courses within the major must be taken for letter grades.

I. Introductory

100a and b. Introduction to Cognitive Science (1)

This course is designed to provide you with an overview of the questions that define the field of Cognitive Science, the conceptual and research tools that are used to investigate these questions, the debates that characterize discourse about the nature of mind, and some idea of the answers that seem to be emerging. Cognitive Science is a multidisciplinary effort that has drawn, both theoretically and methodologically, from a number of traditional disciplines, most prominently philosophy, psychology, computer science, neuroscience, and anthropology, especially linguistics. Lately, economics, mathematics, molecular biology, evolutionary psychology, developmental psychology, robotics, and the arts are making appearances on the Cognitive Science stage. Indeed, all of these fields are represented among the field. No background in any of these home disciplines is assumed, and this course is intended to serve as an introduction, for both majors and non-majors, to the unique approach to studying problems of mind that Cognitive Science represents. The course surveys questions about mind, asking, for instance, who or what has a mind, how you get mind in a physical organism, and how we should characterize mental processes. We also explore such phenomena as perception, memory, decision-making, action, and language using the multidisciplinary method.

110b. The Science and Fiction of Mind (1)

(Same as Psychology 110) Our understanding of what minds are and of how they work, has exploded dramatically in the last half century. As in other areas of science, the more we know the harder it becomes to convey the richness and complexity of that knowledge to non-specialists. This Freshman Course will explore two different styles of writing for explaining new findings about the nature of mind to a general audience. The most direct of these styles is journalistic and explanatory and is well represented by the work of people like Steven Pinker, Bruce Bower, Stephen J. Gould, and Ray Kurzweil. The second style is fictional. At its best, science fiction not only entertains, it also stretches the reader's mind to a view of implications and possibilities beyond what is currently known. Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Greg Bear, and Richard Powers all provide excellent models of this kind of writing. In this course students practice both ways of writing about technical and scientific discoveries. By working simultaneously in both styles it should become clear that when done well even a strictly explanatory piece of science writing tells a story. By the same token even a purely fictional narrative can explain and elucidate how the real world works. The focus of our work is material from the sciences of mind, but topics from other scientific areas may also be explored. This course does not serve as a prerequisite for upper-level courses in Psychology or Cognitive Science. Mr. Livingston.

Open only to freshmen; satisfies college requirement for a Freshman Writing Seminar.

II. Intermediate

211a. Perception and Action (1)

(Same as Psychology 211) This course is about how systems for perceiving the world come to be coordinated with systems for acting in that world. Topics include how physical energies become perceptual experiences, systems for producing complex actions, and how it is that actions are brought under the control of perceptions. Relevant evidence is drawn from behavioral and neuroscientific studies of other species and from human infants and children, as well as from human adults. Computer models of these processes and the problem of replicating them in robots are considered. Classes include regular laboratory work.

Prerequisite: Cognitive Science 100.

213a. Language (1)

(Same as Psychology 213) This course considers the rich and complex phenomenon of human language from a multidisciplinary perspective. The emphasis is on the cognitive representations and processes that enable individual language users to acquire, perceive, comprehend, produce, read, and write language. Consideration is given to the relation of language to thought and consciousness; to neural substrates of language and the effects of brain damage on language ability; to computational models of language; and to language development. Throughout, language is examined at different levels of analysis, including sound, structure, and meaning.

Prerequisite: Cognitive Science 100.

215b. Knowledge and Cognition (1)

(Same as Psychology 215) This course asks how knowledge and cognition contribute to the functioning of biological and synthetic cognitive agents. Along the way it inquires into the origins and nature of knowledge, memory, concepts, goals, and problem-solving strategies. Relevant philosophical issues are examined along with research on the brain, experimental evidence from cognitive psychology, computer models, and evolutionary explanations of mind and behavior. A major goal of the course is to explore how cognitive scientists are coming to understand knowledge and cognition within an embodied agent embedded in a real world. The program faculty.

Prerequisite: Cognitive Science 100.

219b. Research Methods in Cognitive Science (1)

(Same as Psychology 219) In this course, students learn to apply the principal methodologies of cognitive science to a specific problem in the field, such as sentence processing or visual form perception. The methods are drawn from human neurophysiology, experimental cognitive psychology, computer modeling, linguistic and logical analysis, and other appropriate investigative tools, depending on the specific issue chosen for study. A major goal of the course is to give students hands-on experience with the use and coordination of research techniques and strategies characteristic of contemporary cognitive science. The program faculty.

Prerequisites: Psychology 200, and either Cognitive Science 211, 213, or 215.

290a and b. Field Work (1/2 or 1)

298a and b. Independent Work (1/2 or 1)

III. Advanced

300a. Senior Thesis (1/2)

A thesis written in two semesters for 1 unit.

Yearlong course 300-301.

301b. Senior Thesis (1/2)

A thesis written in two semesters for 1 unit.

Yearlong course 300-301.

302a and b. Senior Thesis (1)

A thesis written in one semester for one unit.

311b. Seminar in Cognitive Science (1)

The topic of the seminar varies regularly, but is always focused on some aspect of thought, language, perception, or action considered from the unique, synthetic perspective of cognitive science. The seminar is team-taught by faculty members in the program. May be repeated for credit if the topic has changed.

Topic for 2012/13b: The Cognitive Science of Built Spaces. More than any other animal on the planet, humans have altered and augmented the physical spaces in which they live. We do so in order to enhance various features of our lives, and so the changes we make are informed, at least in part, by the ways in which we understand our needs and purposes. Many other factors, however, from available materials to levels of knowledge and skill of the builders, constrain the choices we make when sculpting of the environments in which we live. This seminar will explore the processes by which we conceive and execute the reshaping of our environment -- from buildings, pathways, and garden spaces to the vehicles and machines we use to navigate that environment -- as well as the ways in which those altered spaces then reshape our own actions and behaviors both individually and interpersonally. Some attention will also be given to “virtual” environments as the latest means of reshaping the spaces in which we act and think. Mr. Livingston.

Prerequisite: Cognitive Science/Psychology 211, 213, or 215

One 3-hour period.

381b. Mind Reading (1)

The goal of this course is to explore interests and issues from the field of cognitive science that are not discussed in depth in the core cognitive science curriculum. These include methodological and theoretical issues. The course is book-driven and discussion-intense. Ms. Broude.

Prerequisite: Cognitive Science 100 or permission of the instructor.

One 2-hour period.

399a and b. Senior Independent Work (1/2 or 1)