Cognitive Science Department

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.




Cognitive Science: I. Introductory

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

Cognitive science is a multidisciplinary exploration of the nature of mind and intelligence in whatever forms they may take, from animal (including especially humans) to machine. This course explores the modern history of our efforts to understand the nature of mind, asking such questions as how a purely physical entity could have a mind, whether a computer or robot could have genuine mental states, and what it really means to be intelligent or to have a mind. In the process of seeking answers to these questions, the course explores such phenomena as perception, memory, prediction, decision-making, action, language, and consciousness by integrating methods and concepts from a number of disciplines, including philosophy, psychology, computer science, neuroscience, biology, linguistics, and anthropology. Material from economics, education, mathematics, engineering, and the arts is increasingly integrated into the field as well. No background in any of these disciplines is assumed, and this course is intended to serve as an introduction, for both majors and non-majors, to the unique multidisciplinary approach to studying problems of mind that Cognitive Science represents. Ms. Andrews, Ms. Broude, Mr. Livingston.

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

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 Cognitive Science. Mr. Livingston.

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


Two 2-hour periods.

Cognitive Science: II. Intermediate

211a. Perception and Action (1)

This course is about the ongoing, dynamic, causal loops of action and perception that situate agents in the world and form the foundation for their intelligence. Topics include how physical energies become perceptual experiences, how systems evolve, develop, and learn the ability to perform complex actions, and how it is that actions are brought under the control of perceptions. Material is drawn from the neurosciences, robotics, human and non-human animal behavior research, and philosophy. Classes include regular laboratory work including human experimental work and robotics. Mr. Long.

Prerequisite: COGS 100.

Two 75-minute periods, plus one 4-hour laboratory.

213a. Language (1)

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. Ms. Andrews.

Prerequisite: COGS 100.

Two 75-minute periods.

215b. Knowledge and Cognition (1)

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. Mrs. Broude.

Prerequisite: COGS 100.

Two 75-minute periods.

219b. Research Methods in Cognitive Science (1)

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 course also plays a critical role in preparing students for the senior thesis.  It is therefore strongly encouraged that this course be completed by the junior year.  Ms. Andrews.

Prerequisites: PSYC 200 and either COGS 211, COGS 213, or COGS 215.    

Regular laboratory work. Enrollment limited.

Two 75-minute period and 5-hour lab.

290a and b. Field Work (0.5to1)

298a and b. Independent Work (0.5to1)

Cognitive Science: III. Advanced

300a. Senior Thesis (0.5)

A thesis written in two semesters for 1 unit.

Yearlong course 300-COGS 301.

301b. Senior Thesis (0.5)

A thesis written in two semesters for 1 unit.

Yearlong course COGS 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 2015/16b: One Culture. In 1959 novelist and physicist C. P. Snow delivered a prescient lecture entitled The Two Cultures in which he decried the increasing separation between the sciences and the humanities in Western education, warning of the problems that could arise in a society that lost the ability to speak the languages of both science and the arts.  This seminar will address this issue in several ways by bringing to bear the multidisciplinary techniques of cognitive science on a set of key questions.  Is there a fundamental difference between artistic and scientific thought and practice?  Is there, in fact, a cultural divide?  If so, what are the nature and source of that difference in various cognitive processes, and what are the obstacles to transcending it?  If not, then how and why have the two cultures become so divided?  A major focus of the course will be on hands-on projects designed to explore what happens when the methods and perspectives of science and the humanities are brought together in pursuit of understanding of various phenomena. Ms. Broude and Mr. Livingston.

Prerequisites: permission of the instructor, and COGS 100 and one relevant 200-level course such as COGS 215.

One 3-hour period.

381a. Mind Reading: The Cognitive Science Book Club (1)

The goal of this course is to explore interests and issues from the field of Cognitive Science that go beyond the Cognitive Science curriculum. These include methodological and theoretical issues as well as empirical work, narrative, and more. The course is book-driven and discussion-intense. Think of it as a Cognitive Science book club. We read books, lots of them, and talk about them. Past topics have included: free will, consciousness, embodiment, first person subjective experience, neuroscientific methods, the anthropological stance, artificial intelligence, origins of morality, story, and theory of mind. Books and topics change each year. Ms. Broude.

Prerequisite: any 200-level course in Cognitive Science and permission of the instructor.

One 2-hour period.

399a and b. Senior Independent Work (0.5to1)