Cognitive and brain sciences: an introduction


Most liberal arts colleges have majors in psychology, computer science, and philosophy. Few, however, have Cognitive Brain Sciences (CBS) or similar majors, which are often more simply referred to as Cognitive Science. These study courses give students the opportunity to analyze different parts of each of the three areas with the aim of trying to understand the human mind. With a mix of compulsory courses offered by the Computer Science and Psychology departments, as well as electives in Philosophy, Pedagogy and Education, some students go through the major wondering what exactly CBS is and where they might go with a degree. The Daily has gone on a mission – guided by professors from various departments – to answer these questions.

JP de Ruiter, professor of computer science and psychology whose current research focuses on different aspects of communication, defined cognitive science as simply: “the interdisciplinary study of the mind”. At Tufts University, the history of the major is unclear; a document posted online in 2007 by Alva Couch, associate professor of computer science, pleads for the major creation, but there is little archive available on what happened after that. However, Associate professor of psychology Ariel Goldberg, who joined Tufts’ psychology department in 2008, estimated that the CBS major existed prior to his arrival, so presumably it was created between March 2007 and the start of the 2008 school year. 09.

Goldberg said his position was created in part to further develop the linguistic side of the CBS major.

“One of the main people who had been involved in the program was Dr. Ray Jackendoff, who was in the philosophy department and has since retired,” Goldberg said. “He is a world-renowned linguist. My position was to add to … the language side, and we don’t have a language department.

Linguistics is generally considered to be an important part of cognitive science; An introduction to linguistics is required for the major at Tufts and is considered its own sub-discipline of cognitive science. Since cognitive science focuses on all aspects of cognition, it may be surprising that linguistics has a special status, compared to other areas that cover an important part of the functioning of the mind, such as memory. , perception or knowledge, all of which have social richness. and philosophical components in addition to psychological components. Goldberg explained that this is, in part, because linguistics can sometimes offer special ideas.

Linguistics has been … and continues to be very informative for the field of cognitive science in general, and I think it is instructive for our students to have it as their main course that they are taking.,” he said. “Language cognition is an area where research on this subject has historically been very influential for our understanding of how cognition works in general. “

Goldberg went on to explain that at one point behaviorism – which looks at the mind through the prism of inputs and outputs – dominated the field of cognitive science.. The language, however, complicated the behavioral perspective on the mind, forcing researchers to consider alternative theories.

Psychology and linguistics therefore seem to make sense in the pursuit of understanding the mind. But what role does IT play in this?

In the classic perspective I was raised in … is the idea that artificial intelligence and cognitive science … help each other by forcing psychologists to implement their theories in AISaid de Ruiter. “The ambitious idea is that psychology and computer science learn from each other. “

Matthias Scheutz, professor of computer science, who heads the Human-Robot Interaction Laboratory, offered examples of this from his lab. There are certain norms that people follow in conversation – such as interrupting only on certain occasions, knowing when to maintain and break eye contact, and give appropriate non-verbal feedback (including eye and head movements) – and code them into robots can be difficult. In light of de Ruiter’s ideas, however, these challenges can also hopefully help us understand how the mind works.

For a study from the Human-Robot Interaction Lab, researchers asked participants to give their restaurant orders to a robot waiter who took what they said at face value, which most found very hard. Scheutz gave this example of how the conversation might play out:

Human: “Do you have Coke? “

Robot: “Yes, we do. What would you like to drink?”

Human: “I would like a Coke.”

Robot: “It’s good that you want that. What would you like to drink?”

In this conversation snippet, the human does not directly ask for a Coke but rather uses language that anyone would understand to mean that they should bring them a Coke. For the robot, however, this is unintelligible, providing insight into how humans communicate and the path to building more efficient robots.

Another example of how computing fits into the cognitive puzzle came from cognitive science professor Gina Kuperberg.

“I currently have a very talented graduate student who is building a computer model of this particular neural signature, called N400, using a model known as predictive coding, and it’s something that really goes beyond just thinking. cognitive psychology. “ said Kuperberg. “It’s really interdisciplinary, because we work with IT people in the UK. But it sort of gives us a huge amount of information about why and how, and even where, these neural signatures are produced in the brain.

Although philosophy courses are not required for the CBS major, philosophy still plays a role in Tufts’ CBS program through elective courses.. CBS’s philosophical approach comes from a much higher level, asking questions that go to the heart of what is studied, such as: what does it mean to think? What makes something a geek or a thinker?

“[People] tend to focus very narrowly on a particular subdomain or issue, and so I think it can be very helpful to take a step back and think about the overall picture of cognition that people have ”, Brian Epstein, associate professor of philosophy, said. “So part of what I’m trying to do is just force a clarification of what exactly we’re committing to and what we mean exactly, when we’re trying to make sense of a system as a geek.” . “

While this may not appear to have direct research application, it can frame and lead various projects. In addition, this The philosophical bent can help researchers examine artificial intelligence and embodied cognition, which explore the connection between mind and body.

Where do all these ideas leave roughly 125 CBS undergraduate majors declared? According to their teachers, they are interested in many fields with their degrees, including research, health sciences, law, software engineering, consulting and startups.

“If you study law you become a lawyer… whereas if you study CBS you can still go in a lot of different directions,” de Ruiter said.

Regardless of where these majors ended up, almost every faculty member seemed convinced that the field would continue to grow, given the growing importance of interdisciplinary approaches.

Assistant Professor of Psychology Stephanie Badde said confidently that she sees a positive development for CBS in the years to come.

“I think it’s going to be stronger and stronger and stronger,” she said.