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Cognitive Science

Name: Tyler Knowlton

Year: Class of 2015

Hometown: Cinnaminson, NJ

Major: Cognitive Science

Cognitive Science: Theory, Siri, and Everything In-Between 

When I mention I’m studying Cognitive Science, people usually respond in one of two ways: “oh so you’re a neuro major” or “oh so you’re a psych major”. Not exactly. While aspects of Psychology and Neuroscience are both important to Cognitive Science, the field seeks to answer slightly different questions.

Neuron

Neuron

I think it’s useful to consider an analogy. Cognitive Scientists look the mind as an information processing device implemented in the brain. Your computer is also an information processing device, albeit a lot different from your brain (if only mental math were that easy). Consider a computer program, say Microsoft Word. We can ask questions about Word at different levels. At the surface level, someone in charge of Microsoft’s marketing would want to ask questions about the purpose of the program – what does Word allow you to do? What different functions can it preform for the user? A bit deeper, a Computer Scientist might want to ask questions about how Word works at an algorithmic level – what does the code look like? How does the program actually get text to appear when you type? Deeper still, an Electrical Engineer would want to know how Word is implemented in your physical computer – what are the circuits doing? Can it run on all types of computers or does it need specific hardware?

Analogous questions can be asked about the mind. For any cognitive capacity (depth perception, for example) we can ask about that system’s goals, about what mental operations are used to carry out those goals, and about how that system is neurally implemented. CogSci majors learn to explore all three of these levels to gain a full understanding of the mind/brain. To do so, Cognitive Science incorporates methods from various fields. At Hopkins, we take courses in Neuroscience, Cognitive Psychology and Neuropsychology, Computational Approaches to Cognition (Computer Science), Linguistics (see also, the linguistics minor), and Philosophy of Mind.

Not many other majors incorporate natural science, humanities, and engineering classes into their core requirements. This wide variety is probably my favorite part of being a CogSci major at JHU: each course not only has different content, but a different ‘culture.’ Instead of having a lot of the same kind of work, you’ll likely have a variety. For example, in Psycholinguistics (an upper-level Linguistics class that I’m taking this semester) the majority of our grade consists of collecting our own data replicating important studies. At the same time, you’ll also find yourself learning to code, decipher philosophical texts, and critically evaluate scientific journal articles in the same semester.

Moreover, students learn a variety of skills because CogSci draws from such a broad base of information: neuroimaging, behavioral experiments on normally functioning adults, developmental studies on children, case studies of patients with deficits, linguistic analysis, and artificial intelligence.

If you check out the course requirements on the department website, you’ll notice that there’s only one required class! Everything else – even the math requirements – students get to decide for themselves. You have to take one class from each of the academic areas mentioned above, three of whatever upper levels you’d like, and then you get to pick two areas as concentrations. I’m concentrating in Computational Approaches and Linguistics, but I’ve changed my focal areas a few times since I officially declared the major.

Outside of the classroom, there are a lot of opportunities for students to get research experience. I started working in the Vision and Cognition Lab at the beginning of sophomore year and was immediately involved in a project testing my peers’ numerical estimation abilities under different conditions. Labs are constantly looking for new research assistants and finding a position isn’t hard for anyone who wants one.

Artificial Intelligence

Artificial Intelligence

But what about after graduation? Many students enjoy what they learned so much, they decide to continue on to Graduate school in CogSci or one of their focal areas. From there, they might go onto work in speech pathology or working on natural language processing systems like Apple’s Siri or IBM’s Watson. Additionally, the major leaves plenty of time to also complete the pre-med requirements, so Medical school is another option (most of my CogSci friends are also pre-med). If continuing school isn’t your plan though, the major still prepares you well for a variety of other careers, especially those that involve technical writing. And according to Harvard Business Review, every information company should employ a cognitive scientist.

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Cognitive Science

Name: Julia Thorn

Year: Class of 2009

Hometown: Paoli, PA

Major: Cognitive Science

LEARNING ABOUT THINKING: COGNITIVE SCIENCE AT HOPKINS

The cognitive science major was honestly the main reason I decided to come to Hopkins in the first place. I had an interest in psychology from high school, but more specifically I enjoyed Bodylearning about the brain. After I read the description of the cognitive science major in the course book at Hopkins, I knew it was a perfect fit for me. Plus, only a handful of universities in the country have an entire department dedicated to cognitive science—if other schools offered cognitive science at all, it was usually as a focus area or certificate program. Cognitive science is a new, rapidly rising field that approaches how we think from a variety of different perspectives, including psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, and computer science. The interdisciplinary nature of the subject makes it difference from any other science. At Hopkins, the requirements for the major reflect this variety of material from which cognitive science draws.

There are five concentrations within cognitive science: cognitive psychology & neuropsychology, linguistics, computational approaches to cognition, philosophy of mind, and neuroscience. Majors in the program pick two areas to focus in depending on their interests—I’m focusing in cognitive psychology & neuropsychology and neuroscience, because I like Body4 learning about the more anatomical aspects of the brain. Cognitive psychology is interesting as well because it involves drawing conclusions about the normal brain by studying those whose brains are damaged. In fact, in one of my favorite courses, Written Language: Normal Processing and Disorders, we were able to administer cognitive testing to an actual stroke patient with a writing disorder and devise a theory about his impairment. I’m required to take three courses each in my two focal areas, and one course each in the additional concentrations. The requirements are incredibly reasonable, and they give students that opportunity to learn about each one of the disciplines that contributes to cognitive science. Being a pre-med student, I’ve taken plenty of “hard” science classes (Organic Chemistry, Physics, etc.), so I enjoy the opportunity to take classes of a different nature. The different focus areas also allow for a great amount of flexibility, given that there are only two specific introductory courses that are required (Language and Mind and Cognitive Neuroscience)—the others are up to you!

Because the department is a smaller one, the class sizes are also small, allowing for an open environment of discussion. Currently I’m taking a class called Classical Papers in Language Learning, which is a review of different language acquisition theories. There are only about 10 students in my class, some of whom are graduate students. I never thought I would ever take a course in those conditions as an undergraduate! A smaller department also makes for more personalized attention. It is easy to get to know all of the professors and the other cognitive science majors. Each professor also heads their own lab on campus, conducting research on different subdivisions such as language acquisition or psycholinguisitcs. These labs are a great opportunity for undergrads to get involved in more hands-on application of cognitive science. As a sophomore I began working in Dr. Rapp’s cognitive neuroscience lab. I worked one-on-one with a graduate student who was studying an individual patient who had a spelling disorder following a stroke. In my second semester of research, I was already devising my own tests to administer to the patient. It was a great experience and I learned more about what kinds of specific research I could pursue in the future. However, as my department adviser once told me, majoring in cognitive science prepares you for anything!

I entered Hopkins as a cognitive science major and I’m happy to be graduating as a cognitive science major! It’s a great department, and anyone interested in psychology or neuroscience should check it out. Even more information is available on the department’s web site.

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Click here to access more information about the Cognitive Science Undergraduate Program of Study.

To further your exploration of this academic program and ask any question you may have of current students, be sure to visit the Hopkins ForumsAcademics: The Insider Perspective as well as the Cognitive Science questions thread.

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