Academics Blog

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.



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.

Cognitive Science Hexagon

Cognitive Science Hexagon

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.