Cognitive Science

Cognition at Work: A Celebration of CogSci Designed & Executed by Undergrads

This past weekend I was invited to present at UCSD’s Cognitive Science Student Association‘s annual conference. The undergraduate CSSA leaders pulled off a polished and fascinating conference, focusing on the role of cognitive science in all kinds of work, from design, to mental health, to academic research.

In the first half of the workshop I gave, they asked me to talk about my journey to cognitive science: how did I discover I wanted to pursue CogSci, how did I end up at UCSD, and what might lie ahead? This is a fun story to tell. It includes growing up in a tiny Massachusetts town with fascinating identical twin sisters and supportive parents. It also includes my undergraduate years at Vassar College, where I accidentally found Cognitive Science and took classes that truly nurtured my intellectual side and inspired me to learn more. I discovered UCSD’s unique Cognitive Science program and was dead set on getting in — and somehow I did. I’ve been having a blast researching the relationship between language and the mind, working with brilliant people, and exploring other intellectual interests. I talked about the essential skills for doing a PhD, and in response to the question: “what next?” I was honest: I don’t know! But I expect it’ll be exciting. Here are the slides from that portion of the workshop.

The second half of the workshop was focused on my Cognitive Science research. The two Research Assistants who have helped me collect data on the projects I wanted to share (David and Yahan) also helped me give the talk. I’m SO proud of the work they put into this project and the presentation, and I’m confident they inspired other undergrads in the audience. David and Yahan showed them that undergraduates can do great research AND communicate about it (which can be just as hard as the research itself!).

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David, Yahan, and I show our work.

Here’s a more legible version of our poster.

I left the conference feeling energized, and I hope many of the attendees did as well. It was a unique conference since most attendees were not there to promote their own work (since they were mainly undergrads). Of course there’s nothing wrong with academic conferences where promoting one’s work is a goal, but at this conference, attendees’ primary objectives were to learn, be inspired, and think about CogSci outside their classes. To me, it was a celebration of CogSci, and a great reminder of why I work in this really cool field at this really cool university.

The future of cog sci

As a final project in a class on theories and methods in cognitive science, we had to give a talk on what we believed to be the future of cog sci, drawing on what we had synthesized during the course and our own specific interests. I’ve started to think of this blog as a time capsule for my thoughts about the field, so I find it fitting to post my presentation (or at least, the spoken part and a few screenshots from the visual). I’ll probably look back on this someday and think, “oh, how much I had yet to learn…” but that will not be such a travesty. Today, having completed only 10 weeks of grad school courses, here’s what I think about the present and future of cog sci:

As I was thinking about the future of cog sci, I started by rephrasing the question to myself. Where’s the field going? What questions and methods will push the field forward? I don’t need to specify that cog sci isn’t a physical thing, so it can’t actually go anywhere, or that, questions and methods don’t have agency and therefore can’t push the abstract field anywhere. The fact that we produce and comprehend phrases like this naturally and possibly even base our perceptualizations on them is one of the many phenomena we’re still working on understanding.

Because we’re all familiar with the cultural convention of blending time and space with a timeline, I’m going to use that as a jumping off point. In order to tackle the question of the future of cog sci, we have to consider the larger context of its historical roots.

Early research was materialistic in that it didn’t differentiate the mind from the brain. Neuroscience contributed the tenet that brain activity equals thought, while computer science gave rise to the conviction that thinking is equivalent to symbolic information processing. As new topics for investigation have emerged, many researchers have abandoned the traditional assumptions. The orderliness “mind as a computer” metaphor just doesn’t mesh with the complexity and messiness of our cognition.

Traditional cog sci: the mind is inseparable from brain processes and the notion of the mind as a computer was widespread

Traditional cog sci: the mind is inseparable from brain processes and the notion of the mind as a computer was widespread

Over time, more and more people have begun to recognize that every brain is situated in a unique body, and every body situated in a dynamic world. Spivey eloquently noted, “it might just be that your mind is bigger than your brain.” This is where we are now: context often reigns supreme. Most researchers accept that people behave differently inside a lab than outside it, and they strive to make their experiments as ecologically valid as possible, or in other words, as similar as they can to the real-world circumstances they want to generalize about.

A brain within a body within a dynamic, complex world

A brain within a body within a dynamic, complex world

Gick and Holyoak provide one of many examples of the importance of context, specifically linguistic context, for reasoning. Half of their subjects were given the tumor problem: a patient needs radiation to kill a tumor. A weak ray will not be strong enough to kill the tumor. A strong ray will be too strong, killing much of the healthy surrounding tissue. What should the radiologist do? Few people answered correctly. Other participants received the fortress problem: There’s a fortress at the intersection of many roads. The general wants to capture the fortress, but if all his troops attack from the same road, they run the risk of being blown up by mines. What should he do? This question is much easier: the army should split up and attack from many angles. The answer to the tumor question was the same: the radiologist should send converging weak rays from different directions so that they’ll be strong enough cumulatively to kill the tumor. But the framing of the problem makes a significant difference for how people go about and succeed in solving it.

Tumor and fortress problems

Tumor and fortress problems

Language is an undeniably huge part of our culture and day-to-day lives. We communicate so much directly, and possibly even more indirectly. When I say, “can you open the window?” we understand that I am in fact asking, “will you open the window?” The intended unspoken information conveyed is interesting, but what I find even more interesting is all the information we convey linguistically without intending to. When I talk about cognitive science moving forward, I’m blending the concepts of physical movement and time, with the assumption (thanks to my culture and language) that the future is forward. If I tell you that there’s a canyon separating the rich and the poor in America, I might be conveying different information than if I say, “the poor are lagging behind the rich.” A canyon is often an impenetrable divide resulting from natural causes. Lagging behind, on the other hand, suggests a separation because the slower group is incompetent or lazy, but a separation that can change throughout the course of a race. Do these different metaphoric instantiations of a single, abstract concept have consequences for our thoughts and behaviors?

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Are there implications of talking about a canyon between the rich and poor versus the poor lagging behind in the economic race?

We know that context is important. But context is a really broad term. What context is important for different aspects of cognition? How can contextual alterations shape our thoughts and behaviors? This is, I think, one of the many important directions in which cog sci is heading.

I think about thoughts

I’ve never been a huge poetry fan, because I often feel that there’s such a surplus of language to get a point across (and in many cases, I’m not even sure I understand the message). Haikus, however, have always impressed me by their ability to succinctly make a point while meeting their 5-7-5-syllable requirement. I recently found this book, The Little Book of Neuroscience Haikus by Eric Chudler, and had so much fun reading through it. Here’s one of my favorites:

Cerebral cortex
Surrounding outer layer
I think about thoughts.

Image: wikipedia

Image: wikipedia

In three short lines, Chudler tells us where the cerebral cortex is located and generally sums up its function- complex thought. I think the last line is a pretty cool description not only of the cerebral cortex, but also of cog sci in general.

What’s cog sci?

In celebration of the big cognitive science adventure I’m about to begin, a quote from Steven Pinker that pretty accurately sums up my cog sci experience so far:

If I call myself a psychologist people immediately think of a psychotherapist, but if I call myself a cognitive scientist at least no one knows what the hell that is.

Why study humanities?

Lately there’s been a lot of encouragement for students to study STEM field, which, while important, has contributed to a pretty sizable decline in the number of people studying liberal arts, at least in America. This NYT article by Jennifer Schuessler reports that we are in “a time when the humanities and social sciences are themselves often accused of being frivolous at best, fraudulent at worst.”

After four years of a humanities curriculum at a small, liberal arts college, I can confidently say that I would choose this course of study for myself all over again. It probably isn’t the ideal path for all students, but I still think there’s so much value in courses that may not be immediately pertinent to a future career.

We shouldn't let the humanities die, even if some of the greatest influences have... Image: Wikipedia

We shouldn’t let the humanities die, even if some of the greatest influences have…
Image: Wikipedia

I really liked a few quotes from this article by John Horgan about why he teaches humanities to students at a technological institute:

In your science, mathematics and engineering classes, you’re given facts, answers, knowledge, truth. Your professors say, “This is how things are.” They give you certainty. The humanities, at least the way I teach them, give you uncertainty, doubt and skepticism…

The humanities are more about questions than answers…

If I do my job, by the end of this course you’ll question all authorities, including me. You’ll question what you’ve been told about the nature of reality, about the purpose of life, about what it mean to be a good person. Because that, for me, is the point of the humanities: they keep us from being trapped by our own desire for certainty.

Said another way, humanities make us human. Horgan’s quotes hit a little closer to home for me than just defending humanities, because I think they also sum up why I’ve chosen to pursue cog sci.  It’s full of uncertainty, doubt, and skepticism. For every question we address (I think using the word “answer” would be false advertisement), many more arise. This way, we’ll never run out of questions. In order to address them, we pull from a number of domains that may not even seem to be related at first glance. And by doing this, we probably won’t run out of novel ways to view the questions we entertain. I think this is incredibly important if we want to better understand the mind (and I don’t think this is too unique a desire). Maybe it’s satisfactory to be told something like: when you eat chocolate, your “pleasure center” lights up, but to me, we still have a long way to go, and STEM alone won’t get us there.

A working definition of cog sci

With my college graduation just days away, it’s only natural that I’ve been doing quite a bit of introspecting: In what ways am I different from the 17-year old my parents dropped off at Vassar in 2009? How do my current beliefs and thoughts differ from those I had as I began my freshman year, and what aspects of my education have contributed to those developments? I think back to many of the classes I’ve taken over the four years: French, Latin, and Chinese, computer science, physiological psychology, the history of the English language, and anthropological linguistics come to mind. I feel that cumulatively, regardless of whether they counted towards the Cognitive Science major in the eyes of the Registrar, they have all contributed to my current understanding of the human mind.

In the fall, I’ll begin working on a PhD in cognitive science, so it seems just to expect myself to have a clear definition of the field. “It’s like psychology, right?” asks almost every curious relative, family friend, and dental hygienist I’ve encountered in the past. Others with more understanding of what cognitive science entails may see it as a lofty field, thinking about thinking, without practical applications. The conventional understanding of cognitive science, as articulated by Wikipedia, the hub of collective intelligence, is “the interdisciplinary scientific study of the mind and its processes.” While I certainly can’t disagree with this, such a pithy statement falls short for me.

The world is messy. I’ve always been tempted to impose order on it, applying logic to circumstances in which it may not belong, and I feel confident that I’m not alone in the propensity to reduce the world around me to causes and effects. However, causes and effects are meaningless in the absence of context, the world in which anything- and everything- occurs. Because this world is dynamic and constantly changing, explanatory reductions may be misguided; instead, context may be the only acceptable explanation for the perceptions and actions that we seek to understand. Cognitive science is, to me, the study of the mind- of any agent that perceives and acts in its world- that takes context as its starting point. In order to truly take context into account, the discipline necessarily draws from a number of fields, including psychology, philosophy, linguistics, anthropology, computer science and artificial intelligence, and neuroscience. Each field is simply one piece of the larger puzzle: alone, it has awkward edges and indiscernible shapes, but the amalgamation reveals a whole image that’s greater than the sum of all its parts.

On the first day of Introduction to Cognitive Science freshman year, I had no idea what cog sci was, except that “cognitive” meant something along the lines of “brain.” I created a Turing machine that could determine whether any string of x’s and y’s was a palindrome. All it needed was a set of rules, and the machine was infallible. But as soon as I added a z into the input string, it broke down completely: No Rule Defined, it told me. Because my human brain does not break down and halt in the middle of problem solving, it was evident to me that there aren’t Turing machines in our heads, but instead something else, something more complex than states and rules, that must shape how we think, sense, and act in the world.

Lessons on Chinese grammar, cultures of South American tribes, and programming a for-loop also triggered mind-related thoughts and curiosities in my foreign language, anthropology, and computer science classes. In Perception & Action, I learned more about ants than almost any human would desire to know. An ant colony is a miraculously intelligent system, another example of a product much greater than the sum of its parts. Context alone determines an individual ant’s role and how and when he will carry it out. The ant lives in a constantly changing world, but instead of causing a break down, as such a world would for a Turing machine, it encourages various behaviors that contribute to the colony’s overall success.

What does this mean for the study of human minds? It means that our perceptions, thoughts, and actions are inseparable from the contexts in which they occur. We are situated in the world, and numerous aspects of our world, like prior experiences, culture, and other people, play a prominent role in shaping what we may intuitively believe occurs only or primarily in our heads.

As I prepare to begin a new chapter in my Cognitive Science career, I expect (and hope) that my appreciation of context will color the ways in which I move forward. My devotion to the importance of context has taught me to question everything. It is important to question whether studies done under different circumstances (i.e., outside a lab) and with different subpopulations (i.e., not westernized college undergrads) may have resulted in different conclusions. It is important to question whether there may be ways of viewing the world that differ from my own view (i.e., as cyclical as opposed to linear, or correlational as opposed to causal) that may shape the research questions posed, methods employed, and findings extracted. I hope that by doing this, my mind will remain open to new possibilities, continually working toward achieving the most comprehensive understanding of the mind possible.

Why write this blog?

One day in the middle of class, I decided that I would start a cog blog. I’m not sure exactly why I made that decision, but as I let the idea marinate for a while, I came up with a bunch of reasons why this was a necessary project.

  1. I love to write, but writing in an online forum, where anyone could be sitting at their computer reading my thoughts, has always made me feel too exposed and vulnerable. Time to get over that, especially since I hope to go into academia, where putting myself “out there” will be a key to success.
  2. I want to keep learning, reading, and thinking about thinking, and I think the best way to do this is to collaborate as much as possible. I’ve loved having frequent opportunities during college for cog sci dialogues with so many people, and I don’t want to give those dialogues up.
  3. I want to be a better reader, writer, and thinker, and this link convinced me that a blog is probably a good way to achieve that goal. In it, Maria Konnikova writes:

    “What am I doing but honing my ability to think, research, analyze, and write—the core skills required to complete a dissertation? And I’m doing so, I would argue, in a far more effective fashion than I would ever be able to do were I to keep to a more traditional academia-only route.”

Sounds like a good deal!