Cognitive Science & Me

Ethan Jost
PhD Student in Psychology

One of my favorite things about cognitive science is the relatively broad meaning of the term. My peers and I study everything from syntax to neurons, all in the pursuit of understanding how the brain functions. Ryu (who was kind enough to ask me to contribute to this blog) and I study pretty different things, he, social learning and I, language, yet we find ourselves participating in meaningful discussions about our methods, findings, and inspirations in the catacombs of Uris Hall. Such is the beauty of cognitive science!

Now that I have professed my affection for this field of which I am a part, let me tell you a bit more about myself and what I do. Perhaps this description will offer you a novel perspective on how to think about your own research or maybe it will make you ponder your own journey in science. In any case, I hope you at least learn more about the ontogeny of a cognitive scientist and what (I think) it means to be one.

I graduated from Saint Louis University in 2011 with a major in Psychology and minors in History and Philosophy. Prior to graduating, I had the privilege of conducting research in Chris Conway’s lab, beginning as a sophomore. If there are any undergraduates reading this, I would encourage you to start seeking out research opportunities as early in your academic career as possible. I know that my own research experience at the undergraduate level was integral to my admission to graduate school and, more importantly, to my development as a scientist. I would also like to use this soap box to encourage undergraduates to take a proactive role in their lab(s), and to ask questions of your advisors and the grad students with whom you work. They might not have an answer and then you could have your very own research project! Sometimes you may not feel as if you know enough to contribute, but don’t worry – you are there to push the boundaries and offer a novel perspective. To quote Ms. Frizzle of The Magic School Bus, “Ask questions, make mistakes, get messy!”

Thus I began researching the nature of statistical learning (SL), with my first study examining developmental differences in visual SL using event-related potentials (ERPs): my findings will be published in Brain Research. In 2011 I gave a talk at the Cognitive Science Society conference in Boston based on our initial results, which indicated that there was no change in the neural correlates of SL between 5 -12 year olds and adults: this provides evidence for Arthur Reber’s claim of developmental invariance in SL. Including younger children in a future project would be wise, as our department’s developmental psychologist Mike Goldstein often reminds me that “five year olds are basically geriatric.”

Spurred on by this project and my desire to understand the neural underpinnings of SL abilities, I joined Morten Christiansen’s lab here at Cornell. I was eager to learn more about language and also solidify my views on what SL is and how it relates to language. I began a project examining individual differences in SL ability, verbal working memory, and language processing, following in the tradition of my lab-sister Jen Misyak (now at Warwick on a post-doc with Nick Chater). I presented a version of the study at the Psychonomics conference in Minneapolis in 2012. While recruiting participants for that has taken the better part of two years, I hope to wrap up data collection this semester and finish the manuscript this winter.

In addition to this basic cognitive work, I was able to begin collaboration with Andrei Holodny and his fMRI lab at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Thanks to my funding through the now defunct IMAGINE program I was able to spend a year at the hospital in NYC.

The first project I worked on at MSKCC was a retrospective analysis of plasticity and reorganization in the brain’s language network, for which I just presented the findings at the conference of the Society for the Neurobiology of Language in Amsterdam. We found that patients with left-frontal tumors were more likely to be reported as right- or co-dominant for language function based on pre-operative fMRIs than were patients with tumors elsewhere in the brain, furthering the implications of earlier case studies on the possibility of translocation of Broca’s area in this patient population. In addition, the patients with left-frontal tumors, who were right- or co-dominant for language, performed better on a picture naming task (Boston Naming Test) than did those patients with typical left-dominant language maps, suggesting that this reorganization may confer a behavioral advantage.  The other project, which is ghostwriting agentur still in the planning phase (hospital IRBs are pretty crazy), will look at right-hemisphere contributions to language, SL, and working memory in brain tumor patients.

That more or less covers my research program. From my perspective it all revolves around these two questions:

1) How should the way the brain works constrain theories of language learning and processing?

2) How do domain-general processes (i.e., SL, working memory) subserve linguistic abilities?

In order to answer these questions, I have utilized a variety of methods and enlisted collaborators with extremely different perspectives and training than my own. I view the theoretical question as an ‘end,’ and the method as the ‘means’ to that end. Being a cognitive scientist requires flexibility both methodologically and theoretically. This might mean using either a scanner or galvanic skin responses; working with a radiologist or an engineer; or even borrowing theoretical principles from philosophy or biology: whatever method/collaborator/perspective will be of the most help in answering your research research paper questions, seek it out. The question is what’s interesting; how you answer it is secondary.

To really hammer this point home, when interviewing for graduate schools both Morten Christiansen (my advisor) and V.S. Ramachandran at UCSD had similar suggestions that have guided me through these formative years as a researcher. They taught me not to constrain myself by marrying one method and to answer research questions using whatever tools necessary. If you want to answer a question that can be answered with a simple reaction time experiment, don’t use a scanner! It might seem obvious, but too often I have come across fellow students and researchers who have said something along the lines of, “I want to do an fMRI study of           .” Don’t pick the method before you’ve picked the question: come up with a question and then devise the best method possible for answering it. You might have to seek out collaborators and that may feel like a burden, but other researchers with the tools you need are out there, and at least one of them will find your question exciting.

The field of cognitive science is built upon the foundation of interdisciplinary research and cognitive scientists must continue to embrace this ideal so that we can answer the questions we feel are important.


One thought on “Cognitive Science & Me

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