That Sounds Awesome! What Did You Say Cognitive Science Meant Again?

Joseph D. Fridman
Undergraduate College Scholar, Cognitive Science major

Starting to explain, I’d open my palm and excitedly tick off the five concentration areas I’d found on the Johns Hopkins University website: “Neuroscience, linguistics, psychology, computer science, and philosophy.” I was 13, pimply, and intensely overjoyed at the prospect of spending three weeks in upstate New York, taking a summer course in cognitive psychology through JHU’s Center of Talented Youth, dubbed “nerd camp” by its participants.

Psychological phenomena had always fascinated me: my mind boggled at the thought that somehow the life of the mind could sprout from the same rich soil evolution had tilled to produce amoeba, antelopes, or the flora of the Amazon, but that summer gave me the chance to live my dream of engaging that fascination. Over the course of days filled with discussions about heuristics and biases, debates about zombies and consciousness, and the odd Play-Doh model of a neural network, I came to focus on a question: What makes humans special? An artist might say the Lescaux caves or Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings. A politician would probably rattle off something about “coming together to accomplish greatness.” My answer was like Vladimir Nabokov’s, though I didn’t know it at the time: we can think. All of us are in the unique position of, “being aware of being aware of being.” Thought, cognition, self-perception: these are the processes and phenomena, wondrous, complicated, and commonplace, that precede and project themselves on all others.

Whether one studies the networks of the market, the microevolutionary patterns of cricket communication, or French intellectual history, it is taken as a fundamental premise of the modern academy that our world traffics primarily in signals. Some of these signals manifest as microscopic neurotransmitters simply trying to cross the synaptic gap, others as vibrations vying for the auditory canal of a friendly mate, and others still as packets of data hurtling themselves in gigantic cables underneath the ocean. No matter their origin–the pressures of technology, the tumult of a political revolution, or independent ingenuity and innovation–the arguments, thoughts, and theories that spring up in our massively interconnected global civilization have an unprecedented ability to impact a huge number of lives. This sentiment is not unique and is usually expressed as something like: “more so than ever before, our world is run by algorithms which shape humans who themselves shape more algorithms.” Members of my generation (with roughly equal levels of privilege) seem to naturally intuit and form cognitively intimate load-bearing relationships with these programs, whether it is for choosing what entertainment to consume (Pandora, Netflix), whose life to observe or get involved in (Facebook, Twitter, Tinder), or even, if fawning tech blog posts are to be believed, what medications to take, what colleges to attend, and so on. Typically presented as a normative and hyperbolic claim about Generation Y, this think-piecey observation bypasses a much more interesting set of concerns. Namely that the rules and regulations of the natural world have been shaping human behavior, bending free will, and thought.

We are told that animals are different from humans because we can think about our future, because we can symbolize and exchange ideas in a currency of language. Cognitive science let’s us explore Tinbergen’s questions (How does it work? What’s it for? How did it develop over time in this individual?) and examine Marr’s levels (What’s the problem and why does it exist? How does the system conceptualize it? How does it realize a solution?) for the phenomena that animate our lives.

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