Cognitive and brain science: A primer

The Department of Psychology, which offers an undergraduate program in cognitive and brain science, is pictured on Oct. 19. Michelle Li / The Tufts Daily

Most liberal arts colleges have psychology, computer science and philosophy majors. Few, however, have cognitive and brain science (CBS) or similar majors, which are often more simply called cognitive science. These courses of study give students the opportunity to analyze different parts of each of the three fields with the lens of trying to understand the human mind. With a mashup of required courses offered by the computer science and psychology departments, along with electives in philosophy, child studies and education, some students go through the major wondering what exactly CBS is and where they might go with a degree in it. The Daily set off on a mission — guided by faculty from various departments — to answer these questions.

J.P. de Ruiter, a computer science and psychology professor whose current research focuses on different aspects of communication, defined cognitive science as simply: “The interdisciplinary study of the mind.” At Tufts University, the history of the major isn’t clear; a document posted online in 2007 by Alva Couch, an associate professor of computer science, advocates for the major’s creation, but there is little available record of what happened after that. However, Associate Professor of Psychology Ariel Goldberg, who joined the Tufts psychology department in 2008, estimated that the CBS major existed before he joined, so presumably it was created sometime between March 2007 and the beginning of the 2008–09 school year.

Goldberg said that his position was created in part to further develop the linguistics side of the CBS major.

“One of the principal people who had been involved with the program was Dr. Ray Jackendoff, who was in the philosophy department and has since retired,” Goldberg said. “He is a world-famous linguist. What my position was, was to add to … the linguistics side, and we don’t have a linguistics department.”

Linguistics is generally considered an important part of cognitive science; Introduction to Linguistics is required for the major at Tufts and is seen as its own subdiscipline of cognitive science. Given that cognitive science focuses on all aspects of cognition, it can be surprising that linguistics has a special status, compared to other fields that cover an important part of the mind’s functioning, such as memory, perception or knowledge, all of which have rich social and philosophical components in addition to psychological ones. Goldberg explained that this is, in part, because linguistics can sometimes offer special insights.

Linguistics has been … and continues to be very informative for the field of cognitive science in general, and I think it’s informative for our students to have it as a primary course that they take,” he said. “Language cognition is an area where the research on it was very influential historically for our understanding of how cognition works in general.”

Goldberg went on to explain that at one point, behaviorism — which looks at the mind through the lens of inputs and outputs — dominated the field of cognitive science. Language, however, complicated the behaviorist perspective on the mind, forcing researchers to consider alternative theories. 

Psychology and linguistics, then, seem to make sense in pursuit of understanding the mind. What role, though, does computer science play in this?

In the classical perspective in which I was brought up … is the idea that artificial intelligence and cognitive science … help each other by forcing psychologists to implement their theories in AI,” de Ruiter said. “The aspirational idea is that psychology and computer science learn from each other.”

Computer Science Professor Matthias Scheutz, who heads the Human-Robot Interaction Laboratory, offered examples of this from his lab. There are certain norms that people follow in conversation — like interrupting only at certain opportunities, knowing when to maintain and break off eye contact and giving proper nonverbal feedback (including eye and head movements) — and encoding those into robots can be challenging. In light of de Ruiter’s ideas, though, these challenges can also hopefully help us understand how the mind works.

For one study in the Human-Robot Interaction Lab, researchers set up participants to give their restaurant orders to a robot waiter that took what they said literally, something most found very difficult. Scheutz offered this example of how the conversation might go:

Human: “Do you have Coke?”

Robot: “Yes, we do. What would you like to drink?”

Human: “I would like a Coke.”

Robot: “Great that you would like that. What would you like to drink?”

In this conversation snippet, the human doesn’t directly ask for the Coke but rather uses language that any person would understand to mean they should bring them a Coke. However, for the robot, this is unintelligible, giving insights into the way that humans communicate and the path toward building more effective robots.

Another example of how computer science fits into the cognitive puzzle came from Cognitive Science Professor Gina Kuperberg.

“I currently have a very talented graduate student who is building a computational model of this particular neural signature, which is called the N400, using a model known as predictive coding, and that is something that really goes beyond cognitive psychology,” Kuperberg said. “It’s truly interdisciplinary, because we’re collaborating with computer scientists in the UK. But it’s giving us sort of enormous insights into why and how, and even where, these neural signatures are produced in the brain.”

While philosophy classes are not required for the CBS major, philosophy does still play a role in Tufts’ CBS curriculum through electives. The philosophical approach toward CBS comes from a much higher level, asking questions that cut to the core of what’s being studied, such as: What does it mean to think? What makes something a cognizer or a thinker?

“[People] tend to get very narrowly focused on one particular subfield or one particular question, and, so I think that it can be very useful to step back and think about what the overall picture of cognition that people have is,” Brian Epstein, an associate professor of philosophy, said. “So part of what I try to do is simply to kind of force a clarification of what exactly we’re committed to, and what exactly we mean, when we are trying to make sense of a system as a cognizer.”

While this may not seem to have a direct application for research, it can frame and direct various projects. Furthermore, this philosophical bent can help researchers look at artificial intelligence and embodied cognition, which explore the connection between the mind and the body.

Where do all of these ideas leave the roughly 125 declared undergraduate CBS majors? According to their professors, they go into numerous fields with their degrees, including research, health science, law, software engineering, consulting and startups.

“If you study law, you become a lawyer … whereas if you study CBS, you still can go in many different directions,” de Ruiter said.

Wherever these majors end up, nearly all of the professors seemed sure that the field would continue to grow, given the growing importance of interdisciplinary approaches. 

Assistant Professor of Psychology Stephanie Badde confidently said that she sees CBS changing in positive ways in the coming years. 

“I think it’s going to be stronger and stronger and stronger,” she said.