Cognitive Science Program
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What Did You Say Cognitive Science Meant Again?

October 23, 2018

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 lets 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
phenomenon that animate our lives.

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