If you had all the power to decide, what would you teach in cogsci program?

Hi folks,

Some students of cogsci contacted me and asked me a question: If I had all the power to decide what courses and themes will be taught in cogsci, what would I choose? Well, the decision is a really tricky one. The field is so broad. So, what would you, guys, say? 

And let´s narrow the question abit. On the basis of your professional wisdom and intuition  – Eric, hold it, this is a completely innocent notion of “intuition” -:  what are the (i) basics that every student of cogsci MUST know, (ii) what are the things that every student SHOULD know and (iii) what are things that are GOOD to know in order to have such competence/skills in cogsci that corresponds the international level? 

Moreover, I´d also appreciate speculations and predictions about  the future of cogsci. The teaching programs should reflect not only the needs of the current, but also the future research.




  1. Eric Thomson

    By category:
    I. Psychology (three classes)
    A. Psychology 101 of attention, memory, cognition, perception/psychophysics and other standard topics.
    B. Basics of Chomskian linguistics, and the Chomskian heirarchy of computational power.
    C. Connectionism.

    II. Computer science (one class)
    A. Know a programming language well. Preferably a popular language, not LISP. This should be integrated into all the other classes so they are fluent by the time they get out.
    B. Theory of computation, which will be taken care of in IB.

    III. Mathematics (four classes)
    A. Calculus and differential equations (both linear and nonlinear).
    B. Probability theory and statistics
    C. Linear algebra
    D. Propositional and predicate logic, and a rudimentary accurate understanding of Godel’s theorem so they don’t get snowed by Penrose’s cult.

    IV. Philosophy (one course that combines A and B)
    A. Philosophy of mind 101 (functionalism, identity theory, eliminative materialism, Hard Problem, etc).
    B. Philosophy of language 101 (reference, truth, Twin Earth).

    V. Neuroscience (two classes: one for A/B, another for C)
    A. Hodgkin-Huxely models of neurons, and their relation to connectionist models.
    B. Systems neuroscience which includes basic neurophysiology. The visual system is a good focus as there are tons of great results.
    C. Basic human neuroanatomy and neuropsychology (e.g., lesion studies and their interpretation, fMRI methods and results).

    That would be a kick-ass programme. It is biased toward mathematics and programming, but that is extremely important, a constant weak spot for graduate students, and those that have the math and programming skills have a huge advantage in grad school, both in classes and in lab. Also, in practice it is nearly impossible to make up for defecincies in mathematics that you bring with you to grad school.

    It is easy to quickly pick up biology and psychology and philosophy. You can’t quickly pick up nonlinear differential equations.

  2. Eric Thomson

    I forgot to add my prediction.

    Things will only become more biologically oriented with time, as larger-scale psychological and systems-level neuroscientific findings are understood in terms of the lower-level biophysics as in Hodgkin-Huxely equations. The excuse that biologically realistic models are unobtainable, or undesirable, is running out of steam at an accelerating rate. All of the different levels will be integrated into a story about terrestrial cognition.

    For an example of what I am talking about, see Sejnowksi’s work Thalamocortical Assemblies: How Ion Channels, Single Neurons and Large-Scale Networks Organize Sleep Oscillations.

  3. Eric Thomson

    Information theory is a branch of probability theory, and can pretty easily be picked up from the math I suggested. I view the maths I suggested as a kind of basis set for the rest of the practical math specialties someone might need. I don’t know what kind of theory of complexity you mean. If computational complexity, that is part of theory of computation that is in there. As for the theory of ‘complex systems’, there is a lot of nonlinear diff-eq. Also that is such a specialized topic , and it isn’t mainstream enough to warrant it being part of a core curriculum, so perhaps a senior specialized course offered every four years?

  4. anna-mari

    Hi Eric, and sorry for the delay… Yes, I agree that you are offering a kick-ass programme. However… what about philosophy of science? I´d probably let most of the old school philosophy of mind go, and replaced it by philosophy of cog. sciences. I´d probaly teach things such as modularity thesis, the frame problem, some philosophical aspects of classical, hybrid and connectionist architectures, perhaps something about dynamical systems, the thesis of extended cognition… And of course, the representations…

    I´d also teach something about the different models of explanation and also some philosophical issues related to the experimental designs in cognitive sciences.

    I by the way meant the computational complexity. So, it is there, as you say.

    I am sorry I was talking about “program”, and not about “programme”. A programme is “program” på svenska i.e. in swedish. Sorry.

  5. Eric Thomson

    Philosophy of cogsci is probably a good idea. That can be part of philosophy of mind more generally I think. I defer to philosophers about what they want to teach, but they only get to teach one course in my curriculum! Philosophy of mind, language, cognitive science all have very similar issues so it could be a nice integrated course. My one stipulation is that they have to read Chalmers, and be familiar with the “Hard Problem” formulation.  Not because I think he is right (I am not sure if he is right or not), but because it is to qualia as Twin Earth is to reference. Part of the common philosophy-of-mind cultural literacy that is thrown around so much it would be an oversight for them not to know about it.

    Philosophy of science seems a bit of a stretch. I’d prefer a good stats course over a philosophy of science course: that will cover useful methods.

    At any rate, philosophers get only one course, so choose topics wisely!

    Stipulation: no Heidegger allowed.

  6. anna-mari

    si, si, si, capito. But if they want to learn philosophy of mind, they can always go to the dept. of philosophy to study it. In cogsci one should teach only topics that are special to cogsci, right? However, I´ll think about this. What about evolutionary psychology, btw?

    And philosophers get two courses, ok:)?

    Stipulation: I soooo agree. No Heidegger.

  7. Eric Thomson

    But you could make that argument about any of the subjects. To learn basic neuroscience, they could go to the neuroscience department (incidnetally, I was assuming many of these courses would be farmed out to other departments anyway). They should have a broader philosophy of mind/language knowledge than just strict philosophy of cognitive science (which is typically a species of philosophy of mind anyway).

    Evolutionary psychology…if it must be taught, part of the psychology core in IA. I am not a big fan of much of that work, but it perhaps should be mentioned as a ‘current trend.’

  8. anna-mari

    Yes, this is a pretty important question: Is it really so that all the subjects of cogsci programme can be taught by other departments? Does it imply that as an academic field cogsci is only a collection of the subjects from other special sciences? Or is there something that belongs only in the core of cogsci? Of course many courses can be, and probably have been, farmed out to the other departments, but can/should they all be…? This is a huge political question in places where the cogsci “department” is a unit or a non-independent part of another department. In the worst possible case the logic you use will imply that the units can be closed, because their identity is unclear. Why would the host department pay for the independent cogsci courses, if all the courses can be taught by other departments?

    But I still think there are subjects that are core of cogsciences and should be seen as the basis for an independent programme. So, I will argue for a genuinely independent cognitive science programme.

    A question: What do you mean by saying that philosophy of cogsci as a philosophy of science is part of “philosophy of mind”… “anyway”:)? Is philosophy of neuroscience part of, say, neurophilosophy?

    I am not either a big fan of EP, but some others are. So, I think it should be taught. But I guess it cannot be taught, if you have not first taught psychology, evolutionary biology and theories of rational choices, something about the game theory and so on… And the modularity:).

  9. Eric Thomson

    I think cognitive science is a branch of psychology, so I don’t think there should be a separate cogsci department, but a cogsci program which is part of the psychology department, perhaps with one or two faculty devoted to it. I guess you could have a psychology division, with two departments (like at my alma mater, they had biology division, with departments of plant biology, ecology, etc: in practice there was tons of overlap, but a unique core for each department).

    UCSD has an actual cogsci department. They have good professors there, but overall I feel you end up with a little of everything, a lot of nothing. You don’t need a separate department for that. OTOH, you could argue that the cogsci departments hire people doing strange stuff that doesn’t fit comfortably in with any of the other disciplines, like simulations of an ant colony taking a dump on a goat carcass. However, the psychology department could hire cogsci specialists, just as they hire specialists in, say, visual psychophysics.

    I guess I look at ‘cognitive science’ almost as a cute term from the past, like ‘cybernetics.’

  10. anna-mari rusanen

    Hmm… I know many people do think cogsci is a branch of psychology, but it has never occured to me that someone could see  the term “cog sci” as “cute”. Eric Thomson, once again… I don´t know what to say… c-u-t-e…

    Anyway, I´ve always thought even if there are many important overlappings between psychology and cogsci, the scope of cogsci is still broader… I mean you could define cogsci as a science that studies the information processing properties of various cognitive systems, and I am not sure, whether psychology as a science is really interested of non-psychological cognitive systems.

    And, it is interesting you add at the end of your post that the psychology depts could hire cogsci specialists – but what is their speciality then? Stipulation: Neither the ants nor consciousness is allowed.

  11. Eric Thomson

    Good point: I have never met a ‘cognitive scientist’. Everyone I have met fits quite comfortably in one of its cognates: the UCSD dept for instance has psychologists, computer scientists, neuroscientists. They do work in their respective fields, and I frankly don’t know if there is anything that unifies them, or anyone there who would identify strongly as a ‘cognitive scientist’ (except to justify keeping the department alive).

    I guess you could say cognitive science is to psychology as astrobiology is to biology. Astrobiology studies the general properties of living systems, typically using the only example we presently have, terrestrial life. That is what many people in the cogsci dept would say to justify their existence. I never bought it, as when I looked at what they actually did, it was psychology, or neuroscience, or philosophy, etc..

    It would be interesting to see the history of that dept: I bet a lot of psychology dept personnel weren’t pleased, as it complicated things administratively and perhaps sucked resources from them.

  12. anna-mari rusanen


    Well… I think we may have a principled disagreement here. However, I admit you have a point. It is true that in many cases people who actually work at the cogsci units/depts may not identify themselves as cognitive scientists or there is absolutely nothing that unifies them. Yes, I agree. 

    But… there are two things I´d like to add. First; I participated last spring in the EuroCogSci07 – and btw it was the most horrible experience of my life for personal reasons – but I am still glad I was there. It was a typical cogsci conference; all kind of topics… from conceptual change research to the philosophical issues. But; still there was something that unified all of us under the same cogsci umbrella. Perhaps it could be summarized as a belief that there are cognitive systems, and cognitive science aims to find out what those systems are/how they work. Of course; nobody knows what the main charasteristics of (the) cognitive systems are/how they work/what is the best way to study them. But still; we all talked the same language, we shared the similar historical background… we saw the things trough the same theoretical vocabulary. The conceptual space, let´s put it this way, is the same.  

    Of course, from the philosophical perspective it is difficult to characterize a science precisely, if it does not have it´s own customized methodology or an unified theoretical backgroud. I guess this may be partially the reason for your suspicions. But on the other hand, the situation is similar in the context of many current special sciences. If you think social sciences, economy, perhaps even biosciences and so on… Do those sciences have their own customized methodology or their own unified background theory? How do we identify sciences like those? Is there something SO completely wrong with cognitive science that makes it impossible to see it as a special science in a similar sense?

    Moreover, it seems to me that the limits between special sciences are, in many cases, more or less vague in the first place, and the field is getting more and more complex/chimerical all the time. Thus I think the main question is: How do we define the sufficient and necessary conditions for X´s being a special science in the first place? After that we can discuss, whether or not cogsci is a special science.  

    However, I do see your point when you say that ok, in many cases cogscientists are doing psychology, philosophy or whatever. True. And for instance we – I and my ex – presented a philosophical paper in EuroCogSci, because the methodology and the theoretical space of that paper comes from the philosophy of science. But… who cares about philosophers anyway?

    I am sorry, if this is a slightly rambling post. I´ve had a hard day.



  13. I submit that courses on the significance of Dr. Michael S. Gazzaniga’s discovery of the left-brain interpreter function should be required in all “cognitive science” curriculums.

    Awareness that the interpreter function automatically generates conscious explanations for any unconsciously motivated behavior (or feelings) has made it possible to recognize that much human behavior is actually driven by tribal territorial animal instincts. … The interpreter provides “rational” explanations for our irrational (instinct-driven) warring and religious and political brawling.

    The courses should stress that this does not mean we are “automatons” without free will: our behavior is merely predisposed, not predestined, and we have the ability to override our hardwired species programming with softwired restraints. (Witness the wide range of behavior from ascetic to hedonistic in response to our sexual instincts.)

    With apologies for “self promotion,” I recommend my book, “Man by Nature: The Hidden Programming Controlling Human Behavior,” as an excellent textbook for such courses.

    Adam Leonard

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