Friday, July 8, 2011

Why Cognitive Science is Important

I spent an evening in the dressing room of  
Howard Thurston the last time he appeared on Broadway - 

Thurston was the acknowledged dean of magicians. For forty 

years he had traveled all over the world, time and again, 

creating illusions, mystifying audiences, and making 

people gasp with astonishment. More than 60 million 

people had paid admission to his show, and he had made 

almost $2 million in profit. 

I asked Mr. Thurston to tell me the secret of his success.   
His schooling certainly had nothing to do with it,  
for he ran away from home as a small boy, became a  
hobo, rode in boxcars, slept in haystacks, begged his  
food from door to door, and learned to read by looking  
out of boxcars at signs along the railway. 

Did he have a superior knowledge of magic? No, he 

told me hundreds of books had been written about legerdemain 

and scores of people knew as much about it as 

he did. But he had two things that the others didn't have. 

First, he had the ability to put his personality across the 

footlights. He was a master showman. He knew human 

nature. Everything he did, every gesture, every intonation 

of his voice, every lifting of an eyebrow had been 

carefully rehearsed in advance, and his actions were 

timed to split seconds. But, in addition to that, Thurston   

had a genuine interest in people.
                                                                                            -  Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People (get the full text here).

See also: the Wikipedia article for Cognitive Science
Every time I meet a new professor at college, there is a conversation that assuredly takes place. You've probably had the same experience many times over. When they ask you what your major is. "Cognitive Science, what exactly is that" or "why study that"? To be honest my answer is never the same, because cognitive science is interdisciplinary; it incorporates multiple fields of study, and they are all important in their own right. Simply put, it is the study of thought.

After graduation I want to have some meaningful, and useful skills outside of a couple of degrees, which is why I am also trying to master a language while in college. A combination of these sentences and others is usually what my response is, and are dependant on what I think will impress the inquirer the most. If I had to give a straight answer, it would have to be that Cognitive Science is the study of stumli processing in the brain. How we process information, and insights that can lead us into human behaviour, biology, and psychology. On top of that, I just really want to do lab research.

My Cognitive Science major is not offered at my school. I was able to get it through the BDIC (bachelors degree of individual concentration) program which is offered through UMASS. I had to go through a lengthy process of paperwork, and I was not necessarily guaranteed to get into the program.I take a most of my Cognitice Science classes at Hampshire College, which actually has a school of Cognitive Science. While this does add to the legitimacy of the major, my German major advisor warned me that while he thinks Cognitive Science is a great thing to study, I may be met with skepticism from some Germans during the time I will be studying in Germany. I will be sure to let ypou all know how that goes when I cross that bridge. Whether or not you think Cognitive Science is important, consider this. Every person can interpret stimuli differently, and that is really important.

1000 different people could see this painting 1000 different ways. Suspended Animation by Swarez.

Another writer, over at the site Everyday Psychology had a great post about this:
An individual who is a heavy drug user is told by their family that they need to seek drug rehab in order to quit their drug use.
The individual may perceive their family's suggestion as either:

1. Genuine concern, and be willing to undergo drug rehabilitation.2. An attempt to control their life, and refuse to undergo drug rehab.
The drug user may preceive their family's actions as an attempt to control their life, when in reality the family's actions are genuine concern. If you want to know how people think, you have to understand the reality they are perceiving. Some of my friends go as far as to say that colors are experienced differently by everyone. While I would not go as far as to say that (if certain colors mean the same thing to us, how can we see them as different?), it is possible that we each individually associate different good or bad memories with different colors.

This is why Cognitive Science is important. The master magician that can captivate an audience needs to understand people, the  study of multiple fields and tying them together is important from the progression of scientific research, and finally the understanding of why we see things the way we do, whether these things be objects and images we interact with, or simply abstract concepts. Understanding these processes gives us insight into out evolutionary history as well as our nature.


  1. Yes, the brain associates many things. Also, in the picture I see the face of a man, I don't know what that can mean.

  2. The brain is crazy cool. I wish I knew more, keep it coming

  3. its hard to define the term "understanding people" as you can never really understand someone unless you were actually them. but cognitive science definately comes the closest to doing so, for sure.

  4. very well written, pretty deep topic!
    keep it up

  5. that really great man. love the blog. we want more, keep it coming!

  6. It really is an interesting field, there is so much to learn.

  7. Very nice blog post, I totally agree with what you are saying. The human mind, the brain, intelligence, consciousness and the explainatory gap are so fascinating phenomena that I could be sitting in front of my laptop fot hours, just to read about them. And of course what comes with the examination of questions related to these phenomena are thoughts and ideologies such as transhumanism and other sci-fi-stuff that go hand in hand with philosophical, ethical and moral questions, that too are very much worth to think and research about.

    I must say that I could actually imagine people computing the same colors (as physical stimuli) differently on a cognitive level, inasmuch as in the case of colors, this would also be a very good explanation to why people have different favorite ones - wouldn't it? As you said, every person interprets stimuli differently. The term "interpretation" in this case would simply be meant a bit more abstract.

    Ps: For when are you planning your stay here in Germany (I suppose Osnabrück, no?)?

    Gruß! ^^

  8. @vOoiJe I will be in Freiburg. Thanks for the comment!!