Frequently Asked Questions - Huh?

Cognitive science is an interdisciplinary field devoted to exploring the nature of cognitive processes such as perception, reasoning, memory, attention, language, imagery, motor control, and problem-solving. The goal of cognitive science is to understand (1) the representations and processes in our minds that underwrite these capacities, (2) how they are acquired, and how they develop, and (3) how they are implemented in underlying hardware (biological or otherwise). Stated more simply, the goal of cognitive science is to understand how the mind works! Trying to understand our own minds is one of the most ambitious and exciting projects in all of science, and requires insights drawn from many different traditional academic disciplines. As a result, cognitive science is an inherently interdisciplinary endeavor, drawing on tools and ideas from fields including psychology, computer science, linguistics, philosophy, and neuroscience (among others).

Another description of this discipline can be found in the first few paragraphs of the bluebook description of the cognitive science major, and you can also check out the main Cognitive Science program website.

A full description of the nature of the major can be found in the bluebook description

The major was initiated in part because existing majors in the contributing disciplines did not allow for a full interdisciplinary investigation of the mind. Students, for example, might be interested in studying the nature of visual experience or language, and find relevant courses distributed across many different disciplines. The cognitive science major allows such students to develop a program of study which is focused on underlying problems rather than on the methods used to address those problems. 

There are only a few courses in Yale College which are primarily based in the cognitive science major – including Introduction to Cognitive Science, Brain & Thought, the Junior Seminar, the Senior Colloquium, and various one-time or occasional seminars. See a current list here. Or see the OCI descriptions.

The bulk of courses that contribute to the cognitive science major are then drawn from the various contributing disciplines. The hardcopy bluebook (but not the online description) has a long list of “courses in other departments relevant to cognitive science.” These include many different courses in Computer Science (e.g. Artificial Intelligence and Intelligent Robotics), Linguistics (e.g.Evolution of Language and Language Acquisition), MCDB (e.g. Neurobiology and Brain Development and Plasticity), Philosophy (e.g. Philosophy of Mind and Mathematical Logic), and Psychology (e.g. Developmental Psychology and Sex, Evolution, and Human Nature). (At the same time, however, there are of course many different courses in each of these core disciplines which do not count for the major.) Beyond these core disciplines, there is also a smaller collection of relevant courses drawn from other majors and departments, including Anthropology(e.g. Evolution and Human Behavior), Economics (e.g. Game Theory), EP&E (e.g. Philosophy of Social Science), the School of Management (e.g. Behavioral Decision Making), and even Music (e.g. Music Cognition) and Art (e.g. Visual Thinking). 

There is no way, however, to create a master list of courses that count for the major, since these decisions are always made the in the context of particular students’ interests, themes, and course plans. (For discussion, see the later question on Why can’t there just be a fixed list of courses that do or do not count?.)

Lots of things! For some students, studying cognitive science is an exercise in ‘pure’ science – with the goal of understanding the nature of human nature. These students often continue their study of the nature of mind in graduate school – either in a department of cognitive science, or in a traditional department of computer science, psychology, philosophy, linguistics, or neuroscience. Our majors have extremely good track records of being admitted into the top programs in such disciplines. 

Other students use their training in cognitive science in the service of directly applied interests. In fact, for almost every cognitive process that some scientists study in a ‘pure’ way, others are attempting to capitalize on this newfound understanding by building artificial devices to either replicate these processes, or to aid their execution in humans. For example: (1) understanding object recognition may help to design satellites that can recognize what they’re looking at; (2) understanding language processing may help to design computers that can interact efficiently with their users via verbal interfaces; or (3) understanding attention may help to design aircraft cockpits which minimize distractions while simultaneously capturing pilots’ attention during emergencies. Students with such interests may thus head into industry research jobs after majoring in cognitive science. 

Still other students may apply their training in cognitive science in a wide range of careers to other human activities which involve various cognitive processes, for example (1) using knowledge about how memory works to inform and reform practices in courtroom trials or witness lineups; (2) using knowledge about reasoning and problem solving to improve education and educational testing; or (3) using knowledge about attention and decision making to design more effective advertising and marketing. 

Finally, several majors each year also complete Yale’s pre-med requirements, intending to complement their later training in medical school with the ‘big picture’ insights about human nature that they gain while studying cognitive science.