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Professors to Examine Proposed Cognitive Science Concentration

William James Hall, which houses the Mind Brain Behavior Interfaculty Initiative.
William James Hall, which houses the Mind Brain Behavior Interfaculty Initiative. By Helen Y. Wu
By Cecilia R. D'Arms, Crimson Staff Writer

The Mind Brain Behavior Interfaculty Initiative has formed a faculty committee to investigate the potential for offering an interdisciplinary “cognitive science” concentration at the College.

Responding to interest from undergraduates in the Harvard Society for Mind Brain and Behavior, the committee is exploring prospective new courses and class requirements for students who want to study the function of the mind and brain from an interdisciplinary perspective. The initiative hopes to offer courses by 2020.

Undergraduates who want to study cognitive science currently must choose the Mind Brain Behavior track, available for students in seven participating concentrations: psychology, neurobiology, philosophy, linguistics, computer science, human evolutionary biology, and history of science.

Psychology Professor Alfonso Caramazza, a faculty co-director of MBB, founded a cognitive science program at Johns Hopkins University before coming to Harvard. Caramazza described cognitive science as “the study of the mind as a computational system.”

Caramazza said he believes the mind and brain can be better understood by combining the approaches and expertise of researchers in various fields, and said he hopes the committee will build a concentration where students will focus on at least two tracks within the concentration, such as “language in the mind” or “cognition and computation.”

The faculty committee is currently discussing the substance and structure of the possible program, but has not yet proposed a plan to College administrators, according to Caramazza.

The current plan is for a concentration run by a committee—much like Social Studies—with no concentration-specific department or professors.

Psychology Professor Samuel J. Gershman, a member of the committee, said they were considering developing new courses as part of the prospective concentration curriculum.

“I’ve been involved in discussions about an introductory course in cognitive science,” Gershman said. He also said the committee has discussed sophomore tutorials.

Gabriel J. Grand ‘18, former board chair of HSMBB, brought up the idea of a concentration with faculty members.

“Right now it’s this umbrella where you have all these different concentrations, and then underneath it is MBB. The goal of this concentration is to just invert that structure so there is one cognitive science concentration, and within that you can specialize in whatever direction you’re interested in,” Grand said.

Without a concentration, there are fewer opportunities to interact with other students who study MBB, Grand added.

“Because MBB is very large, because it pulls from seven different concentrations, it means that there is no centralized student community surrounding the concentration,” Grand said. “I don’t even know most of the other MBB track concentrators in my year.”

Kayla U. Evans ‘19, another advocate for a cognitive science concentration, pointed out that all existing MBB tracks require a thesis, while a cognitive science concentration might not.

“I’m no longer [concentrating in] MBB,” Evans said, “partly because MBB requires a thesis.”

Both Caramazza and Gershman said there might be challenges with the College’s “depth” and “breadth” requirements, however, in building a concentration whose methodology and subject matter are so expansive.

“One thing that we've been trying to do is balance the need for coherence with the need for flexibility,” Gershman said. “The dream of cognitive science is that we could identify these common ideas or principles that cut through different interdisciplinary boundaries.”

-Staff writer Cecilia R. D’Arms can be reached at cecilia.d’

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Sciences DivisionNeurobiologyPsychologyMBB