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Introduction to Cognitive Science

The goal of this course is to provide an integrated overview of the some of the major approaches to understanding the mind and brain – approaches that together constitute contemporary cognitive science. The problems associated with understanding how and why our minds work the way they do are some of the deepest and most complex facing science, and no single discipline can lay claim to privileged status when it comes to making progress. Indeed, much of the recent excitement in the field has come from approaches that draw on the ideas and methods of multiple disciplines. In this course we’ll get a taste of some of that excitement.

The ideas and methods represented here include those drawn from empirical psychology, linguistics, philosophy, computer science and artificial intelligence, neuroscience, behavioral economics, ethology, and evolutionary biology. Rather than treat each approach separately, we focus on a set of relatively independent topics, each of which engages several of these approaches. The topics span learning, perception, language, decision making, memory, emotion, morality, humor and happiness.

Each time we visit a topic, we will ask: What theoretical issues are at stake? How are they being addressed? What are the key ideas? What are the basic phenomena, how were they discovered, and what counts as an explanation of them? We’ll start with topics that illustrate some of the fundamental ideas and then branch out from there. The aim is to arrive at an overview of the big ideas of cognitive science – the theoretical principles that constitute our current understanding of how our minds work.