The Program

Cognitive science is concerned with how humans, animals, and computers acquire, represent, manipulate, and use information. As an interdisciplinary field it combines research and theory from three central disciplines (computer science, cognitive psychology, and philosophy), two closely related disciplines (linguistics and neuroscience), and several more distantly related disciplines (e.g., biology, math, and anthropology).

Complex issues of cognition are not easily addressed using traditional intra-disciplinary tools. Cognitive researchers in any discipline typically employ a collection of analytic and modeling tools from across traditional disciplinary boundaries. Thus, the methods and research agenda of cognitive science are broader than those of any of the fields that have traditionally contributed to cognitive science. The COGS Program at Williams is designed to offer a coherent program of study in cognitive science and provide students with the broad interdisciplinary foundation needed to approach issues of cognition.


COGS 222(F)Minds, Brains, and Intelligent Behavior: An Introduction to Cognitive Science

This course will emphasize interdisciplinary approaches to the study of intelligent systems, both natural and artificial. Cognitive science synthesizes research from cognitive psychology, computer science, linguistics, neuroscience, and contemporary philosophy. Special attention will be given to the philosophical foundations of cognitive science, representation and computation in symbolic and connectionist architectures, concept acquisition, problem solving, perception, language, semantics, reasoning, and artificial intelligence. [ more ]

COGS 493(F)Advanced Topics in Mind and Cognition

In the last decade the science of the mind has continued to draw on its 20th century history as well as expand its methodological repertoire. In this seminar we will investigate current trends in mind and cognition by considering research in cognitive neuroscience, embodied cognition, dynamic systems theory, and empirical approaches to consciousness. Throughout, we will attend both to the specific empirical details as well as the conceptual foundations of this work. We will discuss how it elaborates, expands, and sharpens early views of the domain and methodology of philosophy of mind and cognitive science. [ more ]

COGS 494(S)Senior Thesis: Cognitive Science

The senior concentrator, having completed the senior seminar and with approval from the advisory committee, may devote winter study and the spring semester to a senior thesis based on the fall research project. [ more ]

Interdepartmental Electives

JAPN 130Intro. to Linguistic Analysis

Not offered this year

This course examines the nature of human language and its structural patterns. Students will be introduced to linguistic methods for analyzing speech sounds (phonetics and phonology), word and sentence structures (morphology and syntax) and meaning (semantics) through data/problem sets of various languages, including English and Asian languages, such as Japanese and Chinese. The methods will be further used to analyze linguistic phenomena in cross-linguistic, historical and social contexts, and can be applied to languages of students' interest. [ more ]

CSCI 134(F, S)Introduction to Computer Science

This course introduces fundamental ideas in computer science and builds skills in the design, implementation, and testing of computer programs. Students implement algorithms in the Java programming language with a strong focus on constructing correct, understandable, and efficient programs. Students explore the material through specific application areas. Topics covered include object-oriented programming, control structures, arrays, recursion, and event-driven programming. This course is appropriate for all students who want to create software and have little or no prior computing experience. More details are available on the department website, http://www.cs.williams.edu. [ more ]

NSCI 201 / BIOL 212 / PSYC 212(F)Neuroscience

A study of the relationship between brain, mind, and behavior. Topics include a survey of the structure and function of the nervous system, basic neurophysiology, development, learning and memory, sensory and motor systems, consciousness and clinical disorders such as schizophrenia, autism, Parkinson's disease, and addiction. The laboratory focuses on current topics in neuroscience. [ more ]

BIOL 204 / NSCI 204(S)Animal Behavior

Making sense of what we see while watching animals closely is both an enthralling pastime and a discipline that draws on many aspects of biology. Explanations can be found on many levels: evolutionary theory tells us why certain patterns have come to exist, molecular biology can help us understand how those patterns are implemented, neuroscience gives insights as to how the world appears to the behaving animal, endocrinology provides information on how suites of behaviors are regulated. The first part of the course focuses upon how descriptive studies provide the basis for formulating questions about behavior as well as the statistical methods used to evaluate the answers to these questions. We then consider the behavior of individuals, both as it is mediated by biological mechanisms and as it appears from an evolutionary perspective. The second half of the course is primarily concerned with the behaviors of groups of animals from a wide variety of vertebrate and invertebrate species, concentrating upon the stimuli, responses, and internal mechanisms that maintain social systems and on the selection pressures that drive animals toward a particular social system. [ more ]

PHIL 207(S)Contemporary Philosophy of Mind

The philosophy of mind has been one of the liveliest and most active areas of philosophical inquiry over the last century, and it has taken a place at the center of the field. Part of the explanation for this is the rise of compelling scientific accounts of who and what we are. The question of whether the mind can be fully understood within a physicalist, materialist framework has taken on an exciting urgency. In this course we will investigate the mind/body problem, mental representation, the conceptual and nonconceptual content of mental states, and the nature of consciousness. Throughout we will attend to the relevant empirical literature. [ more ]

PHIL 216 / ENVI 216Philosophy of Animals

Not offered this year

This course will investigate the mental lives of non-human animals. Throughout we will aim to fuse a rigorous scientific perspective with more humanistic themes and moral inquiry. Topics will include animal minds and cognition, empathy and evolution, the history of domestication, animal rights, cross-cultural views on animals, arguments against and for vegetarianism and veganism, and pets and happiness. [ more ]

PSYC 221(F, S)Cognitive Psychology

This course will survey the experimental study of the structures and processes that make up normal human cognition. Topics include perception, attention, learning, memory, categorization, language, judgment, decision making, reasoning, and problem solving. [ more ]

REL 288 / PHIL 288Embodiment and Consciousness: A Cross-Cultural Exploration

Not offered this year

This course examines some of the central questions raised by the study of the consciousness: the place of intentionality, the role of emotions, the relation with the body, the nature of subjectivity, the scope of reflexivity, the nature of perceptual presence, etc. In confronting these difficult questions, we do not proceed purely theoretically but consider the contributions of various observation-based traditions, from Buddhist psychology and meditative practices to phenomenology to neurosciences. We begin by examining some of the central concepts of Buddhist psychology, its treatment of the mind as a selfless stream of consciousness, its examination of the variety of mental factors and its accounts of the relation between cognition and affects. We also introduce the practice of meditation as a way to observe the mind and raise questions concerning the place of its study in the mind-sciences. We pursue this reflection by examining the views of James, Husserl, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, particularly as they concern the methods for the study of the mind and the relation between consciousness, reflexivity and the body. In this way, we develop a rich array of analytical tools and observational practices to further our understanding of the mind. But we also question the value of these tools based on first person approaches by relating them to the third person studies of the mind. In this way, we come to appreciate the importance of considering the biology on which mental processes are based and the light that this approach throws on the nature of consciousness. We conclude by considering the relation between first and third person studies of the mind, focusing on the concept of the embodied mind as a fruitful bridge between these different traditions. [ more ]

PSYC 322(F)Concepts: Mind, Brain, and Culture

Every time we see something as a kind of thing, every time that we decide that an object is a cup rather than a glass, when we recognize a picture of a familiar face as a picture of ourselves, or even when we understand speech, we are employing categories. Most categorization decisions are automatic and unconscious, and therefore have the illusion of simplicity. The complexity of these decisions, however, becomes apparent when we attempt to build machines to do what humans perform so effortlessly. What are the systems in place that allow us this extraordinary ability to segment the world? Are they universal? How does conceptual knowledge differ across cultural groups? How do concepts affect our perception? How do the categories of experts differ from the categories of novices? Do children have the same kind of conceptual knowledge as adults? How are categories represented in the brain? In this course, we explore various empirical findings from cognitive psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and anthropology that address these questions. [ more ]

Taught by: TBA

Catalog details

PSYC 324 TGreat Debates in Cognition

Not offered this year

The field of cognition is filled with controversies about how the mind really works. For example, is there sufficient evidence for a system in vision that can become aware of things without actually "seeing" them? Is it necessary to assume that babies come into the world armed with innate linguistic knowledge? Are humans inherently rational? Can we make inference about the mind using neuroimaging? These debates, and others that we will consider, help fuel scientific discovery in cognition in interesting ways. In this class, we will consider some of these contemporary debates, weigh evidence on both sides, and discuss the implications for what we know about the mind. [ more ]

Taught by: TBA

Catalog details

PSYC 326(F)Choice and Decision Making

One aspect of "being human" is that we often make choices that we know are bad for us. In this course we survey theoretical and experimental approaches to understanding our strengths and weaknesses as decision makers. Topics include normative decision theories, biases in probability judgments, "fast and frugal" heuristics, impulsiveness and self-control, addictions and bad habits, gambling, and moral decision making. [ more ]

PSYC 327(S)Cognition and Education

This class will focus on basic research into the cognitive processes underlying learning. How does the mind encode, store, and retrieve knowledge? How do learners (and teachers) manage their own learning? How do educational practices depart from what research recommends? The readings will be scientific articles. Students will do original research. [ more ]

PHIL 331 TContemporary Epistemology

Not offered this year

Epistemology is one of the core areas of philosophical reflection. In this course, we will study the literature in contemporary philosophy on the nature of knowledge and rational belief. Epistemologists seek answers to the following kinds of questions: When is it rational to have a particular belief? What is knowledge (as opposed to mere opinion)? In order to be justified in holding a belief, must someone know (or believe) that she is justified in holding that belief? What, if anything, justifies our scientific knowledge? These questions are typically asked within a framework where the overarching goal is attaining truth and avoiding falsity. Beyond this common ground, however, epistemologists are much divided. Some maintain that these issues are solely the provinces of philosophy, using traditional a priori methods. Others maintain that these questions will only yield to methods that incorporate our broader insight into the nature of the world including, perhaps, feminist thought or science. Both stances face severe difficulties. Further, even where there is agreement as to the proper way of answering epistemological questions, there is a stunning variety of possible answers to each question. [ more ]

CSCI 361 / MATH 361(F)Theory of Computation

This course introduces a formal framework for investigating both the computability and complexity of problems. We study several models of computation including finite automata, regular languages, context-free grammars, and Turing machines. These models provide a mathematical basis for the study of computability theory--the examination of what problems can be solved and what problems cannot be solved--and the study of complexity theory--the examination of how efficiently problems can be solved. Topics include the halting problem and the P versus NP problem. [ more ]

CSCI 373(F, S)Artificial Intelligence

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has become part of everyday life, but what is it, and how does it work? This course introduces theories and computational techniques that serve as a foundation for the study of artificial intelligence. Potential topics include the following: Problem solving by search, Logic, Planning, Constraint satisfaction problems, Uncertainty and probabilistic reasoning, Bayesian networks, and Automated Learning. [ more ]

CSCI 374 T(F)Machine Learning

This tutorial examines the design, implementation, and analysis of machine learning algorithms. Machine Learning is a branch of Artificial Intelligence that aims to develop algorithms that will improve a system's performance. Improvement might involve acquiring new factual knowledge from data, learning to perform a new task, or learning to perform an old task more efficiently or effectively. This tutorial will cover examples of supervised learning algorithms (including decision tree learning, support vector machines, and neural networks), unsupervised learning algorithms (including k-means and expectation maximization), and possibly reinforcement learning algorithms (such as Q learning and temporal difference learning). It will also introduce methods for the evaluation of learning algorithms, as well as topics in computational learning theory. [ more ]

PHIL 388 TConsciousness

Not offered this year

The nature of consciousness remains a fundamental mystery of the universe. Our internal, felt experience--what chocolate tastes like to oneself, what it is like to see the color red, or, more broadly, what it is like to have a first person, waking perspective at all--resists explanation in any terms other than the conscious experience itself in spite of centuries of intense effort by philosophers and, more recently, by scientists. As a result, some prominent researchers propose that the existence of consciousness requires a revision of basic physics, while others (seemingly desperately) deny that consciousness exists at all. Those positions remain extreme, but the challenge that consciousness poses is dramatic. It is at the same time the most intimately known fact of our humanity and science's most elusive puzzle. In this tutorial we will read the contemporary literature on consciousness. We will concentrate both on making precise the philosophical problem of consciousness and on understanding the role of the relevant neuroscientific and cognitive research. Tutorial partners will have an opportunity to spend the end of the semester working on a special topic of their choosing including, for instance, consciousness and freewill. Pain and anesthesia, consciousness and artificial intelligence, or disorders of consciousness. [ more ]