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A new interdisciplinary enterprise calledthe Cognitive Science Initiative has launched this academic year as a colloquium series, lunchtime talk series and workshop on language processing open to all members of the University community. Participating faculty primarily belong to the psychology, philosophy, linguistics and neuroscience departments, and at least one scholar represents each one of the computer science, electrical engineering and molecular biology departments.

Presentation titles include “Why do we punish? Confronting the myth of folk retributivism” and “How representing multiple objects (and features) as an ensemble enhances higher-level visual cognition.”

The project operates with funding from the psychology department, as well as the philosophy department and the Council of the Humanities.

Philosophy professor and chair of the initiative’s organizational committee Sarah-Jane Leslie said she began working on the initiative at the end of the spring semester and had long thought about uniting experts from different fields through such a project.

“We have all the people on the ground here at Princeton, but it seems like we just didn't have that official way of bringing everyone together, so it seemed like a good time to start trying to make that happen,” Leslie said.

Leslie also praised the relevance of so many different disciplines to the field.

“The idea of just trying to approach these questions from the perspective of one single discipline seems like missing out on so many of those resources that are available to help tackle the issues,” she said.

Prospective neuroscience concentrator Dominique Fahmy ’17 said she had barely heard of the initiative but thought that it sounded like a good idea.

“I'm mostly interested so far in cognition from a philosophical and linguistic perspective, but I think it’d be really interesting to bring in all of these other disciplines and see how everyone thinks about cognition and see how we can integrate those things together,” Fahmy said.

She noted that while every department approaches cognition differently, each perspective is valid considering the complexity of the phenomenon.

Assistant Professor of Psychology Casey Lew-Williams, who joined the organizational committee after Leslie reached out to him, said the interdisciplinary nature of the events provides unique advantages to both speakers and audience members. Lew-Williams said he has benefited professionally from giving talks in cognitive science, which require him to package his material for a broader audience and respond to questions about his work from people outside of psychology.

The interdisciplinary approach toward cognitive science has produced major advances since the field emerged in the 1950s, Lew-Williams said, citing the joint examination of humans and computer science as an example of how humans have learned about their cognitive capacities.

Philosophy major Sean Oh ’16, who is pursuing certificates in computer science and neuroscience, said he first heard of the initiative from an email to the Princeton Neuroscience Institute email distribution. He compared the event he attended to a typical lecture.

“The initiative just gives you an overview of everything that's out there, and it's up to you to go out and find the connections yourself,” he said. “It's not that each lecture touches on, ‘Okay, here's the neuroscience component, and here's the philosophical component.’ ”

Oh said he would like the initiative to include more opportunities for student involvement, such as by implementing a structure that encourages active participation.

The initiative does not currently have official status at the University, but Leslie said she hopes to offer an undergraduate certificate in cognitive science, and potentially a graduate certificate, in the next few years. She cited preliminary conversations with the Office of the Dean of the College, which has expressed support and encouragement for the endeavor.

Leslie suggested that a cognitive science certificate could supplement students’ course of study in the upcoming neuroscience concentration and other disciplines, adding that the high attendance at initiative events and her conversations with attendees indicate enthusiasm for such programs.

Lew-Williams said he hopes the initiative will ultimately provide small grants and fellowships for undergraduates and doctoral students who want to conduct research across departments.

“Ideally, it would be in a situation where this student might be co-advised by people in two different departments, just to guarantee that it will generate new and exciting research,” he said.

Leslie said the initiative has met with overwhelming enthusiasm so far, and that student interest will largely drive the project’s future development.

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