What I learned in Cognitive Science
In my last post, I explained what Cognitive Science is. I got into this study by dumb coincidence.. If you think failing a 2nd year calculus for a computer science student is a coincidence that is.
But that was not the only reason I got into cogsci. What was even more pressing is I lost my passion. I couldn’t see why I would like to continue my study in computer science anymore. I saw that there were more mathematical inquiries than real coding. I couldn’t see the value in it.
Lost passion + failing calculus = switch major
I was already 2.5 years into my 4 years study and I’m about to start over. Heh.
I looked through all major pre-requisites and all of them asked for GPA much higher than what I currently had. Until my eyes fall on cognitive science. It had the most rudimentary requirement to sign up. So sign up, I did.
If you are about to enter college, or have kids who are already thinking to enter college, or have anything to do with entering college, be very very sure of what you are getting into. It’s ok if you can’t put your fingers on what it would be like to study the subject. But you have to know exactly what is it that you are going to spend the next few years of your life waking up to and thinking about.
The first class I attended in Cognitive Science made me go “WTFISDIS”. I was sober and I thought I was drunk. That’s how bad it was. Those rudimentary requirements were probably a set-up to attract students to join the brand new study in U of T. And I was a prey.
But then I gave myself time to digest it
I started to appreciate it more and more. I grew to like it. I liked how it provoked my mindset. I loved how it questioned the core framework of my thinking. It was a great subject afterall. In one way or another, it changed my life.
There are many things I learned during my study
I know most of the reasons why we do what we do humans. I also learned, neuroscientifically, how our brain works. I could map what occurs in our mind to happenings in our brain. I had to.
There are 2 lessons I remember most. The first is about relevance. My professor was obsessed with relevance, and for a good reason.
We use our relevance skill everyday, every minute without any trouble. In fact, we take it for granted. But there is no theory of relevance. There’s a theory of similarity & of proximity. There’s also gestalt theory. But none of them satisfies the definition of relevance.
Think about it: asking a waitress for the bill after you’re done eating is the right thing to do. You pay for what you eat, right? But asking your aunt for the bill after you’ve had a delicate dinner in her house is just wrong. Same action directed to two same sex humans in a different context lead to a different result.
What’s amazing is we’re able to do what is appropriate in many different context without much problem. There is no single robot that can do what I just described above. I hope now you appreciate how amazingly intricate our God given mind is.
I was lucky to be John’s student because he and his colleague were starting to formalize a theory of relevance realization. He did not attempt to come up with definition of relevance; rather, he came up with a theory how relevance works and how it can be brought to life. By following his academic journey, I got to see his theory and it definitely changed the way how I shape my mind and how I see things. He sharpened my Occam’s Razor. Neat eh?
The second lesson that stuck with me did not come from a formal teaching. It came from John’s usual snarky remarks. He told the class this down-heartening statement: “All that I teach in this class may turn out to be wrong.” But he went on to say, “So I’m not going to emphasize so much on the theory. I’m going to develop and test your intelligence, especially in problem formulation and critical thinking.” So he was basically saying, “Dude, if you think you’re going to graduate from cogsci with a specific knowledge to be applied to a specific field of work, think again.”
I soon realized and got to appreciate that what is truly important is in the second half of his statement: I was going to possess a rare skill that many other university graduates might not have. What John bestowed to the whole class was a gem of wisdom.
I might not have graduated with a specific knowledge. When people asked me what could I do with my study in cogsci, I didn’t know what to say either. But the gem of wisdom is at the other side of the equation: I wasn’t educated to be a specialist, I was shaped to be a generalist. Put in another way, I could theoritically enter any field of work after graduating and be successful in it. The skills given to me through my cogsci study enabled me to flourish in any field. And I am forever thankful to John for that.
If I have successfully sparked your interest in cognitive science and the human mind, worry not. I will definitely share many other things I learned in Cognitive Science in this blog. Slow and steady, young jedi. Slow and steady.