Why I Chose Cognitive Science

And a cognitive science reading list.

The Cognitive Hexagon
The Cognitive Hexagon, which enumerates the disciplines that constitute Cognitive Science. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

During my first semester at Berkeley, I was trying to decide what to double major in. I started with political science, since (1) I’m very interested in politics and (2) I’d recently built Unslant, so I was pretty interested in exploring the intersection of technology and polarization. However, after reading through the curriculum, I learned that the discipline has as much to do with real-world politics as computer science has to do with building stuff. Which is to say, a little, but not a lot. The only reason I wanted to double major was so that I could have a more humanistic major to complement CS; ultimately, I was doing it for the fun of it. So if political science was going to be overly theoretical and annoying, I decided I’d be better off not double majoring at all.

I changed my mind after discovering Melting Asphalt and reading Neurons Gone Wild, which, in my opinion, should be required reading for everyone on the planet, just because it’s so damn interesting. (Incidentally, Kevin Simler, the person behind Melting Asphalt, studied CS and philosophy at Berkeley.) Soon after, I found the Cognitive Science major, which gave me a way of getting in on the Neurons Gone Wild action at Berkeley. Separately, I’d chosen to take a class called “Philosophy 3: The Nature of Mind” my first semester. I found the class extremely interesting, and paired with Neurons Gone Wild, I had two pretty solid reasons to study Cognitive Science. There were also some other perks to the major:

  1. It’s the intersection of many different fields that have been independently converging on an understanding of the mind. Berkeley’s Cognitive Science program in particular includes philosophy, AI, psychology, anthropology, neuroscience, and linguistics. It’s hard to get bored when you’re sitting at the intersection of so many different fields.

  2. I realized that if your primary major is CS, you can claim to be majoring in CS-squared. People always want to hear more when I tell them I’m majoring in CS-squared rather than plain old garden variety CS.

This semester, I’m taking COGSCI 1, which is the intro class at Berkeley. It’s split into several modules, each of which explores a different facet of cognitive science—neuroscience, linguistics, and so on. It’s been really fun so far, since you get a taste of many different areas rather than just slogging through one. We also had some great guest lecturers, including Peter Norvig. It’s made me pretty confident in my decision to double major in Cognitive Science.

To finish up this post, I thought it’d be useful to share some essays, links, and blog posts on cognitive science and its constituent areas. I hope this link dump will be helpful as a litmus test to decide whether you’re interested in cognitive science. (I also hope to use this post as motivation if I’m ever feeling iffy about my decision to major in cognitive science, so that I can be reminded why I chose it in the first place.) I’ll be updating the links whenever I find something new:

  1. Neurons Gone Wild: One of the finest essays I’ve ever read. It ties together neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, and anthropology to illustrate why neurons are fundamental to consciousness.

  2. Neuralink and the Brain’s Magical Future: This Wait But Why post covers the history of the brain’s evolution and its biology to imagine what the future of brain-machine interfaces—and the human race—could look like. It’s long as hell—I read it over two days to avoid fatigue—but it’s got tons of hilarious comics, so you won’t get bored. This post’s content is remarkably similar to COGSCI 1 at Berkeley.