A Matter of Mind

Illustration of brain with areas lit up

New major spans disciplines to study how we think and learn

One of UC Davis’ newest majors is also among its fastest growing — attracting about 400 undergraduate students in its first three years. That comes as no surprise to the faculty and students in cognitive science.

"Who wouldn’t be interested in acquiring a better scientific perspective on what is most central and intimate to all of us: our own minds?” asks Bernard Molyneux, an associate professor of philosophy who helped launch the cognitive science major in fall 2015.

“When I heard about the major, I was telling everybody, ‘I found it!’” said senior Diana Olivan, who tried two other majors — computer engineering and neurobiology, physiology and behavior — before finding her ideal program in cognitive science as a sophomore.

Thinking about thought

For Eli Ziskin, who became part of the major’s first graduating class in June, cognitive science offered an exciting way to bridge his wide-ranging interests.

“It looks at how human thought works — and that could apply to anything,” Ziskin said. “It’s thinking about the stuff that we’re thinking about.”

Cognitive science brings together perspectives from a number of fields that study the mind and its processes — among them philosophy, psychology, linguistics, neuroscience, and artificial intelligence engineering. The major is administered by the Department of Philosophy, with students taking courses in departments across the campus.

Consider for instance, Olivan’s fall lineup of philosophy, psychology, and linguistics courses: “Minds, Brains and Computers,” “Intermediate Symbolic Logic,” “Developmental Psychology,” “Research in Cognition and Perception,” and “Semantics.”

A first-generation college student who is also pursuing a second major in linguistics and a possible minor in psychology, Olivan said she loves the crossover of disciplines. “In cognitive science, you get a taste of everything and you get to choose what you delve into.”

Three track options

All UC undergraduate campuses, and a number of other universities, offer cognitive science majors, but the UC Davis program is unique. It offers three tracks: a Bachelor of Arts in cognitive science, a Bachelor of Science with a neuroscience emphasis, or a Bachelor of Science with a computer science emphasis. For graduates, career options run a wide gamut, including data science, mind science, law, medicine, marketing, and tech design.

Steve Luck, a psychology professor and director of the Center for Mind and Brain who helped launch the major, called it “a great example of a true liberal arts education with relevance for the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century.”

Luck anticipates the major will eventually reach 500 students, which would put it into the top 20 majors on campus.

Even though the major is young, UC Davis is already an international leader for cognitive science research, much of it happening at the Center for Mind and Brain. Established in 2002, the center has 21 faculty from a variety of disciplines studying memory, language, attention, and other mind processes with the help of postdoctoral scientists, graduate students, and hundreds of undergraduates.

“We can hold our own among the other cognitive science places,” said Zoe Drayson, who joined the philosophy faculty in 2015 and teaches philosophy of mind, evolution of mind, and introductory cognitive science courses.

Student-driven

The program, like so many other developments in the can-do history of UC Davis, originated with students. A handful of undergraduates designed individual majors in cognitive science, asking Molyneux, Luck, and other faculty to serve as their advisors. Faculty were inspired to launch the major based on student interest.

Josh Peterson ’12 was one of those enterprising students who helped pave the way. A community college transfer, he had identified cognitive science as a perfect blend of his interests in math, science, philosophy, programming and humanities. “On my first visit, I walked straight to the psychology department and asked about the individual major.”

Peterson went on to earn a doctorate in cognition, brain and behavior at UC Berkeley and recently became a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University, working on projects that involve using machine learning to study human minds.

UC Davis’ establishment of a cognitive science major is “a dream come true,” Peterson said.

Drayson, an assistant professor in philosophy, agreed. “It’s very exciting,” she said. “The students genuinely have a role in leading it.”

— Kathleen Holder, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science