Lehigh University
Lehigh University


Seniors embark on "the interdisciplinary study of mind"

Barri Bruno ’14, a double major in computer science and cognitive science, is studying how property owners decide whether to lease their land to natural gas companies.

Six cognitive science majors presented their senior thesis proposals recently to a group of professors and students.

The cognitive science program in the College of Arts and Sciences bills itself as “the interdisciplinary study of mind.” It combines six subject areas: linguistics, philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, anthropology and computer science.

Students majoring in the program cover combinations of these disciplines and others in their senior projects. The faculty members advising this year’s student researchers represent the departments of psychology, philosophy, sociology and anthropology, and computer science and engineering.

“The senior thesis provides an opportunity to build on what has been learned in the diverse coursework while focusing on a cross-disciplinary topic of special interest to the student,” says Padraig O’Seaghdha, cognitive science program director and associate professor of psychology.

Andrew DeLena ’14 plans to conduct research in a philosophy-related topic.

“I’m glad of the opportunity to learn more about the particular aspects of cognitive science I find most interesting,” he said. “Being in an interdisciplinary major, I don’t usually get the chance to delve deeply into any one area, but here I get to do that. Plus I get to choose that area myself.”

Quantifying tweets

Some students have chosen empirical projects and will collect and analyze quantifiable data to answer the research question they have proposed.

Katie Howley is trying to learn whether positive, neutral and negative Twitter tweets about smartphones and wearable technology affect how early or late people begin to use these technologies.

“I’m going to study smartphones and wearable technology such as Google Glass or smartwatches,” said Howley, “because these technologies are at different points of consumer adoption. Smartphones have been out for a while, whereas wearable technology is a fairly new product.”

Howley, who is majoring in science writing in addition to cognitive science, has already written her own Java program. She will collect and classify Twitter data about the two technologies using Weka (Waikato Environment for Knowledge Analysis), a machine learning software, for data analysis and prediction.

Barri Bruno, a double major in computer science and cognitive science, is collecting data through interviews and surveys from about 50 Pennsylvania property owners who have been asked to lease their land to natural gas companies interested in extracting natural gas through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Bruno hopes to gain insight into the mental process involved in deciding to accept or decline these offers.

“These homeowners and landowners have a lot of things to consider,” said Bruno. “There are many pros and cons with fracking. It would be very important to model their decision for policymakers, lobbyists and researchers to understand what thoughts go through a person’s head when they are trying to determine whether or not to lease their land.”

Examining experimental philosophy

Other proposals are more theoretical. DeLena’s thesis is an examination and critique of the nascent field of experimental philosophy, which uses empirical data to answer philosophical questions.

“Few unbiased critiques of this field exist,” DeLena said during his presentation. “People either support the field or attack it in some way. My goal is to provide an unbiased critique, to reach a middle road and to detail where I believe the field should go in the future if it really wants to add the value to debates in modern philosophy that it is capable of.”

Other senior thesis topics include the effect of video games on attention (Dane Thomas), memory in autistic children (Laura Stephan) and exploration of a computational model of interference in word retrieval (Nick Roessler).

The cognitive science program requires all majors to do a thesis. In recent years, the program has graduated one or two students per year. The higher number of undergraduates currently enrolled in the program—about 12 altogether—indicates growing student interest.

“Support from the Interdisciplinary Programs Office, new faculty, improved publicity, visibility created by heightened activity in the related cognitive neuroscience development effort last year, and word of mouth have all contributed to the resurgence of the program,” said O’Seaghdha.

Story by Carla Prieto

Posted on Thursday, January 09, 2014

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