Why did you pick cog sci?

When I can tell a ten-second answer is all that's wanted, I say, "because I took an intro cognitive science class in my first semester of college and loved it."

_yellow-orange gradient background with word cloud showing fields influencing cognitive science: education computer science artificial intelligence neuroscience philosophy anthropology linguistics psychology_

Some people realize I must've had some reason for signing up for an intro cog sci class in the first place. They tend to be satisfied with an answer like "because I read a book on consciousness before college, and wanted to know more."

The real answer, the one that's actually about why, is this:

No one knows yet how or why I'm a self-aware person. And I'd really, really like to find out.

Mysteries and mysteries

A couple years before I ventured across the country to begin my Vassar education, I started reading books about mysteries. Not fiction mystery novels -- actual mysteries, in which no one knows whodunnit yet, though a whole lot of people have theories. Things that are hard to think about, or crazy difficult to conceptualize. The nature of space-time. Infinity. Perception. (My favorite my favorite exhibit at the Exploratorium in San Francisco was always the optical illusions.)

_optical illusion of several rings of color that appear to move when you look at them_

First, it was books like Richard Wolfson's Relativity Demystified, Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe, Michio Kaku's Parallel Worlds, Mario Livio's The Golden Ratio. All the grand mysteries of the universe, its structure, and the math and physics underlying it. I didn't completely grasp the details of the theories, but it was sure fun to try!

Then I decided to read about people. I honestly don't remember why I picked up Susan Blackmore's Consciousness: An Introduction -- was I just browsing the generic non-fiction science books section? I remember the library. I remember kneeling on the carpet, pulling the book off one of the lower shelves.

This book opened my eyes.

At first, I was a little disappointed. Why couldn't Susan tell me how people worked? How I worked? I wanted answers! How am I a person? Why am I a person? Why can I think about myself thinking? Perhaps I'd assumed, up until that point, that scientists had all the hard problems figured out and now were just filling in the details.

My dismay was swiftly and thoroughly overridden by the realization that here was one of the Big Questions in the universe. Still so much left to discover. The twinkling thought: could I help discover it? And utter fascination. I distinctly remember standing on the local community college campus before a class, staring wonderingly at the landscaping, thinking, what is it like to be a tree?

_xray-like image of the human head from profile view_

So I read more. I read what I could find in my local public library system. (I wonder what I would have read and learned had I instead had a proper university library at my fingertips.) I also bought a copy of Douglas Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach, which intrigued and confused me. I was severely disappointed by Andrea Rock's The Mind at Night, because I'd naively assumed that I could read one book and then understand why people sleep and how dreaming works.

I read William Calvin's How Brains Think, which didn't actually tell me how brains think but did introduce me to some relevant terminology. I learned how complicated memory is and how to pronounce aplesia from Eric Kandel's memoir In Search Of Memory. Judith Rich Harris's No Two Alike was part of my introduction to the nature-nurture debates, a lot of twin studies, and just how important the environment and an organism's interactions with it are in determining what the organism is like.

I read Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, Stanislas Dehaene's The Number Sense, and some others, too. As before, I'm quite sure that I did not fully understand any of the theories presented, not having a background in cognitive science, psychology, philosophy, or neuroscience at that point.

Basically, I discovered the mind sciences at an opportune moment, in time to sign up for an introductory cognitive science course my freshman year.

And now?

I still don't know why or how I'm a self-aware person. No one does. I do, however, have a much better idea of the theories other folks have, the problems being tackled, and some of the methodologies being used in the quest. Maybe, now, I'll be able to help solve the mystery myself.


Cambridge in spring: white cherry blossoms, gray cloudy skies

A brief life update

I may have mentioned that I was applying for admission to various graduate programs this year.

Well, I was admitted. So I visited universities, I talked to professors and students, I read papers published by the labs. I had several fantastic options.

My decision:

I'll be attending MIT next year as a student in the Media Lab, working in Cynthia Breazeal's Personal Robotics Group.


red button next to a pair of pockets

I would like to direct your attention to a page I've just added:

The Patchwork Coat

About two years ago, I decided it would be awesome to have a coat covered in buttons, colors, and pockets. At long last, I've deemed it done enough to wear. It's not completely done, mind you; it only has twelve pockets so far! But it's done enough to share the progress.

Head over to the project page to read more about the creation process, and see more photos!


pink clouds spread across a pastel sky, smoke rising below from masaya volcano, lit from the last sunlight of the day

Three thoughts for today.


"The Rationalist Press Association, in its Prospectus, defines Rationalism 'as the mental attitude which unreservedly accepts the supremacy of reason and aims at establishing a system of philosophy and ethics verifiable by experience and independent of all arbitrary assumptions or authority.'"

--- Charles Watts, essay "The Meaning of Rationalism", 1905, (in An Anthology of Atheism & Rationalism, Gordon Stein, pg 22)


"We have outgrown the old mode of propaganda, and we recognize more than ever the influences of our environment. We are, in this particular, like trees: we expand and grow from within, but often the iron band of circumstances that surrounds us prevents our free growth and expansion. We, therefore, adopt the rational plan of imparting a knowledge of the facts of existence as revealed by science and philosophy, believing that, in proportion as truth is recognised and accepted, error will disappear. Rationalism is bound by no ancient creeds, hampered by no alleged sacred books, nor marred by dread of punishment in some other world for entertaining unpopular opinions in this. Our desire, as Rationalists, is to urge a sound motive for conduct, which is that "the welfare of the people is the supreme law," to obtain freedom for all in matters of opinion, to promote ethical culture irrespective of theological teachings, and to foster friendly co-operation in spite of divergency of thought."

--- Charles Watts, essay "The Meaning of Rationalism", 1905, (in An Anthology of Atheism & Rationalism, Gordon Stein, pg 25)


"...Truth, is a thing to be shouted from the housetops, not to be whispered over the walnuts and wine after the ladies have left; for only by plain and honest speech on this matter can liberty of thought be won. Each who speaks out makes easier speech for others, and none, however insignificant, has right of silence here. Nor is it unfair, I think that a minority should be challenged on its dissidency, and should be expected to state clearly and definitely the grounds of its disagreement with the majority."

--- Annie Besant, essay "Why I Do Not Believe In God" , 1887 (in An Anthology of Atheism & Rationalism, Gordon Stein, pg 30)