— version 2012-08-30
COGS Q101 — Introduction to Cognitive Science — Fall "Themester" 2012
Meeting times and locations: Lindley Hall 102 5:45-6:35; W and F discussion sections as enrolled
Instructor / Office Goodbody 113 / 855-8916
Colin Allen, Professor, Dept. of History & Philosophy of Science and Program in Cognitive Science
<> (office hours, Monday 11-12 in Goodbody 113 and Fridays 2:30-3:30 in Eigenmann 802, and by appt.)
Asst. Instructor
Wren Thornton (office hours, Tu & Th 4-5 p.m. in Eigenmann 807)
Technical Assistant
Neel Dey

Cognitive Science is the study of how minds work. Cognitive scientists come together from many different research areas to engage in an interdisciplinary attack on the nature of intelligence, memory, attention, imagery, language, reasoning and perception. One way to see why studying mind is a difficult problem is to consider that in virtually every other discipline we use our minds to study something else. In cognitive science the mind is studying itself; we have to use our own thought processes to study those processes. Because this is such a difficult endeavor, we come at the problem from multiple directions, which is why cognitive science spans psychology, neuroscience, computer science, logic, philosophy, mathematics, sociology, anthropology, behavioral economics, robotics, linguistics, and animal learning (to mention just a few of the areas involved). This course will provide you with an overview of the tools and theories that bring these different areas together and provides a common framework for sharing data across disciplines. You will be introduced to the more important results obtained so far, and begin to understand how cognitive scientists discover the laws, models, and mechanisms that allow them to explain how complex minds produce complex behavior.

The Fall 2012 edition relates in several ways to the 2012 "Themester": Good behavior, bad behavior: molecules to morality. We will look at empirical research by psychologists, neuroscientists, and even experimental philosophers, who are attempting to discover the processes and mechanisms underlying the moral decisions and behavior of people. We will also look at work in comparative psychology and cognitive ethology that attempts to trace the evolutionary origins of moral behavior, and we will explore the growing field of "machine morality" which concerns the attempts to program some degree of moral behavior into computers and robots. We will discuss the philosophical implications of this research; for instance, can people be held responsible if their behavior can be explained by cognitive processes or neural mechanisms? We will also touch on the broader senses of "good & bad" that relate to rationality and adaptiveness of thought and behavior. Evolutionary psychology provides one non-moral sense of good and bad that relates behavior to biological fitness. Developmental psychology provides another non-moral sense of good and bad that relates to how humans and animals adapt during their lifetimes to the specific physical and social environments in which they find themselves. And we will consider the evidence for and against the idea that humans are the only rational animals, or even whether they are rational at all.

By the end of the course, you should have gained important new insights into what you are and how you work!

Course Objectives

This course has two main goals:

  1. Content: For you to learn about the theories, methods, and results in cognitive science and the about the intellectual and historical context which makes some aspects of the field controversial. To introduce you to some of the specific research going on in the Cognitive Science Program at IU.
  2. Skills: To help you develop general scientific literacy, reasoning, and study skills that are foundational for success in a wide range of college courses. To prepare you to take more advanced courses in cognitive science. To help you understand the real-world applications of cognitive science and to become critical consumers of media reports of cognitive science.


Because every introductory cognitive science textbook tends to be biased towards its author's home discipline, I prefer to use a set of readings drawn from many different sources. These will be made available to you through library and OnCourse links. Many of the readings come from the primary research literature in cognitive science. This is a good thing, since they will help to capture the vitality and excitement of scientific discovery. (Some of this work hasn't yet filtered into textbooks.) These readings may also be challenging, though, and they will often use terms and refer to ideas with which you are unfamiliar. Don’t be discouraged by this! Though the readings have been carefully chosen to be accessible, we don’t expect you to fully understand every aspect of the readings. That is why the readings come with instructors whose job it is to help you understand the difficult bits. You can help us help you by diligently doing the readings (see also the grading basis) and coming to class ready to ask questions. Overall, we think you’ll get more out of reading the primary literature in this way than by reading the watered-down and less exciting secondary literature, although some secondary material is included to help provide background.

Attendance policy

This is not grade school, so attendance will not be officially enforced. However, some materials collected from classroom activities will be used to track your attendance, and because there is no text book and no official lecture notes, you will need to come to class to learn the material. You cannot expect to do well without coming to class. In all cases of absence, excused or unexcused, it is your responsibility to get missed notes and information from a classmate. Examinations will not be limited only to material from the readings, but will also cover concepts discussed in the classroom at both the main lectures and discussion sections.

You may request to make up for missed exams or other assignments only for University-recognized officially excused absences:
• For predictable absences due to competitive events, required activities in other classes, etc., documentation must be provided at least two weeks prior to the absence.
• For genuine emergencies, illnesses, or deaths in the family, written documentation must be provided when you return to class.
• Accommodation for religious observances will be handled according to the official policy. (Note that the form must be submitted by the student by the end of the second week of the semester.)

Study habits

A load of 12 credit hours is officially defined as full time, but you are expected to maintain a 15 hr schedule each semester for a 4-year degree plan. A full time work week is 40 hrs, which averages to just under 3 hrs per week per credit. (If you take an overload, then it is your responsibility to do the overtime!) For a 3-credit course, 150 minutes are spent in the classroom, which means typically two to three times that much should be spent outside studying and carrying out course assignments. Individuals' study effectiveness varies, and you may need (or hopefully want!) to do more than the minimum to do well in the course. And, of course, the amount of reward you get out of your education is a function of how much effort you put in.

For this course you should estimate about 40% of your outside of classroom time will be devoted to the assigned readings, 20% to independent reading and research, and 40% to carrying out assignments or studying for tests (this last category will have the highest variation from week to week).

IU offers excellent help with academic skill development through courses for credit and free workshops provided by the Student Academic Center. Whether you are struggling with specific deadlines, or simply wanting to improve your general skills, the Center has something to offer.

For those of you new to IU (and even for some that aren't) this guide to making the transition to College from SMU will help you understand my expectations. Regardless of where you are in you College experience, you should be interested in this NY Times article on the cognitive science of learning.

Grading Basis

  1. (20%) Responses to Reading
    To get the most out of this course, it is essential that you carefully and critically study the readings associated with each lecture. Each reading is accompanied by an overview piece that is intended to help you with some of the concepts and terminology you will encounter in the main reading. These overviews are not substitutes for the reading -- they do not attempt to summarize the main readings, and in fact they are designed to be quite generic so that they would help you to read any article in the same sub-area of cognitive science. To encourage you to carefully and critically study the readings, and to give the instructor feedback as to what you thought of the supplementary material, you will be asked to provide comments on the readings for each class. You will be required to complete these via OnCourse no later than noon on the day of the class in which that reading will be discussed. These should take no longer than 15 minutes to complete after you have read the material. The questions due for each class will be assigned at the end of the previous class, starting during our 3rd week. We will use these comments to gauge your reactions to (and understanding of) the ideas we’ll discuss, and will occasionally part of the classroom time responding to some of the issues you raise in these comments, as well as working them into the weekly discussion sections. Note that a significant portion of your grade (20%) will be based on simply completing these assignments, and that late submissions will not be counted for any reason except documented medical emergencies. These will be graded on a pass/fail (1/0) basis and for full credit you need to have 20 passes from the 23 opportunities during the semester (i.e. you can skip or drop 3).
  2. (55%) Two Exams
    55% of your course grade will be determined by two examinations. The first exam will be on Thursday, October 11 and will cover material from August 21 through October 4. The second exam will be held on the officially scheduled final date of Thursday, December 13, from 7:15 p.m. to 9:15 p.m. and will cover material from the remainder of the course. The exam on which you do the best will count for 30% of your grade; the other will count for 25%. The format of these exams will be described more fully later. Make-up exams will be given only in exceptional circumstances, and in all cases may involve completely new questions, possibly in other formats. (Advice: you really want to avoid having to take a make-up exam.) To do well on these exams, you’ll have to attend the lectures — especially since our readings and lectures will rarely overlap by more than ~ 25%.
  3. (20%) Short Paper
    You will be required to write one short (3-5 page) paper for this course, on an assigned topic which is discussed near the end of this syllabus. This paper is due no later than midnight on Sunday, December 2nd, just before the last week of class. As part of this assignment you are also required to submit a paper proposal.
  4. (5%) Class participation
  5. Various activities during main lecture and discussion sections will entail you turning in a piece of paper or index card. These will be aggregated during the semester and assessed at the end of the semester according to your engagement with the classroom activities.
  6. (+5%) Themester: Extra Credit
  7. Up to 5 extra points are available by posting on cognitive-science aspects of Themester events in the OnCourse Blog. To receive full credit for this you must either directly blog on two Themester events or comment in a substantive way on at least 5 blog posts by others.


Note: Readings and topics are only definite 3 weeks before the date.

Paper topic

When one asks about the "ecological validity" of a scientific study, one is essentially asking "What does this tell us about the world outside the lab?" In this short (3-5 page) paper, you’ll discuss the ecological validity of a part of cognitive science, and compare an actual scientific report with its presentation in the news media. Choose any recent (past 5 years) example of peer-reviewed cognitive science research which received press coverage in a major outlet (e.g. The New York Times, Science News, New Scientist, or Discover Magazine). (You may pick an example covered in class, or find something else. See a list of IU cognitive scientists in the news.) Write a short (3-5 page, double-spaced) paper in which you: (a) summarize, in your own words, the main point of the research as reported in the original scientific article; (b) describe how this research was presented in one or more of the journalistic treatments (did they report it accurately? did they use language and concepts not in the original?); (c) discuss whether the journalistic presentation and the scientific presentation covered ecological validity of the research; (d) give your own assessment of the ecological validity of this research; (e) discuss what you would say to someone who disagrees with your assessment -- play ‘devil’s advocate’ to generate arguments for alternative views to your own, and then try to counter them.

Statement about Academic Misconduct

University rules concerning academic misconduct will be rigorously enforced in this class. See IU Code of Ethics, Part II for details. You will also be required to review materials and take the test at IU School of Education plagiarism tutorial. The College of Arts and Sciences also provides a guide to "Plagiarism: What it is and How to avoid it?"

Statement for Students with Disabilities

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a Federal anti-discrimination statute that provides comprehensive civil rights protection for persons with disabilities. Among other things, this legislation requires that all students with disabilities be guaranteed a learning environment that provides for reasonable accommodation of their disabilities. If you believe you have a disability requiring an accommodation, please contact IU Disability Services for Students.


Portions of this syllabus are adapted with permission from Prof. Brian Scholl's Introduction to Cognitive Science syllabus at Yale University.