Psychology professor Brian Scholl believes he has solved one of academia’s eternal questions.
To him, the strangest and most fascinating object of study is clear — humans love to study themselves, and, more specifically, their minds.
“Everyone is fascinated with themselves — how they think, how they feel, how they reason, how they speak,” Scholl said. “It really grabs people. It’s a brand new world and a whole different type of investigation.”
Since its inception in the fall of 1999, the cognitive science major has established itself as one of the fastest growing majors at Yale. The number of students in the major has skyrocketed from six in the class of 2001 to 18 in the class of 2002, said Frank Keil, director of undergraduate studies for Cognitive Science.
But the department has no ambitions of unseating history as the largest major at Yale, Keil said. Instead, it will regulate its size by maintaining its status as a selective major.
“We want people who have a coherent reason for wanting to do it,” linguistics professor Stephen Anderson said. “It’s not for everybody, and they need to have a reasonably good idea of what they’re getting into.”
The chairmen have no intentions of expanding the major for both practical and philosophical reasons.
Seniors in the major are required to take a colloquium in which they write their senior essays and conduct their own research projects. Anderson said he did not want to have more than two sections of this class since that would detract from the personal attention each student receives.
Under the current system, students must apply to the major at the end of the fall term of their sophomore year. Admission criteria include a statement of purpose, academic performance and the number of cognitive science-related classes the student has taken.
Although most of the students who applied last year were admitted to the major, Anderson said the high admission rate can be attributed to self-selection.
“Right now, not many people know about the major,” he said. “Most of the students who applied were those that went through the trouble of finding out what it was about.”
In the future, Anderson said he expects admission to the major to become more difficult.
What Anderson and Keil are not expecting is the creation of a Cognitive Science Department.
The major is “inherently interdisciplinary,” Anderson said, because it was created to be a cross-section of five distinct disciplines — psychology, neuroscience, computer science, philosophy and linguistics.
This interdepartmental connection is one of the main reasons for the major’s newfound popularity, Scholl said.
“People aren’t interested in the tools, but the problems,” Scholl said. “We want to study how the mind works, regardless of the tools that turn out to be relevant. Progress will only be made by looking at all of these different methods.”
While this nontraditional approach to learning may appeal to some students, others said they preferred the traditional approach.
“It’s a little too dispersed, so it makes it difficult to pick up a focus,” said Matt Shih ’03, a former cognitive science major. “I think it’s very innovative and cutting-edge, but it’s also in its infancy. For me, psychology worked better because it has more of a foundation.”
Students may be divided in their opinion of the learning methods, but Keil said the diversity of disciplines within the major leads to a greater variety of marketable skills, which, in turn, translate into tremendous job opportunities.
“I don’t have any definite plans yet, but I think I have a lot of options,” Dawn Chan ’02 said. “I can always go to grad school, but there are also lots of finance and office jobs open because you learn a lot about interpersonal psychology and develop a really logical way of organizing information.”