Sample questions for the qualifying exam

  1. To what extent is hemispheric specialization (specifically those parts of the brain dealing with language use) a result of innate mechanisms as opposed to environmental influence?
  2. In early AI research, the game of chess was considered a promising domain, since it involves pattern recognition, problem solving, planning, and is a uniquely human activity. From a 21st-century perspective, either support or refute the value of chess as a fruitful cognitive research domain. How does this critique bear on choosing future research domains?
  3. Identify a major controversy in contemporary cognitive science with at least two well-articulated positions. Explain which position has the most merit and why.
  4. Write a research proposal to investigate an aspect of cognition which interests you. The proposal must be interdisciplinary, including methods and approaches from at least three subdisciplines of cognitive science.
  5. What role do ethics play in the field of Cognitive Science?
  6. Of the core disciplines of Cognitive Science choose one and explain what the field would be like without its contributions and influences.
  7. What is computation, in the context of cognitive science? What is the Computational Theory of Mind? Why is it important?
  8. Issues in cognitive science often capture the imagination. The New York Times recently ran an article in their magazine section dealing with social interaction in robots. Provide an informed commentary on the article, including either a defense or refutation the views of at least one of the scientists discussed.
  9. What is the proper role of the computer, as a theoretical entity, in cognitive science? Be sure to at least address both its philosophical and psychological relevance.
  10. In what way does neuroscience interact with the kinds of explanations provided by cognitive science? Does neuroscience replace "cognitive science" explanations, provide a necessary component of them, or stand in relative isolation from them?
  11. In a recent paper Pickering & Garrod (2007) (attached, and available on the author's website at argue for the ubiquity of "emulators" in cognition, using language comprehension as their example. Comment on this paper, and its implications for at least one other area of cognitive science.
  12. Give an overview of the structure of cognitive science as a discipline (what are its parts and how do they work together, what are the relative strong and weak areas, etc.), and propose a view as to the future of the enterprise (what areas are likely to show progress, what is the discipline?s overall direction, etc.) over the next 10 years.
  13. Benjamin Lee Whorf quotes Edward Sapir as saying "[w]e see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation" (Whorf 1956, p. 134). Striking cross-linguistic differences are often taken as evidence for this hypothesis, including but not limited to the language of spatial reference (relative vs. absolute), color naming, and motion verbs. Using two such examples evaluate the likelihood that linguistic relativity is correct and, further, what the implications of that evaluation are for the practice of cognitive science in general.
  14. Choose any 3 phenomena in cognitive science for which well-articulated models exist and compare and contrast those models. What implications does this analysis have for attempts to develop models for other aspects of cognitive science?
  15. Some might say that the only thing that separates human cognition from that of other animals is the ubiquitous deployment of rules in the former, and the reliance upon associations in the latter. Comment critically.
  16. "There is no prior reason to suppose that there are overarching principles that unify various cognitive systems and processes beyond the level at which they fall together with many others. It is a traditional view that there are indeed mechanisms of general intelligence and the like that operate across all cognitive systems, and this has also been a guiding intuition in more recent thinking. In domains in which anything much is understood, the assumption appears to be without foundation, and as a guide to research it has hardly been productive. ?That should occasion no surprise. There is little reason to suppose that alone among the complex biological structures in the world, the human mind/brain is a relatively unstructured and homogeneous system, and the evidence suggests otherwise." (Chomsky 1997, p16). Evaluate this statement.
  17. Suppose that you have been hired to teach Cognitive Science at a university, and been assigned the first-year course Cognitive Science 101. Write your first lecture, explaining what cognitive science is.
  18. Defend cognitive science to the state legislature.
  19. Cognitive science is composed of several subdisciplines. Explain what makes cognitive science separate from those disciplines.
  20. Describe the various views on the nature of consciousness and how consciousness relates to the brain. In particular, what is known about any brain systems that are necessary conditions for consciousness and how they might work. Has the current state of brain science advanced to the point where it can constrain, inform, or rule out any of the classical views of consciousness? Explain how, or why not.
  21. What, in your view, is the most plausible position in the Philosophy of Mind? Why do you believe that this is the case? Discuss the consequences of this position for Cognitive Scientists.
  22. Some theorists have argued that a recursively decomposable combinatorial representational system will be required to adequately account for cognitive functioning. Outline the major arguments for and against such claims, and the scope of the conclusions.
  23. What is the binding problem? Explain in detail the difficulties this problem can present when developing cognitive architectures. What appears to you to be the most plausible strategy for trying to solve this problem?
  24. In recent years, there have been significant innovations in modeling neural function. However, theorists such as Pylyshyn have maintained that this work lacks relevance to cognition, being at the 'merely' implementational level. In the light of this, assess the importance to the study of cognition of some recent examples of neural modeling.
  25. What is the difference between a cognitive theory and a cognitive model? Describe in detail, using real examples, the steps that need to be taken in order ensure that a particular model actually implements a particular theory. Also describe the steps that need to be taken to ensure that a model is strongly equivalent to biological cognitive function.
  26. Distinguish formal, mathematical, process and computational models, using concrete examples. Argue for a proper understanding of their relationship.
  27. To what extent, if at all, does connectionist modeling present a challenge to the Physical Symbol System Hypothesis? In the light of your answer, assess the status of this hypothesis.
  28. Inspired by Vico's (1744) observation that "VERUM ET FACTUM CONVERTUNTUR", Dretske (1994) entitled a paper "If You Can't Make One, You Don't Know How It Works". Are these views correct? Might they need amending in the light of recent developments?
  29. Some philosophical traditions have attempted to develop conceptual systems that 'carve nature at its joints'. Assess the plausibility of this project in the light of recent empirical evidence.
  30. The philosopher Kant remarked that "the mind 's power of producing representations from itself, the spontaneity of knowledge, should be called the understanding." Critique of Pure Reason, A51/B75 (Trans. N. Kemp Smith). To what extent has contemporary research in cognitive science either supported or refuted this claim?
  31. Address the issue of assumptions that must be made when one turns one's mind to generating an implementation of a cognitive theory.
  32. In your study of Cognitive Science, you have been exposed to different philosophies, methods, and interpretations of what cognition is and how it is studied. What specifically have you learned that can be generalized across disciplines? How has this multidisciplinary approach to the study of cognition lent to your own development as a Cognitive Scientist?
  33. 33.Suppose you are a specialist in Artificial Intelligence creating a robot named Clarise. Describe the cognitive attributes you would like to program in Clarise. Considering what we know about artificial intelligence today, which cognitive attributes are programmable with modern-day technology and which are not?
  34. Does biology influence cognition? Does cognition influence biology? Give specific examples to support your answer in each case.
  35. Many factors determine human behavior at a given moment. What role does cognition play in determining how humans behave?
  36. What do you perceive as the current limitations of the study of Cognitive Science?
  37. Any theory of a subject matter or discipline can be approached from a prescriptive or a descriptive point of view. By the former (also called 'normative') is meant a framework that states what the subject matter should be; by the latter is meant a framework that allows one to state what the subject matter is. So the two perspectives refer to the classical distinction between 'ought' and 'is'. Accordingly, a theory of cognitive science can be a prescriptive or a descriptive theory. Or it might be a hybrid theory — one that enjoys the best of both worlds. Write a short essay stating and justifying which of these three alternatives you advocate or espouse.
  38. The 'hardcore' reductionist might claim that if neuroscience can 'map' behavioral phenomena onto the neuronal level there will be no real justification for a cognitive science which takes representation of symbolic structures? as a fundamental focus of inquiry. The reductionist will claim that there is behavior and there is brain: the mapping of one to the other is all that matters — and so cognitive neuroscience is all that is needed. Write an essay on this reductionist proposition and provide evidence in support of your argument.
  39. In his book Acts of Meaning, Jerome Bruner, one of the key participants in the development of cognitivism in the 1950s, argued vigorously against the way cognitive science has evolved. Write a commentary on his argument, and include in it your opinions (with supporting evidence) as to whether Bruner is or is not justified.
  40. The year 1956 is often regarded as the annus mirabilis of the so-called cognitive revolution. Why is it so regarded?
  41. In the light of the theories of Thomas Kuhn and Larry Laudan, so you think that there has been a cognitive revolution at all? Justify your answer with supporting evidence.
  42. The computer has had an ubiquitous presence in the development of cognitive science. What are the historical reasons for this? What are the theoretical justifications for this? Selecting a field within cognitive science of your choice, has the actual development and current status of the field empirically bear out the significance of this?
  43. The major thrust of cognitive science as it is currently taught and practiced ignores the roles of culture, society, history and geography in shaping and influencing cognition. In what ways is it possible that one or more of these four factors may influence cognition? What do you think would be the effect of such influences in the re-shaping of cognitive science?
  44. Psychoanalysis has been more or less dismissed in "academic psychology" as not amenable to the experimental approach. And yet, its influence in such realms as literature, life history (biography) and our interpretation of everyday behavior has been, in a sense, far profounder than the findings of 'academic psychology'. Write an essay on the theme of psychoanalysis as a knowledge system, addressing, in particular, the above issues. That is, address the epistemological status of psychoanalytical theory, with discussion of whether the conventional wisdom of 'academic psychology' is valid or not.
  45. Freud's 'structural model' is a model of the mind. Write an essay describing this model and discuss whether and how it may connect to 'cognitive' models of the mind as well as our current understanding of brain architecture. In other words, your essay will address the fundamental question of the relationship of the Freudian structural model to the kind of models that are advanced within 'mainstream' cognitive science and in neuroscience.
  46. Kuhn's Theory of Paradigms and Laudan's Theory of Research Traditions offer two influential models of scientific practice. Compare these models in general terms, emphasizing their similarities and differences.
  47. Explain whether you think Kuhn's or Laudan's model gives a better account of cognitive science as a scientific enterprise; or if you think neither does, explain why you believe this to be the case.
  48. It can be argued that cognitive science as it is currently taught and practiced ignores the roles of culture, society, history and geography in shaping and influencing cognition. Using appropriate references, sketch this critique for at least two of these factors: in what ways is it possible that they may influence cognition? Supporting your argument with specific examples, expose one area of cognitive science as vulnerable to this critique, and defend one area as immune to it.
  49. Gilbert, Regier, Kay and Ivry (2006) (see attached paper) examined whether there might be visual field differences in color discriminability. For example, participants in Experiment 1 were shown a ring of 12 colored squares surrounding a central fixation marker, and asked to indicate whether the one square which differed in color from the rest (the target) was in the right or left half of the circle. The squares were drawn from a 4 step green-blue continuum, such that the target could be from the same or different linguistic category as the rest of the ring. Gilbert, et al. found that reaction times to colors presented in the right visual field were faster when the target and distractor had different names; this manipulation did not affect reaction times to colors presented in the left visual field. Please comment on this, taking into account both the functional organization of the brain and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.
  50. Fodor's "Puzzle of Concept Acquisition" was a target of debate at the Cognitive Science Society meeting in 2005; the pre-debate positions of the participants are attached. Examine the issue and, citing appropriate sources, argue for your chosen position.
  51. Suppose that you have just taken at a position at New University, which is just being formed and is in the process of establishing a set of departments. Write a detailed and empirically supported position paper advocating for a cognitive science department, explaining (1) what cognitive science is, (2) how cognitive science differs from its component disciplines, (3) where the field is heading, and (4) why research in the area has value.