Sample questions for the qualifying exam
- 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?
- 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?
- Identify a major controversy in contemporary cognitive science
with at least two well-articulated positions. Explain which position
has the most merit and why.
- 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
- What role do ethics play in the field of Cognitive Science?
- Of the core disciplines of Cognitive Science choose one and
explain what the field would be like without its contributions and
- What is computation, in the context of cognitive science? What is
the Computational Theory of Mind? Why is it important?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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?
- 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
- "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.
- 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
- Defend cognitive science to the state legislature.
- Cognitive science is composed of several subdisciplines. Explain
what makes cognitive science separate from those disciplines.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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
- 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
- Distinguish formal, mathematical, process and computational
models, using concrete examples. Argue for a proper understanding of
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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?
- Address the issue of assumptions that must be made when one turns
one's mind to generating an implementation of a cognitive theory.
- 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.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?
- Does biology influence cognition? Does cognition influence
biology? Give specific examples to support your answer in each
- Many factors determine human behavior at a given moment. What role
does cognition play in determining how humans behave?
- What do you perceive as the current limitations of the study of
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- The year 1956 is often regarded as the annus mirabilis of the
so-called cognitive revolution. Why is it so regarded?
- 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.
- 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
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.