SE367: Introduction to Cognitive Science

Department of Computer Science & Engineering, IIT Kanpur

Jul - Dec 2014

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Course Information


Cognitive Science is the study of mind. It differs from Psychology in that it focuses on the computations that enable to brain to work. This computational view is a hallmark of cognitive science. It also means that unlike neuroscience, Cognitive Science is less concerned about the brain structures - its genetics and its evolutionary history.

In order to do its work, the brain also creates some internal representations for structures in the world and inside us; the nature of these representations are some of the key aspects that one attempts to study in cognitive science. A large part of our actions, especially for things we are good at, are based on representations that are subconscious, so we can't describe what it is that we are doing. This is what makes cognitive science challenging.

In this course, we shall be looking at a broad range of psychological data and performing some experiments (on ourselves as well) to try to study the operations of the mind. We shall be looking at some of the neural mechanisms that may be underlying our performance. Also, we shall be seeking to simulate some of these capabilities on computational systems to understand the internal mechanics of these systems. We shall also consider questions of how an infant learns, and particularly, issues of modelling meaning in language. Finally, we shall consider some philosophical issues about what it means to represent something.

Though there is no textbook, a set of readings is suggested below. Also, it may help you to read one of these two exciting books that have become best sellers in recent years:

Daniel Kahneman: Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011). Almost everything we do, we do effortlessly. This is "thinking fast". As we practice, things that we needed to "think slow" on, gradually become faster. Kahneman is one of the founders of the field of behavioural economics, for which he won the Nobel prize in 2002.

Richard K. Morgan : Altered Carbon (2003). Science fiction, hard boiled thriller. What would a world be where you can "download" your brain and "re-sleeve" your body?


There are no special pre-requisites. There will be some computational homeworks, but these should be possible for anyone in IIT.

Unlike previous years, where we looked at one sub-discipline at a time (psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, linguistics, etc.), this year we will be looking across functionalities. In particular, we will be taking a developmental viewpoint - i.e. how does a baby learn to do something. So the topics we will be looking at are:

  • Developmental Cognition
  • Expertise
  • Perception
  • Action
  • Space/Time concepts
  • Language
  • Social cognition


There will be a project which may involve any of the above areas. I expect some people to conduct experiments on actual users, or you may work on computational simulations, or propose theoretical models. merely a survey of literature will not comprise a project.

You may find it interesting to look at some of the older projects from the last year projects page.

Grading Scheme

  • Exams and quizzes: 40%
  • Homework: 10-20%
  • Quizzes: 10%
  • Project: 35-45%


  1. Wilson, Robert A., & Keil, Frank C. (eds.), The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences (MITECS), MIT Press, 2001 [Primary text]

    (An excellent text, with lots of top notch essays covering the many of the topics you may wish to explore in the latter parts of the course. Great for browsing as well...)

  2. Bowerman, Melissa and Stephen C. Levinson, Language Acquisition and Conceptual Development, Cambridge University Press 2001

    (A pathbreaking collection of essays starting with infants in the first year (they learn abstract concepts like number of animacy); and how these eventually map into structures in language)

  3. Evans, Vyvyan and Melanie Green; Cognitive linguistics: an introduction, Routledge, 2006.
In addition, we may refer to some of the following works.
  • Gardenfors, Peter, Conceptual Spaces: The Geometry of Thought, MIT Press, 2000, 317 pages

    (Concepts may be characterized as regions in some multi-dimensional space. Do these have to be convex?)

  • Mandler, Jean, Foundations of Mind: Origins of conceptual thought , Oxford University Press, 2004 ,

    (A fascinating study of cognitive processes in infancy. I consider this work as one of my most influential books from the last ten years.)

  • Margolis, E., and S. Laurence, ed., Concepts: Core Readings, MIT Press, 1999

    (Starting with plato and wittgenstein, go on to prototype theory and probabilistic models. Does a concept have to be conscious?)

  • Sternberg, Robert J., Cognitive Psychology, 4th ed., Cengage Learning India, 2008
And of course, there is the wide big world of articles from relevant journals and other research publications. In particular, we will be looking at papers from CogSci 2011 for projects / topics etc.