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Help Me Name My Major
March 13, 2008 11:53 AM   Subscribe

Name-my-major, Hivemind. So I go to an unusual school in that we don't have clear-cut majors, and we basically pick an area of "focus". I'm actually currently (unofficially) studying my own brain, because it's strangely hampered in certain capacities (like the process of reading music, despite being very musical and understanding cognitively exactly what's going on), or performing basic math (despite endless repetition). It's also weirdly bolstered in other regards: I have an unbelievable propensity for forming the visual "distortions" one might associate with hallucinogens.

I was also recently diagnosed as having an "inattentive" ADD (as opposed to hyperactivity) but I actually think I've got a different and less generalized issue-- certain cognitive activities simply shut my brain off completely, as if I'm asleep; I'll have very little memory of things that happen during this time (Ritalin does help, but it really doesn't feel like "the right thing"). Visual stimuli, on the other hand, is unbelievably compelling.

But, long story short, this stuff FASCINATES me. That's an understatement-- I really want to understand how this all works, and how it works in other people. I'm interested in the ways in which perception and consciousness interact (why I see things my way and you see things your way, and how they relate). Neuroscience fascinates me (especially the effects of drugs and the ways the brain responds to stimuli), but so do deeper levels of psychology (things like memory distortion, feedback loops, and psychosis).There just needs to be some kind of focal point-- this isn't purely neuroscience, because the psychological dimension is very significant. But what is it?

For an idea of where I'm headed: my favorite books recently are Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Musicophilia, Timothy Leary's "The Psychedelic Experience", and Rita Carson's awesome "Exploring Consciousness". What kind of connection can you make of that? What is this specific field called? Does it even exist? I just need a reference point, somewhere I can branch from. I'm going to be doing a final project in this area next term, but without knowing what kind of research I should be looking at, it's hard to know what to do.

I've been doing this on my own for a while (I tell people I'm studying "consciousness and human perception"), and amassed some kickass links and great books, but I just hope someone out there has a sense of how to focus it a bit more. Any ideas-- on terminology, on projects, on work that would explore this?
posted by dmaterialized to Science & Nature (14 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Cognitive Science
posted by rlef98 at 11:56 AM on March 13, 2008

The field is, broadly, called Cognitive Science, and it is frickin' fascinating. The key trick, I think, is to narrow it down into a more focused field of study (e.g., Music Cognition, Cognitive Neuroscience, &c.), which is hard because it's all so interesting. Myself, I'm the secretary for a CogSci program, and not a student here, so I don't have to narrow it down at all. (:

And your college, it's not in Western Mass, is it?
posted by Squid Voltaire at 11:57 AM on March 13, 2008

You sound like me! Have you checked out neuropsychology?
posted by infinityjinx at 12:00 PM on March 13, 2008

If you're near DC, you may enjoy CogSci2008 this summer.
posted by lockestockbarrel at 12:06 PM on March 13, 2008

As far as making a major out of your interests, I think you need to make the jump from books for general publication to the actual academic work on which they're based. Start with the footnotes in those books and go from there.

Without training, though, it's doubtful that you'll be able to do anything in this field. Perhaps you could write an intellectual history of [whatever this topic is called] in psychology/neuroscience?
posted by 1 at 12:06 PM on March 13, 2008

"Neuropsychology" seems like the best label for what you describe (by being so broad that it can encompass it all, if failing to be remotely specific about your stated interests.)

Good ol' "cognitive psychology" seems to me to be the best fit for a label to describe the study of the relationship between perception and consciousness. And you'd probably also be interested in some results from psychopharmacology and "entheogenology."

Have you looked at PIHKAL and TIKHAL?
posted by Zed_Lopez at 12:09 PM on March 13, 2008

Well the connection between perception and consciousness on the one hand and physiology and consciousness on the other would be covered by Philosophy of Mind. Actually, the lines between many of the suggested fields above and phil mind are pretty blurry.
posted by oddman at 1:25 PM on March 13, 2008

Here's a reference point -- Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor discusses her first-person experience of a stroke.
posted by roger ackroyd at 1:35 PM on March 13, 2008

This stuff is insanely fascinating. Let me recommend some cool things I've ran across. You'll definitely want to check out the Mind Hacks blog (and book too). There are a whole bunch of great blogs aggregated in the ScienceBlogs Brain Channel. Scientific American has a magazine devoted solely to the Mind that I look forward to every few months. One really awesome book that I read is The Head Trip by Jeff Warren. Studying the mind leads the way into so many intriguing and strange phenomenon, like lucid dreaming, brainwave entrainment, neurofeedback, meditation, artificial intelligence... Oh, and watch Altered States and see if you don't identify with the protagonist =)
posted by stratospark at 1:56 PM on March 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Cognitive slacking?
posted by unSane at 2:05 PM on March 13, 2008

Though I don't think it's exactly what you're looking for, an examination of the ways in which Performance Studies deals with some of these issues might be useful for you in articulating your own particular approach to the field. In particular, the music angle on your project would certainly fit within a Performance Studies rubric. More importantly though, I recommend looking at Performance Studies in so far as it styles itself inter-disciplinary or post-disciplinary -- as a particular matrix for looking at a variety of ostensibly disparate phenomena, and drawing together approaches from a variety of fields. While this discipline deals with the science of perception only very tagentially, from a humanities perspective it is uniquely invested in exploring the ways in which the body knows things affectively and kinetically that cannot be easily rendered through language.

It might be a question of methodology for you -- you've articulated a field of knowledge you want to explore, but seem to feel that neuroscience does not get at the full picture. What is it about neuroscience that is lacking, and what other fields fill in those areas? Performance Studies could provide a qualitative, narrative and anthropological element to your study.

Your profile says you are in New York, and I know professor Diana Taylor at NYU is currently teaching a course titled "Theories of Spectatorship," you might contact her for a syllabus to see if this approach is useful to you or not. (I am also in that department, so if you have any questions about this angle feel free to contact me)
posted by jrb223 at 3:07 PM on March 13, 2008

We have a program called symbolic systems. It'll give you a more scientific & theoretical framework for thinking about this stuff, & still leave room for anything else you want to tack on. A typical courseload is:

- some cog sci
- computer programming
- discrete math
- first order logic
- probability/stats
- some philosophy of mind
- language - acquisition, language & thought
- linguistic syntax, meaning, analysis
- neurological anatomy/physiology

Pair that with more psych, phil, & lit classes, and you should be entirely set.
posted by devilsbrigade at 3:40 PM on March 13, 2008

Neuroscience of Consciousness? I think the Neuropsychology people are way off. This is already a pretty well-defined discipline, and seems to differ significantly from what you want to study.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 10:38 AM on March 14, 2008

The book that got me into the field was Steven Pinker's "How the Mind Works", which I would still highly recommend. Although he certainly has his critics, it's a great place to start.

As a CogSci major, I will again stress the fact that you need to focus in on a small area in order to come up with something new and interesting. Rather than focusing on a particular area or field I would try to tackle a specific problem, and pull from the different fields as needed. I can actually see studying yourself as a useful vehicle for discovering CogSci, I would narrow it down into just one of the things you listed as a focus though. At my school the traditional CogSci concentrations are Neuroscience, Psychology, Philosophy, Linguistics, and Computer Science. Starting with introspectionism and its refutation, philosophy of mind, moving into the psychology of your 'idiosyncracies', the neuroscience of their medication, how language does or does not effect perception and cognition, discussing perceptual differences across people, there is a rich research and academic literature on all this stuff.
posted by sophist at 8:05 PM on March 14, 2008

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