Cognitive and Brain Science

Classes from disciplines such as biology, computer science, mathematics, philosophy, and psychology comprise the classes available within this cross-disciplinary path.

Cognitive and Brain Science 2021-2022 Courses

General Biology Series: Genes, Cells, and Evolution

Open, Small Lecture—Fall

Biology, the study of life on Earth, encompasses structures and forms ranging from the very minute to the very large. In order to grasp the complexities of life, we begin this study with the cellular and molecular forms and mechanisms that serve as the foundation for all living organisms. The initial part of the semester will introduce the fundamental molecules critical to the biochemistry of life processes. From there, we branch out to investigate the major ideas, structures, and concepts central to the biology of cells, genetics, and the chromosomal basis of inheritance. Finally, we conclude the semester by examining how those principles relate to the mechanisms of evolution. Throughout the semester, we will discuss the individuals responsible for major discoveries, as well as the experimental techniques and process by which such advances in biological understanding are made. Classes will be supplemented with weekly laboratory work.

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Drugs and the Brain

Open, Lecture—Spring

The nervous system is the ultimate target of many drugs: those taken to alleviate pain, to increase pleasure, or to transform perceptions. In this lecture course, we will focus on the neuronal targets and mechanisms of psychoactive drugs, including the neurotransmitter systems that they modulate. We will consider stimulants, depressants, narcotics, analgesics, hallucinogens, and psychotherapeutics. Drug use cannot be fully explained, however, by simply identifying the neuronal proteins with which drugs interact. In order to gain a more comprehensive understanding of drug use and abuse, we will explore the social, political, economic, and genetic factors that influence drug consumption—both legal and illegal—and drug epidemics, including the current opioid epidemic in the United States. We will learn about drug sources, forms, and methods of use while also exploring what is known about the biological basis of tolerance, cravings, withdrawal, and the disease of addiction. Finally, we will explore the neurobiological mechanisms of the current available treatments for drug overdose and addiction. Lectures will be complemented by small-group conference research projects.

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Genetics

Open, Seminar—Fall

At the biological core of all life on Earth is the gene. The unique combination of genes in each individual ultimately forms the basis for that person’s physical appearance, metabolic capacity, thought processes, and behavior. Therefore, in order to understand how life develops and functions, it is critical to understand what genes are, how they work, and how they are passed on from parents to offspring. In this course, we will begin by investigating the theories of inheritance first put forth by Mendel and then progress to our current concepts of how genes are transmitted through individuals, families, and whole populations. We will also examine chromosome structure, the molecular functions of genes and DNA, and how mutations in DNA can lead to physical abnormalities and diseases such as Down and Turner syndromes or hemophilia. Finally, we will discuss the role of genetics in influencing such complex phenotypes as behavior and intelligence. Classes will be supplemented with weekly laboratory work.

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Neurological Disorders

Open, Seminar—Fall

Disorders of the brain are often devastating. They can disrupt key characteristics of life, from memory formation and retrieval to communication and personality to execution of movements, including those necessary for breathing. In this course, we will learn about the brain in health and disease by exploring the neuroscience of neurological disorders. We will study Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, lytico-bodig, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and autism spectrum disorder. We will consider these disorders holistically and from a biological point of view. We will explore the lived experience of the affected and their loved ones. We will see how symptoms of the disorders can be understood by studying what is known about the neural tissues, cells, and molecules that are dysfunctional in the disease state. We will explore what is known about the genetic or environmental underpinnings of the disorders and any current treatments available. Readings will be drawn from the writings of the prominent neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, in addition to magazine articles, scientific studies, and relevant films that complement and expand upon Sacks’ descriptions of brain function.

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Cell Biology

Intermediate, Seminar—Spring

Cells are the most basic unit of life on the planet. All life forms are simply conglomerations of cells, ranging from the individual bacterial cells to the higher order plants and animals. Humans, themselves, are made up of trillions of cells. So what exactly is a cell? What is it made of? How does it function? In a complex organism, how do cells communicate with one another and coordinate their activities? How do they regulate their growth? What role do genes play in controlling cellular function? This course will address these questions and introduce the basic biology of cells while keeping in mind their larger role in tissues and organs. If we can understand the structures and functions of the individual cells that serve as the subunits of larger organisms, we can begin to understand the biological nature of humans and other complex life forms.

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Introduction to Computer Science: The Way of the Program

Open, Small Lecture—Fall

This lecture course is a rigorous introduction to computer science and the art of computer programming, using the elegant, eminently practical, yet easy-to-learn programming language Python. We will learn the principles of problem-solving with a computer while gaining the programming skills necessary for further study in the discipline. We will emphasize the power of abstraction and the benefits of clearly written, well-structured programs, beginning with imperative programming and working our way up to object-oriented concepts such as classes, methods, and inheritance. Along the way, we will explore the fundamental idea of an algorithm; how computers represent and manipulate numbers, text, and other data (such as images and sound) in binary; Boolean logic; conditional, iterative, and recursive programming; functional abstraction; file processing; and basic data structures such as lists and dictionaries. We will also learn introductory computer graphics, how to process simple user interactions via mouse and keyboard, and some principles of game design and implementation. All students will complete a final programming project of their own design. Weekly hands-on laboratory sessions will reinforce the concepts covered in class through extensive practice at the computer.

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Programming the Web: An Introduction

Open, Small Lecture—Spring

This seminar introduces the fundamental principles of computer science, via the use of HTML and JavaScript, to create interactive web pages. Examples of the kinds of web applications that we will build include: a virtual art gallery; a password generator and validator; and an old-school, arcade-style game. We will learn JavaScript programming from the ground up and demonstrate how it can be used as a general-purpose, problem-solving tool. Throughout the course, we will emphasize the power of abstraction and the benefits of clearly written, well-structured code. We will cover variables, conditionals, loops, functions, arrays, objects, and event handling. We will also discuss how JavaScript communicates with hypertext markup language (HTML) via the document object model (DOM) and the relationship between HTML, JavaScript, and cascading style sheets (CSS). Along the way, we will discuss the history of the web, the challenge of establishing standards, and the evolution of tools and techniques that drive the web’s success. We will learn about client-server architectures and the differences between client-side and server-side web programming. We will consider when it makes sense to design from the ground up and when it might be more prudent to make use of existing libraries and frameworks rather than reinventing the wheel. We will also discuss the aesthetics of web design: Why are some pages elegant (even art) when others are loud, awkward to use, or—worse yet—boring. Weekly hands-on laboratory sessions will reinforce the programming concepts covered in class. No prior experience with programming or Web design is necessary (nor expected nor even desirable).

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Artificial Intelligence and Society

Open, Seminar—Spring

In recent years, the field of artificial intelligence (AI) has made astonishing technical progress and has begun to assume an increasingly widespread and important role in society. AI systems can now (at least to some extent) drive cars; recognize human faces, speech, and gestures; diagnose diseases; control autonomous robots; instantly translate text from one language to another; beat world-champion human players at chess, Go, and other games; and perform many other amazing feats that just a few decades ago were only possible within the realm of science fiction. This progress has led to extravagant expectations, claims, hopes, and fears about the future of AI technology and its potential impact on society. In this course, we will attempt to peer beyond the hype and to come to grips with both the promise and the peril of AI. We will consider AI from many angles, including historical, philosophical, ethical, and public-policy perspectives. We will also examine many of the technical concepts and achievements of the field in detail, as well as its many failures and setbacks. Throughout the course, students will be asked to read texts, write responses, do follow-up research, and participate in classroom discussions. This is not a programming course, and no background in computer programming is expected or required.

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The Environmental Imagination: Perspectives From the Social Sciences, Environmental Humanities, and the Arts

Open, Seminar—Fall

“Climate change” covers a variety of hydrological, thermal, geological, and atmospheric crises that are intersecting and accelerating in scope and intensity. Inspired by Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xwOvBv8RLmo) performing her poem Earthrise, this course invites a conversation that draws together the social sciences, the humanities, and the arts: a journey through the global climate crisis on a variety of scales, in specific contexts, and through diverse media. Fiction and nonfiction writing, history, and film will be drawn upon to investigate understandings of an epoch controversially called “the Anthropocene.”  What do these different perspectives, methods, and insights bring to our perceptions of specific environments? How do different rhetorical formations, imaginaries, narratives, and visual images inform cognitive and affective responses to the Anthropocene?  What do they bring to our understanding of the global environmental emergency that is the signature of this moment in planetary history? How do interventions in the arts and humanities constitute acts of “world-making”—new ways of seeing, feeling, and imagining human ways of caring for this planet? In conjunction with the literatures of political ecology and cultural anthropology, we will read fiction by authors such as Amitav Ghosh and Stanislas Lem; nonfiction by Robert MacFarlane (Underlands), Ben Ehrenreich (Desert Notebooks), Joseph Masco (irradiated landscapes in the American West), Kate Brown (Plutopia), and Madeleine Watts (The Inland Sea).

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An Introduction to Statistical Methods and Analysis

Open, Lecture—Spring

Variance, correlation coefficient, regression analysis, statistical significance, and margin of error...you’ve heard these terms and other statistical phrases bantered about before, and you’ve seen them interspersed in news reports and research articles. But what do they mean? And why are they so important? Serving as an introduction to the concepts, techniques, and reasoning central to the understanding of data, this lecture course focuses on the fundamental methods of statistical analysis used to gain insight into diverse areas of human interest. The use, misuse, and abuse of statistics will be the central focus of the course; and specific topics of exploration will be drawn from experimental design theory, sampling theory, data analysis, and statistical inference. Applications will be considered in current events, business, psychology, politics, medicine, and other areas of the natural and social sciences. Statistical (spreadsheet) software will be introduced and used extensively in this course, but no prior experience with the technology is assumed. Group conferences, conducted in workshop mode, will serve to reinforce student understanding of the course material. This lecture is recommended for anybody wishing to be a better-informed consumer of data and strongly recommended for those planning to pursue advanced undergraduate or graduate research in the natural sciences or social sciences.

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Multivariable Mathematics: Linear Algebra, Vector Calculus, and Differential Equations

Intermediate, Seminar—Year

Rarely is a quantity of interest—tomorrow’s temperature, unemployment rates across Europe, the cost of a spring-break flight to Fort Lauderdale—a simple function of just one primary variable. Reality, for better or worse, is mathematically multivariable. This course introduces an array of topics and tools used in the mathematical analysis of multivariable functions. The intertwined theories of vectors, matrices, and differential equations and their applications will be the central themes of exploration in this yearlong course. Specific topics to be covered include the algebra and geometry of vectors in two, three, and higher dimensions; dot and cross products and their applications; equations of lines and planes in higher dimensions; solutions to systems of linear equations, using Gaussian elimination, theory and applications of determinants, inverses and eigenvectors, volumes of three-dimensional solids via integration, spherical and cylindrical coordinate systems, and methods of visualizing and constructing solutions to differential equations of various types. Conference work will involve an investigation of some mathematically-themed subject of the student’s choosing.

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The Philosophy of Music

Open, Large Lecture—Fall

Music is central to most of our lives. How can we understand the experience of music? What does music express? If it expresses emotions, how do those emotions relate to the emotions that we experience in everyday life? Can music without words express emotions with as much clarity as music with words? As a background to these questions, we will look at issues concerning the nature and experience of art in general. We will examine the views of writers such as Plato, Kant, Schopenhauer, Dewey, and Adorno and compare how they understand the role of art in society, as well as our own experiences. The musical repertory will include medieval and Renaissance music, music by Bach, songs by Schubert, and examples from the symphonic repertory by composers such as Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, and Stravinsky. We will study those works using the techniques of formal analysis that are generally used in music-history classes but also attempt to draw out the many contextual threads: How are they embedded in a culture, and how do they reflect the temperament and orientation of the composers? While most of our musical examples will be from the classical repertory, other styles will occasionally be relevant. The goals of the class are to understand how musical and philosophical thought can illuminate each other and to deepen our awareness of the range and power of music. No prior knowledge of music theory or history is required; we will introduce and define the terms we need as the class proceeds.

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First-Year Studies: The Senses: Art and Science

Open, FYS—Year

The perceiving mind is an incarnated mind. —Maurice Merleau-Ponty, 1964

Sensory perception is a vital component of the creation and experience of artistic works of all types. Investigation of sensory systems has been foundational for psychologists and neuroscientists developing understanding of brains, minds, and bodies. Recent work in brain science has moved us beyond the Aristotelian notion of five discrete senses to a view of the senses as more various and interconnected—with each other and with the fundamental psychological categories of perception, attention, emotion, memory, imagination, and judgment. What we call “taste” is a multisensory construction of “flavor” that relies heavily on smell, vision, and touch (mouth feel); “vision” refers to a set of semi-independent streams that specialize in the processing of color, object identity, or spatial layout and movement; “touch” encompasses a complex system of responses to different types of contact with the largest sensory organ—the skin; and “hearing” includes aspects of perception that are thought to be quintessentially human—music and language. Many other sensations are not covered by the standard five: for example, the senses of balance, of body position (proprioception) and ownership, feelings of pain arising from within the body, and feelings of heat or cold. Perceptual psychologists have suggested that the total count is closer to 17 than five. We will investigate all of these senses, their interactions with each other, and their intimate relationships with human emotion, memory, and imagination. Some of the questions that we will address are: Why are smells such potent memory triggers? What can visual art tell us about how the brain works and vice versa? Why is a caregiver’s touch so vital for psychological development? Why do foods that taste sublime to some people evoke feelings of disgust in others? Do humans have a poor sense of smell (and have the effects of COVID-19 changed our views of its importance)? Why does the word “feeling” refer to both bodily sensations and emotions? What makes a song “catchy” or “sticky”? Can humans learn to echolocate like bats? What is the role of body perception in mindfulness meditation? This is a good course for artists who like to think about science and for scientists with a feeling for art. This is a collaborative course, with small-group meetings held weekly in addition to the individual conference meetings held every other week. The main small-group, collaborative activity is a sensory lab where students will have the opportunity to explore their own sensory perceptions in a systematic way, investigating how they relate to language, memory, and emotion. Other group activities include mindful movement and other meditation practices for stress relief and emotional regulation, as well as occasional museum visits if these can be done safely.

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First-Year Studies: Emotions and Decisions

Open, FYS—Year

So many of our decisions, big or small, are influenced by our emotions—at times without our explicit knowledge or conscious awareness of their influence. Becoming aware of our emotions and improving the quality of our emotions (by increasing our overall well-being) may ultimately lead to an improvement in the types of choices that we make on a daily basis. In this FYS, we will explore the relationship between emotions and decisions. During the fall semester, we will read works in popular media, English literature, psychology, and behavioral economics to explore how emotions influence decisions in a variety of contexts, including personal, social/sexual, forensic, financial, and political realms. In the spring, we will approach the relationship between emotions and decisions by looking at the brain areas involved in generating, expressing, and regulating emotions and making decisions, along with the overlap of the brain’s involvement in those processes. Throughout the year, students will meet in biweekly conferences with the instructor and weekly small-group “collaboratives” with their peers that will include creative group activities, writing workshops, book/journal clubs, screenings, guest lectures, and hands-on labs.

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Sleep Health and Well-Being

Open, Small Lecture—Spring

A key, and often-overlooked aspect of recharging is also one of the most obvious: getting enough sleep. There is nothing that negatively affects my productivity and efficiency more than lack of sleep. After years of burning the candle on both ends, my eyes have been opened to the value of getting some serious shuteye. —Arianna Huffington, Sarah Lawrence College Commencement Address, 2012

Though it is often marginalized in parts of contemporary culture, sleep makes much of waking life possible. While we might think of sleep as “down time,” our sleeping mind is hard at work—consolidating new memories, processing emotions, making creative connections, and even preparing for the future. Our physical body is restored, and our immune system is strengthened. Sleep deprivation and disordered sleep can have a catastrophic impact on health and well-being. Supporting sleep health can have profound impact on productivity, cognitive functioning, mood, and creative process. This mini-lecture will provide a basic overview of current sleep science, including: the two-process model of sleep-wake regulation; functions of the sleep phase; developmental sleep patterns; dreams and dreaming (including lucid dreaming); primary sleep disorders (such as sleep apnea and narcolepsy); and the impact of anxiety, depression, and substance use (including caffeine and alcohol) on sleep. We will further explore topics such as sleep routine; sleep environment; racial, socioeconomic, and gender inequities in sleep access; sleep in the digital age (such as the impact of blue-light on circadian rhythms and the influence of video games on dreaming); and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on sleep. Historical, developmental, neuropsychological, physiological, and cross-cultural perspectives on sleep and well-being will be considered. This class will meet for one lecture section and one smaller seminar/conference section per week. Conference work will be group-based and will include the opportunity to develop sleep strategies based on your group’s literature review and observations of your own sleep patterns.

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Play and Imagination

Open, Seminar—Fall

Children’s play is considered the primary mode of communication for all children. This course examines children’s embodied storytelling, imaginative drawings, toys, and free play, as children themselves rarely separate play from the arts. A sophisticated set of processes often trivialized, psychologist Brian Sutton-Smith states, “The flexibility of the imagination, of play, and of the playful is the ultimate guarantor of our survival” (1997). Topics to be addressed include: play in the time of COVID, play aggression and trauma, and access to play as a social-justice issue. The course may involve observational fieldwork and online toy study, as we examine children’s opportunities for play, learning, and development. Students will read critical works in the psychology of play and recent cutting-edge, interdisciplinary research. There will be discussions, documentaries, and class presentations. Conference projects may relate to a literature review about a topic of interest, an original study, and/or a creative piece reflecting course insights and imaginings.

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Finding Happiness and Keeping It: Insights From Psychology and Neuroscience

Open, Large seminar—Fall

Happiness is more than a feeling; rather, it is a state of well-being that should ideally last a lifetime. We all want happy lives filled with meaning and satisfaction. Yet, for many of us, happiness can be hard to obtain with regularity or to sustain over a long period of time. Why is that? We can look to years of evidence from the fields of psychology and neuroscience, which tell us that, on average, we are mentally unprepared to: (1) predict what will make us happy, and (2) engage in behaviors that are known to make us happier. Like exercising to improve physical health, it takes sustained cognitive effort to overcome those tendencies in order to improve our mental health. This course will cover the psychological and brain-based factors for why happiness feels so fleeting and what we can do to build better and more productive habits that have been shown to lead to longer-term maintenance of a positive mood and well-being. Students will read foundational work in the field of positive psychology by Martin Seligman, Sonja Lyubomirsky, Edward Diener, Daniel Kahneman, and others. We will also discuss studies in neuroscience that show how behavioral interventions like those and others work by altering the brain’s structure and function (just like building stronger muscles after exercising). Through weekly, small-group conferences, students will apply evidence-based practices, such as bringing order and organization to their daily lives, expressing gratitude, and building social bonds (i.e., “cross training” for the mind) in activities called “Re-wirements.” For the final project, called “Unlearning Yourself,” students will learn to undo or replace a negative habit (e.g., overspending, social-media use, poor sleep hygiene, complaining, procrastinating) by establishing a plan to introduce evidence-based practices for sustained well-being in their daily lives. By the end of this course, students will have gained the ability to sift through the ever-booming literature on positive psychology and neuroscience to identify the practices that work best for them, as well as an appreciation for the notion that deriving and sustaining happiness and well-being requires intentional practice and maintenance.

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Theories of the Creative Process

Intermediate, Seminar—Fall

The creative process is paradoxical. It involves freedom and spontaneity yet requires expertise and hard work. The creative process is self-expressive yet tends to unfold most easily when the creator forgets about self. The creative process brings joy yet is fraught with fear, frustration, and even terror.The creative process is its own reward yet depends on social support and encouragement. In this class, we look at how various thinkers conceptualize the creative process—chiefly in the arts but in other domains, as well. We see how various psychological theorists describe the process, its source, its motivation, its roots in a particular domain or skill, its cultural context, and its developmental history in the life of the individual. Among the thinkers that we will consider are Freud, Jung, Arnheim, Franklin, and Gardner. Different theorists emphasize different aspects of the process. In particular, we see how some thinkers emphasize persistent work and expert knowledge as essential features while others emphasize the need for the psychic freedom to “let it happen” and speculate on what emerges when the creative person “lets go.” Still others identify cultural context or biological factors as critical. To concretize theoretical approaches, we look at how various ideas can contribute to understanding specific creative people and their work. In particular, we will consider works written by or about Picasso, Woolf, Welty, Darwin, and some contemporary artists and writers. Though creativity is most frequently explored in individuals, we also consider group improvisation in music and theatre. Some past conference projects have involved interviewing people engaged in creative work. Others consisted of library studies centering on the life and work of a particular creative person. Some students chose to do fieldwork at the Early Childhood Center and focus on an aspect of creative activity in young children.

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Speaking the Unspeakable: Trauma, Emotion, Cognition, and Language

Intermediate, Seminar—Fall

Psychological trauma has been described as unspeakable—so cognitively disorganizing and intense that it is difficult to put the experience and the emotions it evokes into words. Yet, the language that survivors use to describe their traumas provides insight into the impact of trauma and the process of recovery. This course will begin with an overview of theories of trauma, resilience, and post-traumatic growth, as well as an introduction to the study of trauma narratives and how language reflects emotional and cognitive functioning. We will then explore the cognitive, emotional, and biological impact of undergoing a trauma and how those changes are reflected in the language that trauma survivors use as they speak and write about their experiences. We will consider works by experts on trauma and language, including Judith Herman, Bessel van der Kolk, and James Pennebaker, as well as current research in the field of trauma and trauma narratives. Through these readings, we will address topics such as what makes an experience traumatic, how representations of trauma in popular culture color our perceptions of trauma and recovery, the role of resilience and growth following a trauma, and what we can learn from attending to the content and structure of language. This course will be of interest to students who are curious about how the words that we use reflect our cognitive and emotional functioning—and especially for students interested in pursuing topics such as these at an advanced or graduate level.

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Perspectives on Child Development

Open, Seminar—Spring

A noted psychologist once said, “What you see depends on how you look.” Our subject is the worlds of childhood; and, in this class, we try out the lenses of different psychological theories to highlight different aspects of those worlds. Freud, Erikson, Bowlby, and Stern provide differing perspectives on emotional development. Skinner, Bandura, Piaget, and Vygotsky present various approaches to the problems of learning and cognition. Chess and her colleagues take up the issues of temperament and its interaction with experience. Chomsky and others deal with the development of language. We will read the theorists closely for their answers but also for their questions, asking which aspects of childhood each theory throws into focus. We will also examine some systematic studies that developmental psychologists have carried out to confirm, test, and critique various theories: studies of mother-infant relationships, the development of cognition and language, and the emergence of intersubjectivity. In several of these domains, studies done in cultures other than our own cast light on the question of universality versus cultural specificity in development. Direct observation is an important complement to theoretical readings. All students will do fieldwork at the Early Childhood Center or find some other opportunity for observing and interacting with children. As part of the seminar, we will at times draw on student observations to support or critique theoretical concepts. The fieldwork will also provide the basis for developing conference work. Ideally, conference projects combine the interests of the student, some library reading, and some aspect of fieldwork observation. Among the many diverse projects students have designed in the past are topics such as children’s friendships, the meanings of block building, and how young children use language.

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Art and Visual Perception

Open, Large seminar—Spring

Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak. —John Berger

Psychologists and neuroscientists have long been interested in measuring and explaining the phenomena of visual perception. In this course, we will study how the visual brain encodes basic aspects of perception—such as color, form, depth, motion, shape, and space—and how they are organized into coherent percepts or gestalts. Our main goal will be to explore how the study of visual neuroscience and art can inform each other. One of our guides in these explorations will be the groundbreaking gestalt psychologist Rudolf Arnheim, who was a pioneer in the psychology of art. The more recent and equally innovative text by the neuroscientist Eric Kandel, Reductionism in Art and Brain Science, will provide our entry into the subject of neuroaesthetics. Throughout our visual journey, we will seek connections between perceptual phenomena and what is known about brain processing of visual information. This is a course for people who enjoy reflecting on why we see things as we do. It should hold particular interest for students of the visual arts who are curious about scientific explanations of the phenomena that they explore in their art, as well as students of the brain who want to study an application of visual neuroscience. In this large seminar, you will meet weekly in small groups (five-to-seven students) to design a collaborative conference work that curates an in-depth perceptual museum tour. Individual conference meetings will be held only twice over the course of the semester.

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Emerging Adulthood

Sophomore and Above, Seminar—Spring

We have time, energy, questions, and few responsibilities. We want to push the envelope, resist compromise, lead revolutions, and turn the world upside down. Because we do not yet know quite how to be, we have not settled and will not let the dust settle around us. —Karlin & Borofsky, 2003

Many traditional psychological theories of development posit a brief transition from adolescence to adulthood; however, many people moving into their 20s experience anything but a brief transition to “feeling like an adult,” pondering questions such as: How many SLC alums can live in a Brooklyn sublet? What will I do when I finish the Peace Corps next year? In this course, we will explore the psychological literature concerning emerging adulthood, the period from the late teens through the 20s. We will examine this period of life from a unified biopsychosocial and intersectional perspective.

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The Mind-Body Connection: Psychophysiology Research Seminar

Intermediate, Seminar—Spring

Your heart beats faster, your palms sweat, and your pupils dilate—all at once. Is this because you are exercising? Or did someone you really like just enter the room? Psychophysiology is the experimental study of these bodily, or peripheral, signals, which are theorized to be important “read-outs” of a person’s emotional state (e.g., fear, happiness, anger). In this course, students will gain a foundational understanding of the biological processes that give rise to peripheral autonomic arousal (e.g., heart rate, respiration, electrodermal activity to measure sweating, pupillary responses, brain activity) and how those responses are naturally regulated by the brain and body in a process called homeostasis. We will also survey the brain areas that may be responsible for “catching,” or incorporating, signals from the periphery and ascribing meaning to those signals, which can often happen much later than the time of the event that provoked those bodily responses. We will focus on studies of individuals with brain damage, specifically in brain areas such as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (from work by Antonio Damasio and others) and the insula (from work by Sahib Khalsa and others). In so doing, we will discuss major theories of emotion and the mind-body connection, including the James-Lange Theory, the Somatic Marker Hypothesis (Damasio), and the Neurovisceral Integration Model (Thayer & Lane), among others. Through in-class labs and conference work, students will learn how to measure the peripheral markers of arousal and relate those signals to emotionally provocative events and brain activity. Toward the latter third of the class, students will be in charge of leading discussions around applications of psychophysiology in social interactions, sleep and dreaming, decision-making and consumerism, psychopathology (mental health), and social justice.

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Theories of Agency and Action in Science Studies

Open, Lecture—Fall

This course surveys a rich historical debate in science, technology, and society studies on the nature of agency—or the motivation behind, and responsibility for, action. The lecture course begins with an exploration of the nature of scientific fact, including how discoveries are made and how they become accepted in society. We will pay special attention to the concepts of co-production, the idea that humans and technologies work together, and situated action, the reality that actions are rooted in social context, to study how technologies become central to social interaction. This grounding theory will lay a foundation for students to consider an ongoing debate on the distinction between human and nonhuman action. The course culminates with an exploration of three contemporary discussions on the nature of agency with respect to automated weapons systems, assistive technologies for people with disabilities, and the use of algorithms to order social life. For each topic, we will consider how technologies influence social interaction and who or what is responsible when things go wrong. In group conference, students will practice analyzing how technologies shape social interaction through a series of “object readings,” short analyses of a single technological object. These assignments are designed to prepare students for a final group analysis of a technology of their choice.

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Stories and...

Sophomore and Above, Seminar—Spring

This class involves reading stories, telling stories, writing or recording stories, illustrating stories with photos or drawings. It involves becoming collectors of the storytelling all around us and analyzing its form, uses and pleasures. It includes oral and written storytelling, formal and informal, short and long, fantasies, tales, and gossip. It also involves practice in being both a leader and a member of a story group at the Wartburg Elder Care Residence in nearby Pelham. The class will be scheduled for three hours, which includes a group trip to and from Wartburg, where we will gather with residents either to be given or to choose a prompt, prepare our stories, and share them. Homework will involve reading, working together as author/illustrator with a classmate, and calling on family and friends to tell their stories. Anyone interested in their own or other people’s lives, in leadership and followership, in teaching, and in stories should consider this course.

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Edgy Memoirs

Open, Seminar—Fall

There are memoirs that people write when they’ve had a great acting career or been president of a large country. We read these for their historic/cultural value. Our interest is in the story of their lives. But another kind of memoir tries to tell another kind of truth. Those are more personal stories of dysfunction, addiction, oppression, and overcoming the odds. These stories may take us on alcoholic journeys or tales of abuse into scary families and scarier souls. They can also be funny, uplifting, and redemptive. In this workshop, we attempt to uncover that kind of truth; but this isn’t a class in autobiography; rather, it’s a class in telling a story. What differentiates these stories from other tales of grief and woe is that they are, quite simply, well-told. We will read memoirs by authors such as Michael Ondaatje, Kathryn Harrison, Garred Conley, Cathy Hong Park, David Sedaris, Nick Flynn, James McBride, and Jeanette Taylor, as well as memoirs by recent Sarah Lawrence graduates such as T Kira Madden and Anna Qu. And we will attempt to write one of our own. The emphasis will be on how to tell our stories. Exercises and prompts will be designed to help jumpstart you.

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