Omega Psi hosts first cognitive science conference

By SOPHIE JOHNSON | April 7, 2016

Omega Psi hosted Monkeys to Infants to Humans, a regional cognitive science conference, on Saturday in the Charles Commons Ballroom. Established at Hopkins in 2011, Omega Psi is the first undergraduate cognitive science honor society in America and Monkeys to Infants to Humans was the society’s first regional conference.

The event featured lectures from Joshua Gold, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania; Mark Sheskin, a postdoctoral associate at Yale University; and Nazbanou Bonnie Nozari, an assistant professor at the School of Medicine. All three speakers discussed their latest research in fields relating to cognitive science, and an interactive discussion followed their presentations.

The conference began with remarks from senior Kyungtae (Dean) Kang, the president of Omega Psi. Kang reflected on the formation of Omega Psi and his goals for the society going forward.

“This year has been particularly exciting because we have branched out to other schools in the nation, such as Yale, Duke, UC Berkeley, UC San Diego and Case Western Reserve University,” he said.

Kang also explained that Hopkins formed a national council with representatives from these schools, and in the summer of 2015, Omega Psi was recognized by the Cognitive Science Society as the official national honor society for undergraduates.

Brenda Rapp, the chair of the Hopkins Cognitive Science department, also offered introductory remarks. In her address, Rapp discussed the uniquely interdisciplinary nature of cognitive science.

“Cognitive science isn’t a particular kind of activity; it’s really a way of thinking about the mind and the brain,” she said. “Those of us who were in the founding group of cognitive science were trained in separate disciplines. I was a psychologist, and there were others who were computer scientists, philosophers or neuroscientists. We were each trained in our own languages, so to speak, and we realized that there was great value in coming together.”

Gold discussed his research regarding the neural basis of decision-making in monkeys. He explained that monkeys, as test subjects, strike a strong middle ground between humans and rodents, combining sophisticated behavior with good measures of brain activity.

“The question that we ask in lots of different ways is, ‘How do we weigh uncertain evidence to make decisions?’” Gold said. “And so we’re really interested in how the brain deals with uncertainty, in weighing two alternatives.”

In his experiments, Gold measured monkeys’ responses to sensory input in order to make inferences about their decision-making processes.

Sheskin presented his research on the development of moral behavior in children. Through a series of psychological experiments on infants and toddlers, Sheskin concluded that moral evaluation, the ability to understand fairness, for example, emerges early in life, while moral behavior emerges much more slowly. Sheskin argued that social collaboration and moral behavior yields more benefits at an older age than at a younger one.

“Collaboration is risky,” he said. “What if the person you’re collaborating with doesn’t put in their fair share of the work? You open yourself up to exploitation when you collaborate with other people, so you’d only want to collaborate with other people who you can trust will do a good job. Also, it makes sense to have the reputation of being such a person, so people are willing to cooperate with you.”

Sheskin noted that infants do not need to rely on collaboration in order to secure resources for themselves, so they feel little motivation to behave morally.

In the last talk of the conference, Nozari discussed issues related to cognitive control and aphasia, a type of communication disorder. She qualified several of Sigmund Freud’s theories involving speech errors, including the infamous “Freudian slip,” or the theory that speech errors can reflect repressed thoughts. Through her experiments, Nozari found no evidence to support the idea of “Freudian slips.” She found more convincing evidence, however, for Freud’s theory that aphasiac speech errors and normal speech errors are only quantitatively different.

“Studying speech errors will tell you a lot about how the language production system works, including the nature of the errors produced in neurotypical individuals and aphasic patients,” she said.

Her research proved that these errors are created through the same systematic processes.

Students from Duke, Yale, Hopkins and the surrounding Baltimore area were in attendance. Bridget Sweeney, a sophomore at Loyola University, initially heard about the conference through her school’s psychology department. A psychology major herself, Sweeney attended the event because of the close relationship between cognitive science and psychology.

“Loyola has a lot of psych events, but those are just within our campus environment, so it was good to get out, try to meet new people and network in the psych field,” she said.

Giselle Garett, also a sophomore and a psychology major at Loyola, originally took interest in the conference because of its unusual title.

“I thought that it looked pretty cool – Monkeys to Infants to Humans. Also, I hadn’t been to a conference before in psych, so it was an interesting thing to experience.”

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