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Vol 39  No 2
Aug. 31, 2006


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Lecture series to explore mind and intelligence from many angles

by Leslie Vryenhoek

Dr. Arthur Sullivan is organizing the Cognitive Science Lecture Series for the second year.

Six lectures this fall will tackle cognitive science ­ the study of mind, intelligence and information ­ from very different directions.

According to Dr. Arthur Sullivan, who is organizing the Cognitive Science Lecture Series for the second year, the intention is to foster interdisciplinary discussion.

“Basically, it’s a forum for computer scientists to talk to psychologists, for linguists and mathematicians to talk to philosophers,” he explained. “People begin to realize that some of these people are talking about the things in different ways.”

Cognitive science originated in the 1950s and 1960s, when researchers began to develop theories of the mind that were based on complex representations and computational procedures.

To kick off the lecture series on Sept. 14, Dr. Rita Anderson, Psychology Department, will discuss mental imagery and the discoveries that it can lead to, which is her field of research.

“Mental imaging is a pretty central cognitive concept,” she said, noting that it has been the topic of enormous debate over centuries, but has grown in profile among both cognitive psychologists and philosophers.

To illustrate the concept, Dr. Anderson invites people to imagine simple shapes ­ a square, a triangle and the capital letter L ­ and rearrange or resize them to create a recognizable object or picture. “You’re doing something to pull up a mental image,” she explained. “I’ll talk about how we can use that mental imagery to make discoveries on how the mind works.”

Two weeks later, Dr. Sherry Mantyka, director of the Mathematics Learning Centre, will talk about what 18 years of cognitive research into the way students gain math skills has told us about overcoming the stumbling blocks.

The human mind is not the only kind the lecture series will consider. In November Dr. Andrew Vardy, a robot researcher who is appointed jointly to Computer Science and Engineering, will discuss Spatial Representation in Robots and Animals.

Animals record or store information about their environment to help them gauge where they are in relation to other things ­ especially important things like food sources, he explained. “Insects such as bees and ants follow routes. It’s believed that these insects represent these routes by a series of images or snapshots.” These images act as signposts, which a bee’s mind then uses to navigate.

Other animals have more complex navigational systems. For example, there’s considerable research on rats. “It’s believed that rats have a cognitive map, which is kind of like a city map that we would use to get around.” Dr. Vardy explains the map is made when neurons in the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in memory and navigation, become active when a rat is in a particular place.

What does that have to do with robots? Dr. Vardy’s research involves studying how robots can learn to plan routes. “The first robots had to download a map. Initially, they weren’t sophisticated enough to build their own representations of the environment.” Dr. Vardy is interested in equipping robots with the ability to learn the spatial layout of their environments, in a manner inspired by the navigational abilities of insects and other animals.

The Cognitive Science Lecture Series is sponsored by the Department of Philosophy.

The Cognitive Science Lecture Series all happen every second Thursday during fall term between noon and 1 p.m. in the Arts building, room A-1049. Watch the event calendar on MUN Today, or Out and About in the Gazette, for dates and topics.

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