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Students host first Asian cognitive science meet

08 January 2013

Minister Heng (left) pointing to an interesting fact on a poster exhibit, with (from right) Prof Dale Purves, Programme Director of Neuroscience and Behavioral Disorders Programme at Duke-NUS; Prof Tan Eng Chye, NUS Provost; and Tara looking on

Audience testing out an optical illusion resulting from the brain's processes

Prof Limb showing the brain scan of a jazz musician

Crowds of students gathered excitedly at NUS' University Town on 4 January 2013 to satisfy their curiosity about cognitive science. The inaugural CogSci Connects, the first such conference in Asia led by students from NUS and Singapore schools, was supported by the NUS Department of Physiology. It assembled some of the world's leading experts in cognitive science, attracting more than 600 students, educators, parents, policy makers, researchers, business people and members of the public.

Interesting topics covered over the two-day event ranged from child cognition, human cognitive capabilities, music and neurobiology to consumer research. Besides presenters from NUS and Singapore's Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), invited speakers hailed from top US institutions such as Columbia University, Duke University, Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University and Yale University.

Mr Heng Swee Keat, Singapore's Minister for Education and Guest-of-Honour for the conference, noted in his opening address that cognitive science plays a very important part in education. The Ministry of Education has started a study on the impact of specialised remediation for children with dyslexia. He also revealed that recent research on Brain-Computer-Interface technology by Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School, Institute of Mental Health and A*STAR has shown promise as a treatment option for students with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

Keynote speaker Professor Brian Scholl, Director of Yale Perception and Cognition Laboratory, examined sight, something that happens naturally but which involves complex processes underneath. He demonstrated how the brain supporting visual consciousness can be literally blind to objects right in front of the eyes, to the wonder of the participative audience.

On the auditory front, Professor Charles Limb, Johns Hopkins' Director of Research, Neuro-Education Initiative, unveiled intriguing brain scans of jazz artistes and rappers who improvise music on the fly and create original versions every time. He stressed that music allows communication which is undefined, in contrast to languages which are precise.

Tara Venkatesan, the founder of CogSci Connects, is a Year 6 student of Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) and a young artiste at the NUS Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music. She said: "There are so many applications of cognitive science to explore - from music to medicine, and from arts to entrepreneurship. CogSci embraces liberal-arts approach like the Yale-NUS College programme. So for me and my colleagues, it has been more than a year of living and breathing cognitive science."

Anthea Chua, a fourth year NUS undergraduate majoring in psychology, said she joined the organising committee to broaden her knowledge of cognitive science. Key highlights for her were the experience of planning the conference to appreciate what went on behind the scene, and the pleasure of working with committed peers who made the event a resounding success.

The student organisers would like to create a permanent dialogue after the event, starting with an online forum and leading to debates, symposiums and business idea competitions that bring together diverse groups of people.