In masonry, a “capstone” is the crowning piece that sits atop a completed construction. It is typically carved from harder material than the underlying stones, serves to drawn them together into a stable structure and to shield them from the erosive effects of the weather. While tempted, I will not ask for your help in rebuilding my garage this semester. Instead our “capstone” will be one of the crowning pieces of your psychology program. It will draw together some of what you have learned during your time as an undergraduate science major. By virtue of its being a writing intensive course, it will also help you to sharpen your skills in written communication. Regardless of where your post-collegiate adventures lead, the ability to communicate effectively and efficiently in writing will, like a capstone, serve your education in an encompassing manner.
Our focus is on action, a topic that until recently has been given little attention by mainstream psychology. By contrast, the study of action is central to the interdisciplinary field of Cognitive Neuroscience, my own area of expertise. Actions are goal-directed and undertaken by choice. That is, we decide which actions to pursue based on our perceptions, memories, motivations, personalities, emotional states, etc. Action is therefore a perfect focus for an integrative “capstone” course. As opposed to the more traditional topics that preoccupy cognitive psychologists (e.g., memory, perception, attention), actions are what natural selection operates on. The probability that an organism (including you) will reproduce does not depend directly on any of these isolated mental events. It depends instead on how the organism behaves, how it acts in the world. The study of action therefore serves to connect psychology to the rest of biological science.
Action is an enormous topic. We will devote our limited time to what is currently known about how we use information from vision and our other senses to select and guide fundamental actions in the world (e.g., reaching, grasping and manipulating objects, gesturing and using tools). This particular area of cognitive neuroscience has undergone a major revolution in the past thirty years, brought about by advances in our understanding of the human brain. My own research has played a role in this revolution, and I will endeavor to share the inside stories from these experiences, which have involved using the latest brain imaging and brain stimulation techniques, and also studying some fascinating patients whose brain injuries have revealed the inner workings of action mechanisms. When relevant, we will consider the implications of these findings for improving rehabilitation for those with brain, spinal cord, or bodily injuries.